When the story of 18th century western church history is told, there are three names that simply must be included: John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield. Growing up within the Church of England, these three men each came to a genuine faith in Christ later in life. After their conversions, these men followed Christ in a radical way, spreading the knowledge of Christ to the common people. These three men were some of the early fathers of American Evangelicalism because they had an interest in taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people wherever they were. Instead of staying inside large stone cathedrals, these men took to the open air, holding outdoor revival meetings and church services where thousands were in attendance. In a day before microphones and high tech audio/visual equipment, Whitfield alone preached to as many as 30,000 people in one audience!
Given their common threads, it is not a surprise that these men were friends and had a great deal of respect for each other’s ministry, even though they had some theological differences. Charles Wesley wrote over 7,500 hymns in his lifetime. Some of these hymns were incorporated into Whitfield’s open air revival meetings. One of Wesley’s hymns that Whitfield used was a hymn Wesley titled, “Hark, How the Welkin Rings!” (The word “welkin” means “vault of heavens”.) This song had the same tune as another famous Wesley hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” Whitfield loved the song, but did not care for the opening line. He changed the opening line to further connect this song with the birth of Christ. His new first line was the now famous, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!” Whitfield made this change, but never asked his friend Wesley for permission to do so. This outraged Wesley. Even after Whitfield’s version grew in popularity and became very well know, Wesley refused to acknowledge or sing the Whitfield abridged version of his song. Can you imagine that? The author of one of the most famous Christmas songs ever written never sang it! About 100 years later the tune was changed to the current form by Felix Mendelsson.
What are your Christmas traditions? What do you do every year at Christmas time that you would be very upset if it changed? For some it is the day and time that presents are opened. For others it is the songs that you “should sing” in church or on Christmas Eve. For others it is a particular service (and time) that must be attended or a particular passage of Scripture that must be the text for that service. Whatever it is, there are somethings that just “have to happen” in order for it to be Christmas for you. What happens if your form changes? What happens if you open presents on Christmas day instead of Christmas Eve? What happens if you sing “Manger Throne” instead of “Silent Night”? What happens if the “wrong passage” is preached at the Christmas service? If these changes happen, will you refuse to sing?
May we learn something from Wesley’s folly. May we learn that most of the traditions we embrace today have evolved over time. Santa Claus has not always been at the mall, Candles weren’t always a part of Christmas Eve services, and at one time, it was the “Welkin,” not the “Herald Angels” that were ringing/singing. At one time, maybe the greatest Christmas hymn in existence today sounded like an Easter song to our modern ear. The key is not the form, but the spirit behind it. Whitfield and Mendelssohn improved Wesley’s hymn. Is it possible that God might be using some of the changes in your Christmas worship celebrations to increase your soul’s rejoicing this season? Don’t refuse to sing. Join the angel chorus and worship Christ the new born King!
I have attached below the original lyrics of Wesley’s hymn, “Hark How the Welkin Rings!”
“Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born to-day!”
Christ, by highest Heaven ador’d,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb!
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!
Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.
Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.”