Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The herald angels sing” may have become widely associated with children in the twentieth century (featured in the Charles Schultz’s Charlie Brown Christmas special of 1965, for instance) but it was not written directly for them given its complex eighteenth-century Evangelical theology centered on sin and repentance. Wesley published it in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), not, notably, his Hymns for Children. Originally beginning “Hark! How all the welkin rings/ ‘Glory to the King of Kings” (George Whitefield gave it its more famous opening lines; see McCutchan for further historical background 118-9), it is Wesley’s most famous hymn, described as “perhaps the most popular English hymn in the world” (McCutchan 118) and “excelled by none” (Julian, qtd. in Nutter 63). When W. H. Cummings set the text to a tune by Felix Mendelssohn in 1855 (alternately called “Berlin” as in the 1879 Methodist Sunday-School Hymnbook), the hymn took on a life of its own. Its appeal to children is its happy exuberance expressed in multiple uses of exclamation points, engaging alliteration, and a pulsation stemming from short, trochaic couplets: “Hark! The herald angels sing/ ‘Glory to the new-born King!” Still, its language and concepts are better understood by adults. “God and sinners reconciled” begins an intentional focus on the Atonement which quickly usurps the theme of Christmas. Particularly in a verse not often reproduced in the twentieth century but found in nineteenth-century children’s hymnbooks, we can note reference to Adam, a reminder to readers of Original Sin and the need for Christ’s descension to earth, which surely complicates a straight-forward Christmas hymn:
Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love. (v. 4)
The rhetoric is truly eighteenth century in its poetic complexity, such as the paradox “Born that man no more may die,” etc. It is especially noteworthy, then, that its currency continued through 1890s hymnbooks and beyond even as more child-centered Christmas hymns began to appear in hymnbooks (“As shepherds watched their flocks,” etc).
For more discussion about this hymn, see “O, Come, All Ye Children: Christmas Carols in Victorian Children’s Hymnbooks.” The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song. Vol. 68. No. 1 (Winter 2017). Pp. 16-23.