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).

Charles Wesley Christmas Hymns John Wesley

A Sketch of Christian Spirituality: From the Patristic Period to the Evangelical Era (Part 5 of 5)

Evangelical Spirituality

Ian Randall—currently Director of the Institute of Baptist and Anabaptist studies of International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, Czech Republic—has written a book titled What a Friend We Have in Jesus: The Evangelical Tradition, a fine and succinct study on evangelical spirituality. Randall’s book is part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series, which seeks to publish first-rate volumes that provide quality introductions to some of the main traditions of Christian spirituality. In this discourse, focusing mainly on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Randall explores the origins of evangelical spirituality and its key themes.

Randall has rightly noted: “Although evangelicalism emerged in [the Evangelical Revival of] the eighteenth century [in Great Britain], it had strong links with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the English Puritan movement of the seventeenth century.”[1] The evangelicals adopted the basic tenets of the Reformation; and like Calvin and the Puritans, they underscored the importance of holy living as the outworking of their faith. This is why evangelical spirituality is more akin to Protestant spirituality rather than to Catholic spirituality.

David Bebbington, in his classic work—Evangelicalism in Modern Britain—asserts that evangelicalism is “a new phenomenon of the eighteenth century” that emphasizes four distinctive features: “conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.”[2] Bebbington’s assertion suggests that evangelical spirituality is characterized by personal conversion, outworking of the gospel, devotion to Scripture, and the cross of Christ. Later Bebbington’s concept of evangelicalism came to be known as the Bebbington quadrilateral, a standard term among historians. In What A Friend We Have in Jesus, Randall discusses more elements of evangelical spirituality: conversion, Bible, sacraments, prayer and praise, the Cross, the Holy Spirit and holiness, the fellowship of the believers, missions, and the last times. And for Randall, the “central theme of this strand of spirituality is a personal relationship with Christ.”

Against the backdrop of England between the First and Second World Wars, Randall pinpoints four major strands of evangelical spirituality: “Keswick holiness, the Wesleyan tradition, Reformed approaches and Pentecostal/charismatic spirituality.”[3] Keswick[4] holiness, also known as the Higher Life movement, teaches that Christians can experience “entire sanctification,” or “Christian perfection.” This teaching was of course also present in the Wesleyan tradition; however, the Keswick tradition was less radical compared to the Wesleyan. Reformed evangelical spirituality, while stressing the need for personal holiness, rejects the doctrine of perfectionism. The Pentecostal/charismatic spirituality is to some extent a resurrected Quakerism. It gives too much emphasis on the work of the Spirit with less scriptural content; it is based more on emotions than on faith.

Although Randall gives special attention to British evangelicalism in which John Wesley and George Whitefield stand out as the main characters, he includes American evangelicalism. The primary American figure here is Jonathan Edwards who, according to Randall, is the principal shaper of American evangelical spirituality.


Concluding Observation

The renaissance of interest in the subject of Christian spirituality is noteworthy. Just in the past decade, scores of books on Christian spirituality have been published. In fact, in 2009, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, became the first Protestant seminary to offer a PhD in Biblical Spirituality. This fact shows that a revived concern for spirituality exists even in the world of academics.

[1] Ian Randall, What A Friend We Have In Jesus: The Evangelical Tradition (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005), 16.

[2] David W. Bebbington, Evangelicals in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (1989; reprint, London: Routledge, 1993), 2, 4.

[3] Randall, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, 20.

[4] Keswick is a name of a market town in Cumbria, England where the movement became well-known.

Evangelical Evangelical Spirituality George Whitefield John Wesley Jonathan Edwards Spirituality

“Where shall my wondering soul begin?”: A Historical and Theological Analysis

“Where shall my wondering soul begin?”:

A Historical and Theological Analysis[1]


Born on December 18, 1707 in Epworth, England, Charles Wesley grew up in an Anglican family. In 1726, he entered Christ Church College at Oxford University, where he received his BA (1730) and MA (1733). It was here in 1729 that he led the so-called “Holy Club,” a religious organization that promoted piety through a systematic study of the Bible. Yet, at this time he was not saved.

In 1735, still unconverted, Wesley was ordained priest in the Anglican Church. That same year he and his brother John (1703-1791) journeyed to the newly found colony of Georgia to start a mission work among the Indians. Their mission being unsuccessful compelled them to sail back to England. Despite this failure, however, this mission trip became memorable to the brothers. It was during this period that they met the Moravians, who made a profound impact on them conversion and on their passion for hymns.

On May 21, 1738, while living in England, Charles Wesley experienced evangelical conversion, which he expressed this way: “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.”[2] Two days after his conversion, he wrote a song which he called “an hymn upon my conversion.”[3] It is generally believed that this conversion hymn, the first of numerous hymns that he wrote, was “Where shall my wondering soul begin?” What follows is a historical and theological analysis of this hymn, the original title of which was “Christ the Friend of Sinner.”


To continue reading the article, see Brian G. Najapfour, ‘“Where shall my wondering soul begin?’: A Historical and Theological Analysis,” Puritan Reformed Journal 3, no. 2 (July 2011): 291-298.

        [1] The quote is taken from the first line of the hymn whose title is also: “Where shall my wondering soul begin?” For my biographical sketch of Charles, I am indebted to J. R. Tyson, “Wesley, Charles,” in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, eds. Timothy Larsen, David Bebbington, and Mark A. Noll (Leicester and Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 710-12.

        [2] The Journal of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), entry date, May 21, 1738; available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/charles-wesley/the-journal-of-charles-wesley-1707-1788/the-journal-of-charles-wesley-may-1-august-31-1738/ ; Internet; accessed 14 October  2010.

        [3] The Journal of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), entry date, May 23, 1738; available from ibid.

Charles Wesley Hymns John Wesley