“It came upon a 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.”
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear marks a shift in carol-writing, not universal but a shift nevertheless. Although beautiful and moving, it is not a particular favorite of mine. I still memorized the first couple of verses as a child, and enjoy the Christmas carol.
Much like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Angels from the Realms of Glory, and Angels We Have Heard on High, the carol focuses primarily on the angels in the Christmas narrative (Lk 2:14) and their message to the shepherds: “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men.” In fact, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear might be the only popular Christmas carol in our hymnals today that does not mention the birth of Christ. It also happens to be one of the first Christmas carols Americans wrote and composed.
History of the Hymn
The historical context helps shed some light. Massachusetts native Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) earned a degree from the Harvard Divinity School and became ordained a Unitarian minister in 1839, serving congregations throughout Massachusetts.
Although a Unitarian, Sears wrote in Sermons and Songs of the Christian Life (1875), “Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the Divinity of Christ.” He authored books quite popular in his day, including Athanasia, or Foregleams of Immortality (1857) and The Fourth Gospel, the Heart of Christ (1872).
In his youth, Sears developed a great love for poetry. He wrote It Came Upon a Midnight Clear as a poem, during a time of great social unrest. Americans were still dealing with the effects of the Industrial Revolution; the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) had just recently ended; the California Gold Rush was creating excitement, but was also disrupting the lives of men and women caught up in Gold Fever; and tensions over the issue of slavery in America were growing, eventually leading to the Civil War.
Perhaps the Gold Rush, in particular, inspired Sears, whether consciously or not, to include three different references to gold in his carol (“harps of gold,” “golden hours” and “Age of Gold”). It comes as no surprise that Sears’ carol laments the “woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long” and focuses on the angels’ message of peace at the birth of Christ.
A Portrait of Pain
He portrays angels bringing peace to a still-weary world—angels hovering above “sad and lowly plains.” Sears portrays a painful view of life, with its “crushing load” —and “painful steps and slow”—and a “weary road”—but offers the hope of “glad and golden hours” that will “come swiftly on the wing.” And he looks forward to the fulfillment of prophecy—”When the new heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace their King.”
Notably, Sears did not start from scratch when he wrote this hymn at Christmastime in 1849. A dozen years earlier, he had written a poem entitled, “Calm on the Listening Ear,” from which he pulled lines, made revisions, and the hymn as born.
As the co-editor of the Monthly Religious Magazine, Sears could easily submit and publish hymns, which he often did. He also submitted It Came Upon a Midnight Clear to The Christian Register, which published the carol that December.
Musicality of the Hymn
Sears initially published It Came Upon a Midnight Clear as a poem. Later, Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune–a newspaper no longer circulating but quite influential in its time–would write the tune we now use for the song.
Willis was born to a prominent family in Boston. He had received the best education that America had to offer, and when entering Yale in 1837, quickly earned distinction in literary and musical societies. He went on to publish several books and collections of music (his arrangement of “Fairest Lord Jesus” is still widely used). Willis also studied music in Germany, meeting and becoming friends with Felix Mendelssohn.
In 1850, one year after Sears composed his poem, Willis composed a tune called “Study No. 23” in his Church Chorals and Choir Studies. Exactly how the tune came to be used with It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is not known. A letter Willis wrote simply states,
“On my return from Europe in , I found that it [the tune] had been incorporated into various church collections apparently to Edmund Sears’ text.”
However, in Britain, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear would be paired with the tune ‘Noel,’ composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1906).
Nevertheless, the music beautifully matches the words of the hymn, expressing a sense of peace in the flowing phrases and rise and fall of the notes. I definitely recommend you listen to Josh Groban, Sara Groves, or Frank Sinatra sing this delightful Christmas carol.
Theology of the Hymn
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is one of the earliest social gospel hymns written in the United States. The movement gathered strength leading up to the 20th century, influenced by the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) and hymns such as Washington Gladden’s “O Master, let me walk with thee” (1879) and Frank Mason North’s “Where cross the crowded ways of life” (1903). Sears’ context was the social strife plaguing the country with the approaching Civil War.
The central theme of the hymn contrasts the scourge of war with the song of the angels’ peace to God’s people on earth. As noted, the first stanza establishes the thematic content of the hymn, painting a majestic and gentle picture of “angels bending near the earth,/to touch their harps of gold,” as they sing, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,/from heaven’s all-gracious King.” For a moment, the world stops, lies in “solemn stillness,” and listens to the angels’ song.
The second stanza of the carol presents a touching picture of the angels singing above the earth to the shepherds:
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 o’er its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
The repetition of the word ‘still’ highlights the enduring presence of the angels and the continued significance of the birth of Christ. In this present moment, the angels are singing and praising the Savior. Even now they pray for peace on earth and goodwill to men. On that night, the skies split (‘cloven’)–perhaps Sears is hinting at the tearing of the temple veil at the death of Christ–and the use of the particular words emphasizes the drawing near of the heavenly, of the Deity, to the created world and the natural.
Additionally, Sears’ use of language further reveals the tension between the heavenly peace of which the angels sing and the ‘Babel sounds’ and warring of men. This distinction increases in the original stanza three, often omitted from modern hymnals, sheds light on the poet’s concerns about the social situation in the mid-19th century:
But 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!
As It Came Upon a Midnight Clear recounts since that angelic declaration of peace there has been “two thousand years of wrong,” because “man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring.” We don’t hear the love song–the Good News of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection–preferring to chart our own course and be our own gods and saviors. Thus, the gentle, admonitory call continues: “O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”
Stanza three in The United Methodist Hymnal, initially stanza four in Sears’ poem, poignantly articulates the situation of so many with powerful images of pain, suffering, and hardship.
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!
In this stanza, the hymnist speaks directly to those burdened “beneath life’s crushing load.” For four hundred years, the world had waited for the Lord to speak. Many began to doubt the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament, falling into despair. The Roman Empire arose and conquered, with cruelty and bloodshed, the majority of the known world. Sin ran rampant–disease and warfare claimed thousands of lives. Some were sold into slavery while others roamed the streets in abject poverty.
And yet, Christ came. In a moment of intense yearning, anticipation, and near desperation, the Messiah was born to a virgin, in a small town in the Jewish countryside. The Word became flesh and the “glad and golden hours” arrived.
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 give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
The final stanza of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear brings the theme and carol to a resounding conclusion. We rejoice with the knowledge that one day, the “age of gold” shall come. When Christ returns, “peace shall over all the earth/its ancient splendors fling.” For now, we merely listen to the angels’ chorus, living in the already-but-not-yet Kingdom of God. We wait and pray for the day when we shall sing with the heavenly hosts, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth goodwill to men.”
It is right that we should joyfully sing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World each Christmas season, but there are always moments when we realize the message of peace has not yet been fully realized on earth. Then we truly understand the message of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, and the power of the Incarnation and the message of the gospel touches us even more deeply.