Charles Wesley (1707-1788), younger brother of Methodist preacher John Wesley, is the author of this famous Christmas carol. Charles was a hymn writer and a poet, also known as one of the people who began the Methodist movement in the Church of England. Hark the Herald Angels Sing was composed specifically as a “hymn for Christmas day” and appeared in 1739 in a book called Hymns and Sacred Poems.
Wesley’s original opening couplet was “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”. “Welkin” is an Old English word meaning “clouds or heavens”.
The popular version is the result of alterations by various hands, notably by Wesley’s co-worker George Whitefield who changed the opening couplet to the familiar one, and then, some hundred years later in 1840, by Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn composed a cantata called Festgesang or “Festival Song” to commemorate Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. The melody of Mendelssohn’s cantata was then used by William H. Cummings, who adapted it to the lyrics of Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. This is the tune known today.
The lyrics, aside from the opening line, have remained unchanged.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
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 th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n 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.
Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
Oh, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
The first two versions are classic arrangements the Mr. Wesley would surely adore and approve of. The always amazing Celtic Women, and then Natalie Cole accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
For something totally different, which would probably have Mr. Wesley spinning in his grave, here is a funky rendition by Grammy winning a-cappella group Pentatonix.