Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a Christmas carol which first appeared in 1739 in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems.
Its lyrics were written by Charles Wesley. Wesley, a pious and deeply religious man who cherished solemnity, requested slow and solemn music for his lyrics.
It was far from the glorious melody we hear in modern times.
The words were different than what we hear as well.
Wesley’s original opening couplet is Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.”
When I read this, I had to check it out.
Today’s popular version came to us via alterations by various hands.
Wesley’s co-laborer in the ministry, George Whitefield changed the opening couplet to the familiar Hark! The Herald Angels Sing in 1754, and master composer, Felix Mendelssohn gave us the melody we treasure.
In 1840—a hundred years after the publication of Hymns and Sacred Poems—in 1840, Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, and it is music from this cantata, adapted by the English musician William H. Cummings to fit the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” that we sing today.
My first question was what heck is welkin and how does it ring?
Welkin comes to us from Middle English, probably the word welkne or wolkne, which mean clouds or heavens.
Old English gave us wolcnu for clouds and the Germanic version of the word is wulkana.
Wesley’s use of the word welkin or heavens identifies the angel band who announced the birth of Christ as filling the sky.
The Bible says a host, which is a very large yet undefined number. It also says the morning stars sang together, and most if not all Bible scholars identify morning stars as angels.
Imagine the shepherds in the hills of Judea as the welkin or heavens filled with angels announcing the birth of the Christ Child.
They were in awe – reverential fear, BTW, that’s what awe really is.
As the heavens filled with a choir and the night filled with singing, the shepherds looked into the welkin in wonder.
Oh to have been there!
Hail the Heav’n-born Prince of Peace
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and Life around he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.
Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born that Men no more may die;
Born to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born to give them second Birth.