As great a song writer as Charles Wesley was, there was at least one time when he needed a little help from a friend.
“Hark, how all the welkin rings” just doesn’t work the way “Hark, the herald angels sing” does. Welkin is an old Anglo-Saxon word that refers to the “vault of Heaven” where angels dwell and roam. The original edition of Wesley’s hymn in 1739 used “how all the welkin rings” instead of the phrase we know by heart today.
Interestingly enough, it was none other than the famous George Whitfield who make the change and who did it without the permission or blessings of the Wesleys. Even after it became clear that the public preferred the “herald angels” to the “ringing welkin”, Methodism’s two founding pillars would not budge. They would each sing it the”right” way the rest of their lives.
The tune of this hymn would not become what we know today until around 1855. William Cummings took Wesley’s lyrics and combined them with a tune written by Felix Mendelsohn 15 years before. It was an instant success. Ironically, Mendelsohn wrote what he did to commemorate the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, and had insisted that it be used for secular purposes at all times. The song about the printing press has long since been forgotten, but the Christmas hymn with the “changed words” and the “stolen tune” is known around the world as one of the greatest hymns ever.
God’s ways are truly higher than man’s ways.
Written by David Wise for God’s Missionary Standard, December 2015