Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Jesus, the Light of the World'

History of Hymns: 'Jesus, the Light of the World'

By C. Michael Hawn

Elderkin george
George D. Elderkin

“Jesus, the Light of the World” (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”)
by Charles Wesley, adpt./arr. George D. Elderkin
Africana Hymnal, 4038
Zion Still Sings, 62

Hark the herald angels sing.
Jesus, the light of the world.
Glory to the newborn King,
Jesus, the Light of the world.
We’ll walk in the light, beautiful light.
Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.
Shine all around me by day and by night.
Jesus, the Light of the world.

African American musical traditions have enlivened eighteenth-century hymns for more than one hundred-fifty years. The hymns of John Newton (1725–1807), Isaac Watts (1674–1748), and Charles Wesley (1707–1788) were heard by enslaved Africans and reinvented and reinterpreted for their context. The enlivening of these and other hymns by classic white hymn writers continued during Reconstruction and into the emerging gospel song era. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. icon Lucie Eddie Campbell-Williams (1885–1963) is credited with bringing in the “new gospel music” to African American congregations (George, 1992, 119). African American musical scholar Horace Clarence Boyer asserts that Campbell’s greatest contribution to gospel music was the “gospel waltz”—the transformation of black or white hymns written in 3/4 or 4/4 meters into the compound triple musical meters of 9/8 and 12/8 respectively (Boyer, 1992, 102–103).

George D. Elderkin (1845–1928) captures the essence of the “gospel waltz” in his adaptation of Charles Wesley’s classic nativity hymn “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” The origins and history of Wesley’s hymn are covered elsewhere (see "History of Hymns: 'Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.'"). Elderkin’s adaptation of the famous Christmas hymn has become a classic in its own right, especially in the African American community, although he was not an African American. Little is known of him except that he was the owner of the George D. Elderkin Publishing Company (Chicago), which published four volumes of gospel hymns titled The Finest of the Wheat (Brink, Hymnary.org, n.p.). The subtitle of the collections indicated the audience: “for prayer and evangelistic meetings, church and missionary services, Sunday schools and young people’s societies.” Among the editors of the collections was the prominent William. J. Kirkpatrick (1838–1921), who worked with (Fanny Crosby 1820–1915) to edit and publish her texts.

This adaptation of Charles Wesley’s hymn appears first as no. 35 in Gift of Finest Wheat (Chicago, 1890). Elderkin is listed as the arranger and the copyright holder of the arrangement. The four stanzas in Elderkin’s adaptation draw upon the first two lines of Wesley’s stanzas 1, 2, 3, and 5, the exception being that Elderkin, of course, does not use the original opening line composed by Wesley—“Hark how all the welkin rings”—but modified first lines by evangelist George Whitefield (1714–1770) that are now commonly sung.

Elderkin’s adaptation is a standard approach to modifying a classic hymn in stanzas to a gospel song. Two lines are chosen from the original stanza and become lines one and three. Lines two and four are drawn from a standard refrain based on a trope used in gospel songs of the day. The resulting textual form was ABCB. To this revised stanza was attached a substantial refrain or chorus. These choruses often had a life of their own, migrating from song to song with little or no change. Camp meeting spiritual scholar Ellen Jane Lorenz (1907–1996) calls the original hymn text the “mother hymn” (Lorenz, 1980, p. 52).

A well-known example is the camp meeting-style version of Charles Wesley’s “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1740). Ralph E. Hudson (1843–1901) adapted the original in the manner described above:

O for a thousand tongues to sing,
Blessed be the name of the Lord!
The glories of my God and King,
Blessed be the name of the Lord!
Blessed be the name,
Blessed be the name,
Blessed be the name of the Lord!
Blessed be the name,
Blessed be the name,
Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Carl P. Daw Jr. ably traces a “cluster of songs” around the refrain “Jesus, the light of the world” (Daw, 2016, p. 131), derived from John 8:12, one of Christ’s “I AM” sayings. His refrain, possibly the earliest, was “borrowed” for numerous other songs. Despite Elderkin’s copyright, his contribution was ignored, even though the “borrower” quoted the text of his refrain and his music with little or no modification. The music was often listed anonymously as “Arranged.”

However, an earlier publication suggests that Elderkin may have adapted the text, though not the music, of a Fanny Crosby text set to different music by one of her regular associates, William H. Doane (1832–1915). It is found in Good as Gold: A New Collection of Sunday School Songs (New York, 1880) edited by Doane and famous gospel song composer Robert Lowry (1826–1899). Crosby’s text follows:

Shining in darkness by faith we behold
Jesus, the Light of the world;
Jesus, the brightness of glory untold,
Jesus, the Light of the world.
O walk in the beautiful light
That comes with the dew drops of mercy imparted;
It shineth around us by day and by night,
‘Tis Jesus, the Light of the world.

Carl Daw offers a wise word in our attempt to understand the creative threads that come together in Elderkin’s adaptation:

[I]t is important to recognize that Elderkin himself never claimed authorship for this text, probably because he expected people to know the two strands from which it was woven. On both words and music credit lines he printed only his initials, followed in both instances by “arr.” Yet he was also careful to protect the fruit of his creativity in bringing them together; the copyright notice in his name at the bottom of the page stakes his claim to this combination. (Daw, 2016, p. 131).

The Africana Hymnal (Nashville, 2015) follows the recent pattern of employing the harmonization by well-known composer and performer Evelyn Simpson-Curenton (b. 1953), known for her arrangements of spirituals for some of the great African American performers of this era, including Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. Simpson-Curenton’s arrangement “updates” the Elderkin’s gospel style with more chromatic chordal alterations. The accompaniment edition provided by the arranger is independent of the four-part vocal setting, adding more harmonic movement. In addition, she employs shortened eighth notes (followed by an eighth rest) characteristic of recent African American gospel styles on several words in the refrain: “walk,” “light,” “beau” (of beautiful), “Come,” “drops” (of “dewdrops”), “Shine,” and “us.” Elderkin included a fermata over the first word of the refrain— “We’ll”—breaking the rhythm of the “gospel waltz” and announcing the refrain. Rather than a fermata, Simpson-Curenton gives the note a full measure (three beats) on “We’ll,” creating a similar effect.

Aspects of Simpson-Curenton’s gospel style are captured in a performance of the song led by Bill Gaither featuring Jessy Dixon as soloist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UsxxAYReP4&feature=emb_title. A more up-beat interpretation is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcU59_T32I8&feature=emb_title. A more standard performance at Alfred Street Baptist Church (Alexandria, VA) can be heard at the following link with characteristic clapping on the refrain, emphasizing the “gospel waltz”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fec8W2xeB18&feature=emb_title.

Elderkin’s arrangement should not be confused with “See the bright and morning star” (Worship and Song, 3056) by Ken Bible (b. 1950). Bible adds new words for lines one and three of his three stanzas and makes a slight modification to the refrain. He maintains the same music. Since his text relates to the refrain “Jesus, the Light of the world,” his hymn might be called a parody of Elderkin’s arrangement.


Horace Clarence Boyer, “‘Lucie E. Campbell”: Composer for the National Baptist Convention,” in Bernice Johnson Reagon, ed., We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Press, 1992), 81–108.

Emily Brink, “Geo. D. Elderkin,” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/person/Elderkin_George (accessed October 19, 2020).

Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

C. Michael Hawn, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” History of Hymns (December 11, 2014) [Nashville: Discipleship Ministries], https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-hark-the-herald-angels-sing (accessed October 19, 2020).

Luvenia A. George, “Lucie E. Campbell: Her Nurturing and Expansion of Gospel Music in the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.,” in We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Press, 1992), 109–119.

Ellen Jane Lorenz, Glory Hallelujah! The Story of the Campmeeting Spiritual (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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