John and Charles Wesley are commonly considered the primary founders and promoters of Methodism in the eighteenth century Church of England. Both brothers were not only powerful evangelists but also skilled hymnwriters. Together they produced several hymnbooks.
Charles was especially gifted as a poet and hymnist, composing nearly 9,000 poems and over 6,000 hymns. His hymns are characterized by not only poetic beauty but also theological brawn. They are packed with biblical allusions and doctrinal truths. Charles’ best-known Christmas hymns are “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Charles was happy to share his songs freely with the public. But he did not appreciate people amending them. In one of his hymnals he wrote:
“I beg leave to mention a thought which has been long upon my mind, and which I should long ago have inserted in the public papers, had I not been unwilling to stir up a nest of hornets. Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honor to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them, for they are really not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them these two favors: either let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse, or to add the true reading 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.”
But Charles’ friend, the eminent evangelist George Whitefield, appears to have done the Christian Church a favor by ignoring Charles’ request and polishing up one of his hymns. At age thirty-two Charles wrote a Christmas hymn that began:
Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born today!”
The word “welkin” was an old English term for “the vault of heaven.” When Whitefield published this song in his 1753 hymnal, he changed the words to the now-beloved “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
For those who are interested in tracing out the numerous Scriptural references and truths included in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”: Verse 1 is based on Luke 2:8-14; Verse 2 reflects Matthew 1:19-23 and John 1:1, 14, 18; Verse 3 refers to Isaiah 9:6, Malachi 4:2 and John 1:4, 9, 12-13. I’d encourage you to take some time this Christmas season to read through the verses of this hymn and reflect on the related Scriptures.
May all of us come to know and appreciate much more fully both who Christ Jesus is and the many spiritual blessings He has brought to us. As a result, may our hearts overflow with exalted worship of Christ, as Charles Wesley’s heart did when he wrote this classic Christmas hymn.
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Some of the information for this Perspective was gleaned from Robert Morgan’s uplifting book Then Sings My Soul, 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories (Thomas Nelson, 2003). An outstanding biography on Charles Wesley is Arnold Dallimore’s A Heart Set Free, The Life of Charles Wesley (Crossway Books, 1988).
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Copyright 2020 by Vance E. Christie