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, goodwill to men,
From Heav’n’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 heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
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.
Oh, rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
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.
“It came upon the midnight clear” is a much-loved carol that is sung every Christmas in churches all over the world. Kenneth W Osbeck, author of 101 more hymn stories, commented that Christmas would not be complete without the singing of this beloved Christmas hymn. He added that since the text was first published in 1849, “scarcely a hymnal has been printed in which it is not included.” Such is the all-encompassing reach of this carol, which remains widely loved and sung, even today.
The author of this carol, Rev Edmund Hamilton Sears, was born on 6th April 1810 in Sandisfield, Massachusetts. The youngest of three sons, Sears grew up on a farm. After his graduation from Harvard Divinity School in 1837, he served as a missionary in Toledo, Ohio. After one year, Sears moved on to pastor Unitarian Churches in Massachusetts, namely Wayland, Lancaster and Weston.
Although Sears was a Unitarian minister, he was theologically very conservative. Many are surprised that Sears, whose church does not subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, could pen such a fine text pertaining to Christ’s nativity. Kenneth W Osbeck explains it well: “It was often said, however, that Sears was more a Unitarian in name than by conviction, and that he actually believed and preached the deity of Christ from his pulpit. This is particularly evident in his Sermons and Songs of the Christian Life – a book published one year before his death. Sears wrote, ‘Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the Divinity of Christ.’”
Written in 1849, this carol is unique in that it is full of beautiful imagery. Some examples are: “angels bending near the earth/To touch their harps of gold”; coming through “the cloven skies” … “with peaceful wings unfurled”; bending “on hov’ring wing” to sing of the Messiah’s birth.
Another example is found in the 3rd stanza where the author addressed the heavily-burdened who were “beneath life’s crushing load”. As they “toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow”, the hymnwriter urged them to “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing”. The fourth stanza gives hope to all mankind who can look forward to “the age of gold” when peace shall reign “and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing”.
Sears’ lyrics were set to music by Richard Storrs Willis, a well-known American musician of the nineteenth century. The text for the carol was taken from Luke 2: 13-14: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
It is believed that Sears penned the carol during a period of personal struggles as well as a time of social unrest brought about by the industrial revolution in New England and the frantic Gold Rush to California. The carol was a “melancholy reflection on his times while a minister in Wayland” (Wikipedia). After seven years of hard labour, Sears suffered a breakdown which caused him to leave a large and successful ministry for his first countryside church where he had served with much joy.
The meaningful words of this carol have brought much comfort and encouragement to many a struggling soul, particularly at Christmas time. As we reflect on the words of this hymn, let us remember that first Christmas night when angels came to earth with a message of hope and salvation for all mankind: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2: 10-11).
Like the shepherds of old, let us receive the good tidings with great joy. As we think of our Saviour’s first Advent, let us make known His condescending love and grace to a world that is lost in the darkness of sin. May we find opportunities to share Christ with our friends and loved ones this Christmas. Wishing all in Berith a blessed and meaningful Christmas!