Last night, BBC Four broadcast a programme with Lucy Worsley revealing the surprising stories behind some of the nation’s favourite Christmas carols. ‘Hark! the Herald Angels sing’ got a mention, so we thought we would feature it ourselves today.
As we wrote yesterday on the blog, the carol was included, along with the first appearance of ‘Lo! he comes, with clouds descending’, in the so-called Lock Collection, to the tune ‘The Nativity’. But the words (as we know them today) first appeared in George Whitefield‘s Hymns for Social Worship, collected from various Authors, and more particularly design’d for the Use of the Tabernacle Congregation in London (London, William Strahan, 1753). Among the 132 hymns for public worship, and 38 hymns for ‘Society and Persons meeting in Christian-Fellowship’, are a number by or adapted from Charles Wesley, including the first appearance of Whitefield’s iconic revision of ‘Hark, how all the welkin rings’: as well as cutting a number of verses, Whitefield altered the first lines to the now much more famous ‘Hark! the Herald Angels sing, / Glory to the new-born King!’ (pp. 24–5 here).
‘This “Hymn for Christmas-Day” has always been the most popular of Charles Wesley’s hymns, appearing in more hymn-books, old and new, than any other. The original text, first published in Wesley’s Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), is cast in ten four-line stanzas, without refrain … The version of the hymn that is almost universally sung today has evolved through a series of changes by subsequent editors. The leader of the Calvinist faction in early Methodism, George Whitefield, began the process in his Hymns for Social Worship (1753), in which he omitted verse 8 and 10, replaced Wesley’s original couplet with the stronger, now familiar lines, and substituted “heaven-born” for “heav’nly” in Wesley’s verse 5’ (Keyte, p. 328).
Whitefield (1714–1770) had returned from his phenomenally successful preaching tour of America in 1748, but in his absence large numbers of his Tabernacle congregation had left to join the Moravians. He responded with a punishing preaching regime, and opened a new Tabernacle with support from the Countess of Huntington, to whom he was chaplain, on 10 June 1753. His Hymns for Social Worship, with an emphasis on concision (‘I am no great Friend to long Sermons, long Prayers, or long Hymns. – They are generally weary instead of edifying’), was to have sixteen editions by Whitefield’s death in 1770 and many more afterwards. Apart from adaptations of hymns by the Wesleys, Whitefield included several by his follower Robert Seagrave.
As Lucy Worsley noted yesterday, Whitefield’s words were only paired up with Mendelssohn’s famous tune in 1855, by William H. Cummings (1831–1915), tenor, organist, and noted book collector, whose ‘superb library of some 4500 pieces, the last of the great Victorian collections’ (Oxford DNB) was sold by Sotheby’s across six days in May 1917 .