One of the carols/hymns that Colonial Americans sang after moving away from the Puritan banning of Christmas celebrations was "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" by Charles Wesley.
Wesley was the youngest of eighteen children born to a Church of England minister and his wife. He wrote an average of ten verses every day for more than fifty years, estimated at almost 9,000 hymns.
The original version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” wouldn't be recognizable to many listeners today, because, when Wesley published this hymn in 1739, its first words were "Hark! How All the Welkin Rings," and it was sung in a slow and solemn way to the tune of his Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” You see, for Wesley, Christ’s birth was inextricably connected to His death and resurrection, and he wanted to make that point by using the same tune for both songs.
Wesley's brother, John, and other friends often altered Charles’s works when they thought it would serve a good purpose. "Welkin," which means "vault of heaven," was already an antiquated word in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. The evangelist George Whitefield thought the word "welkin" would confuse people and changed the first line of Wesley's hymn to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and included it in his own anthology of hymns published in 1753.
In the preface to the 1780 edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems, John Wesley expressed his disfavor toward people who changed his music saying, “Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our Hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome so to do, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them one of these two favours; either to let them stand just as they are, to take them for better or worse; or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page; that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.”
In 1840, Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, and it is music from this cantata that the English musician William H. Cummings adapted to fit the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”—the version we are most familiar with today.
Here's a link to an older version --
and this is the modern version --
Susan F. Craft is the award-winning author of a Revolutionary War romantic suspense, The Chamomile. Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas will release two of her post-Revolutionary War books -- Laurel on January 12, 2015, and Cassia on September 14, 2014.