Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, was an early leader in the Methodist Church. It has been reported that in his lifetime, he wrote over 6,000 hymns in order to teach the poor and illiterate sound doctrine. One Christmas day, as he walked to church, he was inspired by the sounds of the London church bells to write a new Christmas Carol. It was then that he quickly penned the lyrics to “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings.”
Charles Wesley’s new carol first appeared in 1739 in Hymns and Sacred Songs. It was intended to be sung to the tune of Christ the Lord is Risen Today.
Here are the first two verses of the original song:
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!”
Yeah, kind of different, huh?
A few years later, George Whitefield, a student turned colleague turned rival of John and Charles Wesley, adapted the lyrics into those we now sing (Well, mostly). He did publish the new revision and title it Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
Whitefield rarely gets credit for this change because of further developments to the carol. In 1840, Felix Mendelssohn composed Festgesang, a cantata celebrating the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable type. English musician William H. Cummings partnered a melody from one of the choruses with a revised version of White’s revised version of Wesley’s original text. The new tune was titled MENDELSSOHN. The new revision combined two shorter verses into one verse. The new version also repeated the first two lines of the first verse (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the newborn King) to match the new tune.
Listen to both versions below and judge for yourself.
*Image courtesy of Luke Stackpoole