Friday, December 09, 2005

A Christmas hymn not to sing this year

I really hate the fact that I cannot sing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"; I take great pleasure in the tune CAROL. But the words were written Edward Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian minister, and even if it were possible for me to sing in a Christian congregation a song written by a Unitarian, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" fails the test for a number of other reasons.

The carol takes as its theme the angel's song of "peace on earth, good will toward men." Leave aside the fact that this is probably not a very good rendering of the meaning of Luke 2:14. Sears, writing this poem in 1850, appears to be post-millennial at best; he wants to usher in the age with "peace" and social good-will. This is good, old-fashioned 19th century liberalism at its very finest.

It came upon the 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.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.

Verses one and two set the stage. The angels brought this message of peace and social harmony. Now they continue to sing this "heavenly music o'er all the weary world." Sears is concerned the world is not listening, even though the angels are so intent on seeing that we do.

Yet 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.

You probably have not sung the third verse. Here we begin to see Sear's point even more explicitly, though it comes through much clearer in the verses following. We are not listening to the angels. We are still engaging in our wars and battles.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

Now Sears turns his attention to those who are poor and afflicted by society. Yes, you who are being mistreated by the social injustices of your time, rest in the fact that "glad and golden hours comes swiftly on the wing."

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Here comes the climax. Any thinking person who has been in a congregation where this song was sung (hopefully) at least wondered to himself, "what in the world is this verse about?" Sears wants us who are beneath "life's crushing load" to know that "the days are hastening on" until the "age of gold" finally comes. Yes, society is getting there, and we should rest in that. Soon the whole world will enter this age of peace and good-will towards one another.

Eric Routley says that this hymn "characteristically links the Christmas mesage with the social and international needs of the world" (Hymns and Human Life [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], 228). This was written during an age when the achievement and hope in man was at its peak; Calvinism and its emphasis on depravity and divine grace was slouching under the weight of progress. Sears hoped in the promise of human progress, and it comes out in this carol. The "ever circling years" will bring the "age of gold."

For those of you who have a say in your church's worship, I urge you not to lead your congregations in singing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." No Christian congregation should sing it. No, instead of the promise of a social agenda, we must confess our faith in and proclaim the glory of the true gospel of salvation through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead of the greatness of humanity, we must exalt the Son of God who became man to save us in our depravity, whom the (oft neglected) verse of "O Come All Ye Faithful" so eloquently exalts:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! He abhors not the virgin's womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created;
O Come let us Adore Him,
O Come let us Adore Him,
O Come let us Adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

18 Comments:

Anonymous Joel said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12/10/2005 05:32:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Anderson said...

Interesting, Ryan. My guess is that many believers have "Christianized" it and understand it to speak of Christ's future, peaceful, glorious kingdom.

That is reflected by my Majesty Hymns (which I know you appreciate):

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold;
When the new heav'n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their king,

And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.


Every hymnal I checked contains the hymn, and most do not alter the text. However, Hymns for the Living Church (1974, Hope Publishing) uses the same lines as Majesty, though it ends the first line "by prophet seen of old" and the second "shall come the time foretold" in order to avoid redundancy.

I'm not certain who first made the needed change. Anyway, chalk one up for Patch! ;-)

Your good thoughts here remind me of Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," which has a similar theme.

I appreciate the focus on thoughtful, doctrinally clear worship. Thank you!

12/10/2005 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Anderson said...

I would be very interested to know how other hymnals treat this text. In addition to the ones I have mentioned, the following make no alterations:

* Inter-Church Hymnal (Biglow-Main-Excell Co., 1937)

* Inspiring Hymns (Singspiration [A.B. Simith], 1951)

* All-American Church Hymnal (John T. Benson, Jr., 1957)

* Worship and Service Hymnal (BJU edition) (Hope Publishing, 1957, 1973)

* Living Praise Hymnal (Singspiration [J.W. Peterson], 1974, 1981)

* Living Hymns (Alfred B. Smith, 1975)

12/10/2005 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Greg Linscott said...

FWIW, the hymnal our church uses (PRAISE! Our Songs and Hymns- 1979, Brentwood-Benson) uses the altered text used in HFTLC that Chris cited.

12/10/2005 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Andy Efting said...

Hymns of Grace and Glory by Ambassador Emerald has the song but does not change the text.

12/10/2005 02:05:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

The "prophets seen of old" I think is a common "modernization" for "by prophet-bards foretold."

Most of the hymnals I own are not concerned with making the texts conservative or Calvinistic. They do not alter the text to be more "orthodox".

The Episcopal The Hymnal 1982 changes the the fourth line to "shall come the time foretold", probably to moderize it a bit.

Interestingly, the song is not included in the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal.

My Moravian Hymnal (1969) has the same text as the Majesty Hymnal (By the way, you all should get a copy of the Moravian Hymnal).

The hymnals that leave the 4th verse unaltered (except for modernizations):

The English Hymnal
The Covenant Hymnal
The Hymnal (Presbyterian)
The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal)
The Methodist Hymnal
The Lutheran Book of Worship.

Although the Moravian Hymnal (notice how I am not even willing to give credit to that "other hymnal") text certainly makes things better, I still would have some issues singing the third verse, particularly knowing what I do about the author's intent.

Let me reiterate, however, that I really like the tune CAROL. I just wish I could find some better text to put to it (I have not spent a great deal of time looking for something to match it meter).

12/10/2005 03:35:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

And thanks, everyone, for stopping by!

12/10/2005 03:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Isn't it pretty strong to say that "No Christian church should sing it"? It seems so to me. With proper explanation, this song could be useful. Of course, if one is opposed to teaching their church what their thoughts should be in singing, then it would be problemmatic I suppose ... I don't think anyhere would do that.

From time to time, in songs we sing, I explain what we should mean by the words that we are singing.

12/10/2005 03:37:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Okay, Larry. I said that in refernce to the original text. I am not sure I am following you here. What kind of explanation would you offer that would make this song acceptable (assuming you are singing the original text)?

12/10/2005 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Anderson said...

Andy Efting said, "Hymns of Grace and Glory by Ambassador Emerald has the song but does not change the text."

That surprises me.

12/10/2005 06:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Scott Aniol said...

It doesn't necessarily surprise me, Chris, though I'm not exactly sure what the Free Pres eschatology is.

Hey, Ryan, things are sure picking up here! :)

12/10/2005 10:16:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Yeah, controversy seems to come around even when I try to behave myself . . .

Thanks for the link to the column, Scott.

12/10/2005 10:58:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Tom Fettke's The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration contains the Moravian Hymnal's altered text.

Let me add that the line "two thousand years of wrong" in the "real" third verse (the one left out of many of our hymnals) means a bit more when coming from a Unitarian.

12/11/2005 10:22:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Anderson said...

I'm not sure why this is interesting to me, but I just came across a few more hymnals:

* Worship in Song (Lillenas, 1972), unaltered.

* The Service Hymnal (Hope Publishing, 1953), unaltered.

* The small Christian Service Songs (Rodeheaver Hall-Mack, probably 40's or 50's?) doesn't have it. However, it does have advertisements in the front & back, including ads for moving & storage, cars, hardware, men's clothing, a bakery, & Frank's Shoe Shop, all in the Cleveland area.

That's one way to pay for new hymnals! Besides, it probably came in handy when the preacher was particularly dry. Now, our church already has hymnals, but there's always that building program to fund. Maybe we should place a few calls to local businesses and...

12/12/2005 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Chris, thank you. So it looks like the earliest altered text we have is in the Moravian Hymnal. I wonder if it is the "evangelical" version's source.

Anyway. At least we see that some thought was going into these hymnals. I still have problems singing it. Why is it, do you think, we find these . . . dear me! even as I type this, an MPR Christmas concert broadcast is playing the song! Try to explain that coincidence!

12/12/2005 08:42:00 PM  
Blogger Andy Efting said...

Ironically, our choir sang the song this past Sunday night. They sang the unaltered text. And here I thought we were a bastion of Trinitarian, pre-millennial orthodoxy...

It was a very nice arrangement, though.

12/13/2005 05:56:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Yes, Andy, I can relate. Let me just say that my church uses Fettke's Hymnal (see above).

12/13/2005 07:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Doug said...

Well, I never liked the hymn too much, anyway, so I take an indifferent approach to the hymn.

Ryan, now that you have explained a reason to dislike the words, it gives me one more reason to dislike an already contemptable song (imo)!

12/14/2005 01:50:00 PM  

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Immoderate: A Christmas hymn <i>not</i> to sing this year

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Christmas hymn not to sing this year

I really hate the fact that I cannot sing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"; I take great pleasure in the tune CAROL. But the words were written Edward Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian minister, and even if it were possible for me to sing in a Christian congregation a song written by a Unitarian, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" fails the test for a number of other reasons.

The carol takes as its theme the angel's song of "peace on earth, good will toward men." Leave aside the fact that this is probably not a very good rendering of the meaning of Luke 2:14. Sears, writing this poem in 1850, appears to be post-millennial at best; he wants to usher in the age with "peace" and social good-will. This is good, old-fashioned 19th century liberalism at its very finest.

It came upon the 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.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.

Verses one and two set the stage. The angels brought this message of peace and social harmony. Now they continue to sing this "heavenly music o'er all the weary world." Sears is concerned the world is not listening, even though the angels are so intent on seeing that we do.

Yet 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.

You probably have not sung the third verse. Here we begin to see Sear's point even more explicitly, though it comes through much clearer in the verses following. We are not listening to the angels. We are still engaging in our wars and battles.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

Now Sears turns his attention to those who are poor and afflicted by society. Yes, you who are being mistreated by the social injustices of your time, rest in the fact that "glad and golden hours comes swiftly on the wing."

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Here comes the climax. Any thinking person who has been in a congregation where this song was sung (hopefully) at least wondered to himself, "what in the world is this verse about?" Sears wants us who are beneath "life's crushing load" to know that "the days are hastening on" until the "age of gold" finally comes. Yes, society is getting there, and we should rest in that. Soon the whole world will enter this age of peace and good-will towards one another.

Eric Routley says that this hymn "characteristically links the Christmas mesage with the social and international needs of the world" (Hymns and Human Life [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], 228). This was written during an age when the achievement and hope in man was at its peak; Calvinism and its emphasis on depravity and divine grace was slouching under the weight of progress. Sears hoped in the promise of human progress, and it comes out in this carol. The "ever circling years" will bring the "age of gold."

For those of you who have a say in your church's worship, I urge you not to lead your congregations in singing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." No Christian congregation should sing it. No, instead of the promise of a social agenda, we must confess our faith in and proclaim the glory of the true gospel of salvation through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead of the greatness of humanity, we must exalt the Son of God who became man to save us in our depravity, whom the (oft neglected) verse of "O Come All Ye Faithful" so eloquently exalts:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! He abhors not the virgin's womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created;
O Come let us Adore Him,
O Come let us Adore Him,
O Come let us Adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

18 Comments:

Anonymous Joel said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12/10/2005 05:32:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Anderson said...

Interesting, Ryan. My guess is that many believers have "Christianized" it and understand it to speak of Christ's future, peaceful, glorious kingdom.

That is reflected by my Majesty Hymns (which I know you appreciate):

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold;
When the new heav'n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their king,

And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.


Every hymnal I checked contains the hymn, and most do not alter the text. However, Hymns for the Living Church (1974, Hope Publishing) uses the same lines as Majesty, though it ends the first line "by prophet seen of old" and the second "shall come the time foretold" in order to avoid redundancy.

I'm not certain who first made the needed change. Anyway, chalk one up for Patch! ;-)

Your good thoughts here remind me of Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," which has a similar theme.

I appreciate the focus on thoughtful, doctrinally clear worship. Thank you!

12/10/2005 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Anderson said...

I would be very interested to know how other hymnals treat this text. In addition to the ones I have mentioned, the following make no alterations:

* Inter-Church Hymnal (Biglow-Main-Excell Co., 1937)

* Inspiring Hymns (Singspiration [A.B. Simith], 1951)

* All-American Church Hymnal (John T. Benson, Jr., 1957)

* Worship and Service Hymnal (BJU edition) (Hope Publishing, 1957, 1973)

* Living Praise Hymnal (Singspiration [J.W. Peterson], 1974, 1981)

* Living Hymns (Alfred B. Smith, 1975)

12/10/2005 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Greg Linscott said...

FWIW, the hymnal our church uses (PRAISE! Our Songs and Hymns- 1979, Brentwood-Benson) uses the altered text used in HFTLC that Chris cited.

12/10/2005 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger Andy Efting said...

Hymns of Grace and Glory by Ambassador Emerald has the song but does not change the text.

12/10/2005 02:05:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

The "prophets seen of old" I think is a common "modernization" for "by prophet-bards foretold."

Most of the hymnals I own are not concerned with making the texts conservative or Calvinistic. They do not alter the text to be more "orthodox".

The Episcopal The Hymnal 1982 changes the the fourth line to "shall come the time foretold", probably to moderize it a bit.

Interestingly, the song is not included in the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal.

My Moravian Hymnal (1969) has the same text as the Majesty Hymnal (By the way, you all should get a copy of the Moravian Hymnal).

The hymnals that leave the 4th verse unaltered (except for modernizations):

The English Hymnal
The Covenant Hymnal
The Hymnal (Presbyterian)
The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal)
The Methodist Hymnal
The Lutheran Book of Worship.

Although the Moravian Hymnal (notice how I am not even willing to give credit to that "other hymnal") text certainly makes things better, I still would have some issues singing the third verse, particularly knowing what I do about the author's intent.

Let me reiterate, however, that I really like the tune CAROL. I just wish I could find some better text to put to it (I have not spent a great deal of time looking for something to match it meter).

12/10/2005 03:35:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

And thanks, everyone, for stopping by!

12/10/2005 03:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Isn't it pretty strong to say that "No Christian church should sing it"? It seems so to me. With proper explanation, this song could be useful. Of course, if one is opposed to teaching their church what their thoughts should be in singing, then it would be problemmatic I suppose ... I don't think anyhere would do that.

From time to time, in songs we sing, I explain what we should mean by the words that we are singing.

12/10/2005 03:37:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Okay, Larry. I said that in refernce to the original text. I am not sure I am following you here. What kind of explanation would you offer that would make this song acceptable (assuming you are singing the original text)?

12/10/2005 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Anderson said...

Andy Efting said, "Hymns of Grace and Glory by Ambassador Emerald has the song but does not change the text."

That surprises me.

12/10/2005 06:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Scott Aniol said...

It doesn't necessarily surprise me, Chris, though I'm not exactly sure what the Free Pres eschatology is.

Hey, Ryan, things are sure picking up here! :)

12/10/2005 10:16:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Yeah, controversy seems to come around even when I try to behave myself . . .

Thanks for the link to the column, Scott.

12/10/2005 10:58:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Tom Fettke's The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration contains the Moravian Hymnal's altered text.

Let me add that the line "two thousand years of wrong" in the "real" third verse (the one left out of many of our hymnals) means a bit more when coming from a Unitarian.

12/11/2005 10:22:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Anderson said...

I'm not sure why this is interesting to me, but I just came across a few more hymnals:

* Worship in Song (Lillenas, 1972), unaltered.

* The Service Hymnal (Hope Publishing, 1953), unaltered.

* The small Christian Service Songs (Rodeheaver Hall-Mack, probably 40's or 50's?) doesn't have it. However, it does have advertisements in the front & back, including ads for moving & storage, cars, hardware, men's clothing, a bakery, & Frank's Shoe Shop, all in the Cleveland area.

That's one way to pay for new hymnals! Besides, it probably came in handy when the preacher was particularly dry. Now, our church already has hymnals, but there's always that building program to fund. Maybe we should place a few calls to local businesses and...

12/12/2005 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Chris, thank you. So it looks like the earliest altered text we have is in the Moravian Hymnal. I wonder if it is the "evangelical" version's source.

Anyway. At least we see that some thought was going into these hymnals. I still have problems singing it. Why is it, do you think, we find these . . . dear me! even as I type this, an MPR Christmas concert broadcast is playing the song! Try to explain that coincidence!

12/12/2005 08:42:00 PM  
Blogger Andy Efting said...

Ironically, our choir sang the song this past Sunday night. They sang the unaltered text. And here I thought we were a bastion of Trinitarian, pre-millennial orthodoxy...

It was a very nice arrangement, though.

12/13/2005 05:56:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Yes, Andy, I can relate. Let me just say that my church uses Fettke's Hymnal (see above).

12/13/2005 07:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Doug said...

Well, I never liked the hymn too much, anyway, so I take an indifferent approach to the hymn.

Ryan, now that you have explained a reason to dislike the words, it gives me one more reason to dislike an already contemptable song (imo)!

12/14/2005 01:50:00 PM  

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