The singing of Christmas carols — as we now know them — was abolished in England by the Puritan Parliament in 1649 under pressure from Oliver Cromwell, England’s “Lord Protector” who preached against “worldly festivals” that included Christmas carols, decorated trees, and other expressions that “desecrated that sacred event.” As a result, Christmas hymns and carols were scarce between the late 17th and the early 18th Century in England. Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (written in 1739) was one of the few written during that period that became popular wherever Christians gathered during Advent. After Cromwell died in 1658 and the monarchy was restored in England in 1660, the former decision to prohibit the singing of Christmas carols was abandoned, and hymns written to honor the birth of Jesus began to appear and have continued to this day.
In one of his Tuesday Mornings newsletters, Tom Barnard shares a bit of the history of Wesley’s great Christmas carol. Barnard explains that Wesley, an Anglican who became part of the 18th Century Methodist Revival in England, wrote the words to the hymn but his original words were subsequently altered. The first line of the hymn originally read, “Hark! how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings.” Welkin is an old English word that means “vault of heaven.” In 1753 George Whitfield changed the first line to read, “Hark! the herald angels sing — Glory to the newborn King!” And that is how we sing it today.
Mendelssohn, a Messianic Jew, composed the music. It is from the second chorus of a cantata he wrote in 1840 to commemorate Johan Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn strictly admonished that this composition was to be used in a purely secular manner. William Cummings, however, totally ignored Mendelssohn’s wishes in 1856 and joined the lyrics by Wesley with the music by Mendelssohn for the first time, giving the world this wonderful Christmas Carol.