The brothers, John and Charles Wesley, had a tremendous impact in the 18th century—an impact that continues even today. John, of course, was the great preacher and evangelist. Charles was the great writer of hymns. His hymns include “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
Charles wrote “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” in 1738, less than a year after his Aldersgate conversion. However, that was neither his title nor the words of the first line. His original hymn started, “Hark, how all the welkin rings, glory to the king of kings.” Welkin is a word that long ago went out of style, but means “vault of heaven.” So Wesley’s original first line meant, “Hark, how all the vault of heaven rings, glory to the king of kings.”
Nor did Wesley use the hymn tune with which we are familiar today. He sang this hymn to the tune of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”
It was George Whitefield, the famous evangelist, who changed the first line of Wesley’s hymn to “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.” Whitefield, a rough and tumble man, didn’t bother to ask Wesley’s permission to make the change—perhaps knowing that Wesley would never approve. Whitefield just made the change and began using it in his great evangelistic meetings, where the changed version quickly caught on.
Wesley was incensed—both that Whitefield had changed the words and that he had not asked permission to do so. Others had made changes in Wesley’s hymns, and Wesley resented them all. At some point he wrote, “Many gentlemen have done my brother and me…the honor to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are.” He went on to say that, if anyone insisted on making changes, they should print a disclaimer absolving the Wesley’s “for the doggerel of other men.”
Although Whitefield’s version of Wesley’s hymn became quite popular, I am told that Wesley throughout his life refused to sing it.
Fortunately, the change of hymn tune was made long after Wesley’s death, which spared him from having to deal with that. In 1856, William Cummings adapted a Felix Mendelssohn tune to use with this hymn—the tune with which we are all familiar today.
Many other changes have been made through the years, which is probably one of the reasons that “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” has remained so popular. We probably wouldn’t be singing it today if the first line were “Hark, how all the welkin rings.” And we might not be singing it if it were still sung to the tune of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”
Perhaps the changes are an example of God’s grace at work. Charles Wesley appreciated God’s grace, of course—his hymns are full of grace. But he was never very graceful about people tampering with his hymns. I, for one, am thankful that they did.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan