Glory To The Newborn King

Angels are prominently featured in many traditional Christmas songs, celebrating their message to the shepherds outside Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’s birth. One of the most beloved of these traditional songs is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

But did you know that it wasn’t originally written about angels and the word change prompted quite a controversy between two prominent preachers of the 18th Century?

Charles Wesley

A Saga of Preachers & the Song

Meet Charles Wesley, the author of more than 3,000 hymns. Wesley attended Westminster and Christ College (Oxford). In 1735, he traveled to the Colony of Georgia in America as James Oglethorpe’s secretary, but Wesley got so homesick in the colony that he returned to England. After finding his religious faith, he became a minister, preaching in Islington, England.

During a quiet moment amongst the busy days in 1737, Charles Wesley wrote a hymn beginning with the phrase: “Hark! How all the welken rings, glory to the King of Kings.” A “welken” was a word describing the vault of heaven, so the song started as a magnificent praise song (not a Christmas song), sung to a little tune Wesley composed and taught to his congregation.

Meet George Whitefield, one of the great revivalist preachers of his era who traveled throughout Britain and even went to the American colonies, calling for repentance. (This is part of the “Great Awakening Era.”) Whitefield found Wesley’s song “Hark! How All The Welken Rings” and – without asking permission – changed welken to herald angels and published the song.

George Whitefield

Now for the conflict…

Charles Wesley found the published song and was very upset. Not only had Whitefield acted without permission, but Wesley believed the new lyrics promoted bad theology. Why? Taking a literal translation of Scripture, Wesley argued that the Bible didn’t reference any angels singing. Wesley and Whitefield did not reconcile the conflict, and Charles Wesley absolutely refused to sing the “rewritten” song to continue his protest.

Creating The Well-Known Tune

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a classical composer and during his musical career he wrote a tribute to Johannes Gutenberg (printing press inventor who changed religious history). After the composer’s death, William Cummings took a selection from the Gutenberg tribute, loved the tune, and paired it with the edited version of the Wesley/Whitefield lyrics.

The song “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” paired with Cummings arrangement of Mendelssohn’s tune was published in 1857 in a Methodist hymnal. Through the decades, the lyrics had received a few more updates, and the song was adopted by many Christian denominations.

Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King”

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”

Enjoy The Music

I think one the interesting things about this song is the collaborations. Though it wasn’t always willing collaborations, it is a story of using many creative talents to make a beloved Christmas song.

May the story inspire us as we work with those around us (hopefully with much joy and little conflict) to create a memorable and happy Christmas season!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in Holidays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Glory To The Newborn King

  1. Thomas R Place says:

    Thank you Sarah A nice feeling at Christmas . As a Methodist historian I appreciated reading this as well

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