Hark! the herald angels sing

Today our guest contributor is Chris Fenner, Digital Archivist at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has contributed scholarly articles to The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, has produced new editions of the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts and Our Own Hymn Book by Charles Spurgeon, and is managing editor of HymnologyArchive.com.


The Wesleys had an enduring friendship and connection with George Whitefield (1714–1770), beginning with their Oxford Holy Club, followed by separate missionary journeys to America, and a call to open-air field preaching in England. During the earlier years of that association, the Wesleys published some of their most enduring poetry, especially in the first edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). In this collection, Charles Wesley had penned a Christmas hymn with a curious opening line:

Hark how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of Kings,
Peace on Earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil’d!”

Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born today!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n ador’d,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.

Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail th’incarnate Deity!
Pleas’d as man with men t’appear,
Jesus, our Immanuel here!

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born—that man no more may die,
Born—to raise the sons of earth,
Born—to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of Nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home,
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display thy saving pow’r,
Ruin’d nature now restore,
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us thee, tho’ lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man;
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

Wesley’s original text thus spanned ten stanzas of four lines. A modern reader might see the words “welkin rings” and immediately gravitate to something from J.R.R. Tolkien, but “welkin” means “sky” or “heavens” — it was a common term in English poetry in that era. Wesley might have been alluding directly to a poem by William Somerville about fox hunting, called “The Chase” (1735):

The welkin rings, Men, Dogs, Hills, Rock, and Woods
In the full consort join.

Hymn scholar J.R. Watson explained: “To have altered Somerville’s lines would have been in keeping with Wesley’s habit of appropriating images from other poems and using them to proclaim the gospel. Here the cries of the huntsmen and hounds become the sounds of the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest.’”

In the second edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Wesley made one minor change to the first line of the fifth stanza, which became “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace.”

As clever as Wesley’s allusion to welkin rings might have been, it failed to resonate with some worshipers, including his colleague George Whitefield. In 1753, the same year Whitefield began construction on the Tabernacle church, he compiled his own hymnal, A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship. It included 21 hymns from the Wesleys, including this Christmas hymn, but with a significant alteration:

Hark! the Herald Angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!

Whitefield made other alterations as well, including the second stanza, lines 3–4, “Nature rise and worship Him, who is born at Bethlehem,” the fifth stanza, “Light and life around he brings,” the seventh stanza, “Fix in us thy heav’nly home,” the omission of stanzas eight and ten, and a change in the last line of stanza nine, “Work it in us by thy love.”

Whitefield was not the only one who felt compelled to tweak Wesley’s text. Another close colleague of the Wesleys, Martin Madan, had an important hand in shaping the text. Madan had been called into a life of ministry via the preaching of John Wesley, and he was godfather to Charles Wesley’s son Samuel. In 1760, he published A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, including Wesley’s Christmas hymn. Madan borrowed Whitefield’s opening lines but kept the rest of Wesley’s original wording, except in the second stanza, where he introduced the lines “With th’ angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

John Wesley chose not to include this hymn in the career-spanning Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780). A few years later, after being entreated to produce a smaller, more affordable collection, he published A Pocket Hymn Book, first in 1785, then greatly revised in 1787. For the revised edition, he added the Christmas hymn, but he decided to use Madan’s version, which by extension also included Whitefield’s opening lines. Therefore, the last official Wesleyan version of the hymn looked like this:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to their new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild;
God and sinners reconciled.”

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb;

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus our Immanuel here.

Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wongs;

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed;
Bruise in us the serpent’s head:

Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp thine image in its place;
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

The first stanza of the hymn is essentially a retelling of the story of the angels and the shepherds in Luke 2. The second stanza introduces several ideas. Christ is worshiped by the hosts of heaven, which is seen especially in the book of Revelation. Christ is everlasting, or eternal, an idea expressed in Hebrews 13:8 (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” ESV). The phrase “late in time” probably refers to the lengthy wait the Jews endured while anticipating their Messiah, and the long absence of any prophet in Israel. The virgin, of course, is Mary, the woman prophesied in Isaiah 7:14. The concept of God-made-flesh can be found in passages such as John 1:14 (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”), not too proud to be seen in human form among sinful people, as in Philippians 2:5–7.

In the third stanza, the name “Prince of Peace” comes from Isaiah 9:6. Both the title “Sun of Righteousness” and the image “Risen with healing in his wings” come from Malachi 4:2. The emphatic repetition of “Born . . .” outlines three reasons for Christ’s presence: (1) to conquer death, (2) to bring resurrection of the dead, and (3) to offer rebirth, the first two of which are described at length in 1 Corinthians 15, the last best expressed in John 3.

Another title, “Desire of nations,” is from Haggai 2:7 (especially in the KJV). The notion that Christ dwells in us, not just with us, is reflected in passages like Galatians 2:20 (“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). The last six lines point back to Eden in various ways. “Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,” etc., refers to the Eden prophecy of Genesis 3:15. The remaining lines about exchanging the image of Adam for the image of Christ, with Christ as the “second Adam,” reflect the ideas found in 1 Corinthians 15:45–49.

The hymn in this form, written by Charles Wesley, altered by George Whitefield and Martin Madan, and canonized by John Wesley, is therefore rich with Scripture. Its endurance as a beloved Christmas tradition is well deserved and likely to last for generations to come.

Note: This post originally appears in Chris Fenner’s coedited book Amazing Love! How Can It Be: Studies on Hymns by Charles Wesley (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2020).



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