Posted by: Bay Presbyterian Church | December 13, 2017

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

December 10, 2017

Today, as we think about some of the Christmas Carols we sing, we are going to take apart one of my favorites:  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

1.  The Author

I think the real master of this masterpiece is not the author of this carol, but the author’s mother.  You know, no doubt, of the saying, “The hand that rock the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”  Well, this story is not exactly that dramatic…but pretty doggone close.

Susanna Wesley was the baby in her family—the 25th of 25 children.  She understood what a large family meant so she and her husband, Samuel, opted for a small family…she only bore 19 children—sadly, 9 of those children died in infancy, and only 8 were present to bury their mother.

Two of those were John and Charles.  John was a fine preacher and Charles was a prolific hymn writer, (6,500 hymns) and he burst on the scene when there was a dearth of Christians songs.

King Charles I, like many with unchecked authority, was an arrogant cuss.  Most kings rule best when they rule least, but Charles thought he had a duty and a right to intrude on the lives of his subjects.  But as head of the Church of England he began to not only intrude, but to meddle.  Cromwell, the Prime Minister, and Parliament told him to knock it off.  He refused so Cromwell had the king arrested and later executed for treason.  This was good and bad.  Good in the sense that the murderous king was no longer available to torment and kill the religious separatists but it was bad in that now there was a NEW unchecked authority in the land to impose their own separatist idiosyncrasies.  One of those idiosyncrasies was the imposition of civil laws outlawing the celebration of religious holidays.  This came NOT from the irreligious, but from the overly religious.  [Incidentally, that danger still exists 400 years later]

The greatest danger “in” the church and “to” the church comes not from the irreligious—but from self-righteous overly religious people who create extra-biblical systems and cultures to impose on people and comes not from the knowledge of the holy, but comes from the raw exercise of power and authority.

You remember in Jesus day the Pharisees were often in league with the Herodians.  The Herodians were irreligious—the Pharisees were overly religious.  In any case, Parliament forbade Christians holiday festivities and imposed civil penalties on all who violated this law.  As a result, Christmas Carols were loosely regulated out of the Christmas holiday

Eighty years later, Charles Wesley—1 of 19 was born to Susanna and Samuel Wesley.  Charles was a preemie and neither cried, or opened his eyes until his actual due date…and on that day opened his eyes and cried.

He went to five schools and after an exceptional high school performance, went on to college at Oxford.  At Oxford, he found a good many more “diversions” he called them.  So much so that he says, “My first year at college I lost in diversions.”  As he entered his second year, he and his brother, John, while not yet having a legitimate experience with God, became wrapped up in religious disciplines.  I suspect God had begun to work in their hearts and life to awaken, or better, enliven their souls and this was the path God took them.  In any case, John and Charles were responsible for starting “Holy Clubs” at Oxford.  Their religious disciplines were so rigorous and methodical, they became known as Methodists and thus the beginning of that church.  That is why Susanna Wesley was known as the mother of the Methodist church.

A friend, George Whitfield, encouraged them to come to the United States and both decided this mission field had great potential, and so they crossed the Atlantic to the mission field.  They both ended in the deep south, Charles as an assistant to Governor Oglethorpe of Georgia—a penal colony of sorts and John—first to Georgia and then to Alabama.  They were both disastrous experiences.  Keep in mind—at this point in their lives—neither were converted—but rather were trying to work their way to heaven.  They maintained strict and rigorous disciplines—unbending and brittle.  Charles was demanding and autocratic.  Not only did he insist on infant baptism by trimersion—three times in succession—always causing distress to the infant.  One angry woman fired a gun at him!  [That hasn’t happened to me, yet, but it is still early in the day].

Their friend, George Whitfield had given them a letter written almost 200 years before by one Henry Scougal that had become titled “The Life of God in the Soul of Man.”  After that he and his brother, John, began attending Bible studies and preaching meetings held by Moravians who they observed had something they did not—a vital and vibrant relationship and experience with God.  On Sunday, May 21, 1738, Charles—who was now 31—wrote in his journal, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.  I saw it was by faith I stood.”

On the following Tuesday, May 23, Charles wrote in his journal; “I began a hymn upon my conversion.”  Most historians believe it was a hymn that went like this;

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—

I woke the dungeon flamed with light;

 

My chains fell of, my heart was free.

I rose, went fort and followed Thee:

Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou

My God shouldst die for me.

 

After that, Wesley became a most incredible hymn writer.  He wrote more than 6,500 hymns.  Often as he meditated while riding on horseback from one place to another, an idea would strike him and he would ride up to the next farm house he could find and borrow pen and paper to record the verse that had just entered his head.  An artist, he forbade others meddling with his work.  He did, however make a rare exception in one case…He wrote one song that went like this:

Hark, how all the welkin rings,

Glory to the King offerings

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled.

 

Joyful all with nations rise,

Join the triumph of the skies

Universal nature say

Christ the Lord is born today.

His good friend, George Whitfield, said—Chuck—I got an idea…I think we can improve that:

Hark! The herald angels sing

Glory to the newborn king

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinner reconciled.

 

Joyful all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With angelic host proclaim

Christ is born in Bethlehem

 

In a rare move, Wesley accepted the new lyrics–but it was sung as a dirge.

* Cromwell was deposed along with Parliament for being too intrusive

* Charles II became the new king

* The restrictions were lifted on hymnology

But, even then, the hymn didn’t enjoy broad popularity—largely because of the metre.  A Jewish man who come to believe in Christ as his own savior had written a cantata that was done in commemoration to Johann Gutenberg.  In 1856 one Dr. William Cummings blended Wesley’s inspiration with Whitfield’s edit, and Felix Mendelssohn’s music to bring us Hark! The Herald Angels Sing—a song not only popular in churches at Christmas but also in Macy’s, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Charlie Brown’s Christmas.”

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: