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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 angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”Charles Wesley (1739)
THE HYMN WRITER
Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was the 18th of 19 children born to Susanna and Samuel Wesley (sadly, only 10 of their children lived to maturity). They resided in England where Charles’ father was a minister. It’s been said that Charles was born prematurely and didn’t cry or open his eyes when he was born. His mother, Susanna, wrapped him up in soft wool for weeks and around the time that he naturally would have entered the world, he finally began to cry. When Charles was five, he joined his siblings in being homeschooled for six hours a day by his mother, who was well versed in Greek, Latin, and French. Each child, from the time they learned to speak, was taught the Lord’s Prayer which they recited every morning and evening. The Wesley children sang psalms together and excelled in writing poetry. Charles and his sister Mehetable were considered the best poets of the family. The Wesley family struggled financially and endured their home burning down not just once, but twice. Through much hardship, including the deaths of many of her children, Susanna held her family together, sometimes without the presence and support of her husband. Even though she had such a large family, Susanna made it a priority to spend individual time with each of her children.
Charles continued his education for nine years at Westminster School, where they were only allowed to speak Latin, and then went to Oxford for nine years. Charles graduated from Oxford with a master’s degree in classical languages and literature. Around this time, Charles became a recognized spiritual leader as he and his brother John created and led a group known as the “holy club.” The members of this little club were soon to receive the nickname ‘Methodists,’ reflecting how orderly and “methodically” (and legalistically) they went about their spiritual duties. John and Charles were unknowingly starting up an entirely new church denomination: the Methodist Church which is one of the largest Christian denominations today!
By all outward appearances, Charles was a true Christian, pursuing the Lord in piety and holiness. But in truth, Charles was seeking to be right with God through his own good works. In 1735 Charles and John became missionaries to the American colony of Georgia. Charles had a difficult time there as he dealt with sickness, slander and was shunned by many. Once he was even shot at by a woman when he tried to baptize her infant by immersing the baby under water. Ironically and by the providence of God, it was through this miserable overseas mission experience that Charles Wesley realized he had not yet trusted Jesus fully for salvation. Charles came to true saving faith in Christ at the age of 31 during a study of Galatians—the letter where Paul passionately argues that Christians are both saved and sanctified through faith alone, and not through their works.
After his conversion, Charles lived in constant praise of his Redeemer, and wrote over 6,500 hymns! Some are the most beloved in all hymnody, including, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” That’s quite a lot of hymns! His mind was so saturated with the truths of Scripture and the beauty of the glorious Gospel that the words of these hymns constantly flowed through his mind and out his pen. Can you imagine Charles scribbling hymns down while bumping down the road in a horse-drawn coach or in the late hours of the night at a table lit by candles? It is even said he would stop on his way around England and knock on doors to ask to borrow a pen and ink to write down a line or two that had popped into his mind. Aside from open-air preaching of the Gospel, his life was almost singularly dedicated to hymnody. The night before he died, Charles was still dictating lines of a new hymn. His final words before he died in London on March 29, 1788 were, “Oh, praise! Oh, praise!”
The pairing of the tune we call “MENDELSSOHN” with Wesley’s hymn text is a bit ironic and even comical. The tune is from the second chorus of Felix Mendelssohn’s Festgesang (Op. 68). It was first performed in 1840 at the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig, a festival celebrating the anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn specifically wrote of this music, “…It will never do to sacred words. There must be a national and merry subject found out, something to which the soldierlike and buxom motion of the piece has some relation, and the words must express something gay and popular, as the music tries to do it…” All this meaning that he did not want his music matched with the words of a religious hymn. William H. Cummings (b. Sidbury, Devonshire, England, 1831; d. Dulwich, London, England, 1915) obviously wasn’t aware of Mendelssohn’s opinion (or he opted not to heed the warning) as he adapted the tune to Wesley’s text in 1856 (whoopsie!). Little did Mendelssohn know, when the two pieces were placed together in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” became a very popular hymn and all for a very merry subject indeed!
HOW WE DO HYMN OF THE MONTH
As always, we have included all the verses to this beautiful hymn (even “lost” verses 4 and 5)! You may find yourself too busy during this season to get to all of the verses, and that’s okay! Perhaps take a moment to read through the verses that aren’t as familiar… It’s super intriguing to me that through all these years of hearing and singing this carol, there were two verses by Wesley just waiting to be rediscovered!
And by the way, if you are new to this community, welcome! It is a great time to join in and make family worship a priority if you haven’t already. You may or may not be familiar with this hymn. Either way, we invite you to spend this month meditating on its truths.
To get you started, we’ve provided free printable lyrics, music and copywork — all found here!
You can find fresh versions of the hymn on our YouTube channel that you and your family can sing along with. There are loads of fresh versions of our favorite hymns on our hymn of the month playlist. Aaaaaaaaaand since it’s Christmas time, head to our Christmas carol playlist for beautiful versions of our favorite hymns of the season. We seriously have this playlist going non-stop.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
When we began singing hymns with our littles about 12 years ago, we kept it simple… We prayed and sang one hymn together every night at bedtime for a whole month. Everyone’s family rhythm is different, so we welcome you to gather up your families, for just a few minutes each day, to sing, discuss and memorize this hymn (following your daily time in the Scriptures and in prayer) whether it is first thing in the morning, or around the dinner table or before bedtime – whatever works best for your family. You can let us know how it’s going by posting either a video or a photo on Instagram. Just tag it with #happyhymnody! As always, if you have any questions or if you’d like to share your heart with us, please don’t hesitate to reach out! God bless you all this month as you worship and follow Jesus together as a family!
With so much warmth and love,
de Jong, L. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Hymnary.org. Retrieved July 16, 2022 from: https://hymnary.org/text/hark_the_herald_angels_sing_glory_to
Bailey, A E. “Rev. Charles Wesley.” The Gospel in Hymns. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950 (pp. 82-102).
Fenner, C. “Hark how all the welkin rings.” Hymnology Archive. 21 June 2018 Retrieved on July 16, 2022 from: https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/hark-the-herald-angels
Duncan, L., Thomas, D., and Wymond, B. “Hymns of the Faith: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” A Presentation of First Presbyterian Church on LigonDuncan.com. Retrieved July 16, 2022 from: https://ligonduncan.com/hymns-of-the-faith-hark-the-herald-angels-sing-1163/
Holmes, P. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: Learning from the Choirs of Heaven.” Dec 20, 2015 DesiringGod.org. Retrieved July 21, 2022 from: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/hark-the-herald-angels-sing
Mathis, D. “Hark! The Long-Lost Verses Sing.” Dec 1, 2016. DesiringGod.org. Retrieved July 21, 2022 from: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/hark-the-long-lost-verses-sing