Hark how all the welkin rings
Hark! the herald angels sing
Text: Origins. 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 text: “Hark how all the Welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings” (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), pp. 206-208.
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 may have been alluding directly to a poem by William Somerville about fox hunting, called “The Chase” (1735 | Fig. 2):
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.”
Text: Development. As clever as Wesley’s allusion to welkin rings may have been, it failed to resonate with some worshipers, including his friend 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 the Christmas hymn, but with a significant alteration:
Hark! the Herald Angels sing
Glory to the new-born King! (Fig. 3)
Whitefield made other alterations as well, including the second stanza, lines 3-4, 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 nine, “Work it in us by thy love.”
Fig. 3. George Whitefield, A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1753), pp. 24-25.
In 1760, Martin Madan borrowed Whitefield’s opening lines but kept the rest of Wesley’s wording, except in the second stanza, where he introduced the lines “With th’ angelic host proclaim, / Christ is born in Bethlehem!” This version appeared in Madan’s A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1760 | Fig. 4).
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. The Christmas hymn was added to the revised edition, but restructured into four stanzas of eight lines, incorporating Whitefield’s opening lines and Madan’s new text, effectively making Madan’s version the official Wesleyan text (Fig. 5).
Starting in 1782, editions of the New Version of the Psalms of David printed this hymn with the first two lines repeated as a refrain after every stanza (“Hark the herald angels sing / Glory to the newborn King” | Fig. 6). Note also the reduction of the text to three stanzas of eight lines, a form still utilized in modern hymnals.
The common alteration “Pleased as man with men to dwell, / Jesus our Emmanuel” appeared as early as 1810 in J. Kempthorne’s Select Portions of Psalms. This version was popularized especially through Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861 | Fig. 7). In 1904, the editors of Hymns Ancient & Modern infamously changed the text back to “welkin rings”; they were so soundly ridiculed about this and other issues that the next edition (1906), a re-release of the 1889 edition, returned to “herald angels.”
Tunes. In 1787, when the Wesleys printed this text in A Pocket Hymn Book (Fig. 5), it was marked SALISBURY, a tune otherwise known as EASTER HYMN, more closely associated with Charles Wesley's “Christ the Lord is risen today.” It’s a curious pairing, but it works. The joyful, triumphant tune fits the nature of the angelic declaration at Christ’s birth in much the same way as it fits a text for Christ’s resurrection. The history of this tune is treated in greater detail in the article on the resurrection hymn, but here it should suffice to note that the Wesleys had enjoyed the use of this tune for many years, beginning with their Collection of Tunes, Set to Music, As They are Commonly Sung at the Foundery (1742 | PDF), through their last tune book, Sacred Harmony (1780 | HathiTrust).
The most widely adopted tune for this text is MENDELSSOHN, by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847), from the second part of his Festgesang, WoO 9 (1840; Breitkopf & Härtel edition, Series 15, No. 120: Fig. 8).
Fig. 8. Festgesang, WoO 9 (1840; Breitkopf & Härtel edition, Series 15, No. 120).
Mendelssohn’s music was adapted by William Cummings as a hymn tune for his congregation at Waltham Abbey, first published as sheet music by J.J. Ewer & Co. in 1856 (Fig. 9), set to Wesley’s Christmas hymn.
Fig. 9. William H. Cummings, “Hark the herald angels sing” (London: J.J. Ewer & Co., 1856).
MENDELSSOHN was then included in the Congregational Hymn and Tune Book (Bristol, 1857 | Fig. 10). This pairing of text and tune was further popularized via Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861).
Fig. 10. Congregational Hymn and Tune Book (1857).
Somewhat ironically, Mendelssohn did not believe this tune would work with a sacred text. In a letter of 30 April 1843, reprinted many years later in The Musical Times (Dec. 1897), p. 810, he wrote to his English publisher, E. Buxton, regarding a translation of his Festgesang that had been prepared by William Bartholomew:
I think there ought to be other words to No. 2, the “Lied.” If the right ones were hit at, I am sure that piece will be liked very much by the singers and the hearers, but it will never do to sacred words. There must be a national and merry subject found out, something to which the soldierlike and buxom motion of the piece has some relation, and the words must express something gay and popular, as the music tries to do it.
Little did Mendelssohn know that his tune would become very popular, set to a merry subject indeed.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
21 June 2018
rev. 26 December 2018
J.R. Watson, “Welkins,” Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Bulletin (July 2000), p. 80.
Timothy Dudley-Smith, “Hark! the herald angels sing,” Canturbury Dictionary of Hymnology: http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/hark!-the-herald-angels-sing
William Somerville, The Chase: A Poem (Dublin: R. Reilly, 1735 | PDF).
“Hark! the herald angels sing,” The Musical Times, vol. 38, no. 658 (Dec. 1897), p. 810: PDF
John Julian, “Hark how all the welkin rings,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 487-488: Google Books
Geoffrey Wainwright & Robin Leaver, “Hark! the herald angels sing,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), no. 87.
Chris Fenner, “How George Whitefield reshaped a famous Christmas carol,” The Towers, SBTS, vol. 13, no. 4 (Nov. 2014), p. 20.
Gordon A. Knights, “Hymns Ancient & Modern,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
“Hark! the herald angels sing,” Hymnary.org: