History of Hymns: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"
Edmund H. Sears
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 218
“It came upon a midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.’
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.”
This may be the only commonly sung Christmas carol in our hymnals that does not mention the birth of Christ! The focus is rather on the song of the angels, “Peace on the earth, good will to men,” taken from Luke 2:14.
The historical context sheds some light. Massachusetts native Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) earned a degree from Harvard Divinity School and was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1839, serving congregations throughout Massachusetts.
As UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young puts it so well, the “hymn’s central theme contrasts the scourge of war with the song of the angels’ ‘peace to God’s people on earth.’” He observes that this is one of the earliest social gospel hymns written in the U.S.
The movement gathered strength as the 20th century approached, influenced by the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) and hymns such as Washington Gladden’s “O Master, let me walk with thee” (1879) and Frank Mason North’s “Where cross the crowded ways of life” (1903).
Sears’ context was the social strife that plagued the country as the Civil War approached. This hymn comes from a Boston publication, Christian Register, published on Dec. 29, 1849. The original stanza three, missing from our hymnals, sheds light on the poet’s concerns about the social situation in the U.S. in the mid-19th century:
“But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song, which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!”
The current stanza three in The United Methodist Hymnal poignantly articulates the situation of so many with images of those “beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow....” The second half of this stanza offers hope that the song of the “blessed angels” who “bend on hovering wings” would soothe the “Babel sounds” of a suffering world.
Sears, though a Unitarian, wrote in Sermons and Songs of the Christian Life (1875), “Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the Divinity of Christ.” He authored books quite popular in his day, including Athanasia, or Foregleams of Immortality (1857) and The Fourth Gospel, the Heart of Christ (1872).
Sears was co-editor of the Monthly Religious Magazine, where most of his hymns were first published. John Julian, editor of the Dictionary of Hymnology, an important British reference work at the turn of the 20th century, offers high praise for Sears’ two Christmas hymns (the other being the lesser-known “Calm on the listening ear of night”), calling them some of the best in the English language.
British hymnals prefer the tune NOEL by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1906) for this hymn, but hymnals in the U.S. overwhelmingly prefer CAROL by Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900). The tune appeared with other texts as early as 1850 and was first joined with Sears’ poem in the Methodist Hymnal (1878).
It is right that we should joyfully sing “Hark! the herald angels sing” and “Joy to the world” each Christmas season. But always there are moments when we realize the message of peace has not yet been fully realized on earth. Then we sing “It came upon the midnight clear,” and the power of the Incarnation and the message of the gospel touch us even more deeply.