Editor’s Note: It’s been said that Christmas is one of the few holidays that has its own “soundtrack.” This is part four of The Times-Gazette’s special 12-part series entitled “The 12 Carols of Christmas” that will appear daily through Christmas Eve, relating the stories behind some of the best-loved sacred songs of the season.
Charles Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns during his lifetime, and as Robert J. Morgan wrote in his 2003 book “Then Sings My Soul,” Wesley didn’t like people tinkering with the words.
One of 19 children and the brother of the legendary evangelist John Wesley, Charles Wesley became a prolific songwriter for the church, even writing while riding on horseback, his mind flooded with words and music for new songs of the sanctuary.
It’s said that Wesley was even known to stop at houses along the roadway and knock on doors, asking for pen, ink and paper.
Both brothers were credited with inspiring what became the Methodist Church.
Kenneth Osbeck, in his “Amazing Grace” devotional book of hymn stories, said that Christmas carols were abolished by the English Puritan parliament in 1627 since they were considered part of the “worldly festival” of Christmas.
Due to that, Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was one of very few Christmas hymns or carols that were written in the 17th and early 18th centuries, according to Osbeck.
In one of his hymnals, Wesley admonished those reading it that if they wanted to reprint it, they had his permission to do so, but insisted that they print them word for word with no changes or additions.
“None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse for they are not able,” Wesley wrote. “Therefore, I must beg of them these two favors: either to let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse, or to add the true meaning in the margin or at the bottom of the page, that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.”
In 1739, at the age of 32, Wesley wrote a Christmas hymn that began with the words “Hark, how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings.”
Morgan described the word “welkin” as an old English term meaning “the vault of heaven.”
Despite Wesley’s caution to not tamper with his writings, a good friend of his chose to do otherwise to ensure the timelessness of the hymn.
When Evangelist George Whitefield published Wesley’s creation in his collection of hymns in 1753, he changed the words and the title to the now-beloved and familiar “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
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