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"The Back Story of 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' "
By Dr. Jeff Sanders

Every year at this time my family and I watch "It's a Wonderful Life."  At the end of the movie Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and all of Bedford Falls join in singing the famous carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."  It's an appropriate song for the movie.  The movie teaches that each person's life touches so many others in ways we never dreamed.  The history of that famous Christmas carol teaches the same thing.  So who wrote this famous and beloved song?  

Many people think Charles Wesley wrote it. . . . and they are mostly right.  In 1739 the famous hymnwriter wrote a poem, but the first line was not what we sing today.  It began "Hark how all the welkin rings/ Glory to the King of kings. . . ."  Yep, very familiar line to all of us.  Not.  

No wonder this poem was not too popular. . . . ."welkin?"  What in the world is a "welkin?"  It's an old Anglo-Saxon word for the vault of heaven where the angels dwell.  Charles was a great hymnwriter, but he kinda missed it on this one.  Fortunately a contemporary English evangelist, George Whitefield, came along and changed the wording (without Charles' approval).  Rev. Whitefield amended the line to what we are familiar with: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Glory to the newborn King."  

Charles was not pleased, but hey, what are you gonna do?  Whitefield knew what words would "ring" with the populace, and he scored big with this one. But. . . . . .we still have the problem of not having a tune for the poem.  Time goes on, and still no tune.  Until the mid-19th century, long after Wesley and Whitefield are gone.  Felix Mendelssohn, the great German composer wrote in 1840 a tune to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg printing press.  That's right. . . .music to celebrate technology.  Mendelssohn was adamant that his music NOT be used for religious purposes, but only for secular themes.  Little did know that someday, his tune for "Festgesang an die Kunstler" would be wed to Wesley/Whitefield's poem to celebrate the birth of Christ.

And now we meet Dr. William Cummings.  Yes, that famous organist you have all heard about.  That household name Dr. William Cummings.  Well. . . . maybe not so famous.  Anyway, in 1855 this unknown organist took the tune of Mendelssohn and united it with the poem, and the following year Christians began singing this song for Christmas.  And today this carol is joyfully sung in every corner of the world at Christmastime.  

No one does it alone.  Everyone is important.  You just never know how what you and I are doing today will be used in some way we never dreamed of. . .to bless others.  

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011, 08:30 AM

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Christmas 1942
The Ghosts of Christmas Past -- 1941
The Ghosts of Christmas Past--1776
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