Gabriel's Horn, Pastor George Weaver, December, 2013

posted Nov 29, 2013, 12:31 PM by Lois Kerchner   [ updated Nov 29, 2013, 12:31 PM ]

Glory To the Newborn King

    I have taken an interest over the years in discovering some of the facts and circumstances surrounding the origin of musical works, especially hymns and Christmas carols. Since we are approaching the Christmas season, I thought I would share some tidbits about one of my favorite religious songs of the season, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”

     Charles Wesley (1707-1788), credited as one of those who began the Methodist movement in the Church of England and a younger brother of John Wesley, was a prolific hymn writer and poet. He is said to have written some six thousand hymns and is by far the largest contributor to our hymnal (see page 922). He seems to have written something for almost every possible situation or occasion.

     In 1737, C. Wesley was working on a composition for Christmas during his daily quiet time as a young pastor. Upon his jotting down the line, “Hark! how all the welkin rings,” the new song quickly came together. Welkin, an uncommon word nowadays, literally means the “vault of Heaven” and is still included in current Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Hark! How All the Welkin Rings premiered in Wesley’s own congregation and soon gained favor among other churches within the Methodist movement. Wesley, of course, was pleased by its acceptance.

    He was not pleased, however, when George Whitfield, C. Wesley’s old college friend and co-worker, changed the original opening couplet, “Hark! how all the welkin rings/Glory to the King of Kings,” to the familiar one we sing nowadays without consulting him. Wesley didn’t believe there was any Biblical reference to angels singing about the birth of Christ. He personally refused to ever sing the rework of his song by Whitfield for all of his days here on earth.

     Wesley may not have liked the new version, but certainly others did. This was particularly true when in the following century, the English musician, William H. Cummings, adapted the Wesley and Whitfield lyrics to the melody of a cantata by Felix Mendelssohn, called Festgesang or “Festival,” that had been composed in 1840, to celebrate Gutenberg's invention of the printing press.

     The road to popularity and wide acceptance for Wesley's Christmas carol began when a misquoted verse of Scripture by G. Whitfield was combined with the Felix Mendelssohn melody written to honor the man who first printed the Bible (Johann Gutenberg). According to A. Collins in Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, “It now seems appropriate that the words of a man who lived to evangelize the whole world for Christ (Wesley) should be tied to a tribute written for a man who invented a method of mass—producing God's Word for all to read,” even though neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn would probably have approved of this unique combination of lyric and melody.


Pastor of Maturing Ministries,

Pastor George Weaver