I’m having the time of my life during this “Safer at Home” interlude in our lives. I average about eight hours a day on writing my newest book, Talking with God through Music: Seasonal Hymns. I’ve written a dozen reflections on Advent carols, and thirteen reflections on Christmas carols, with eight more to go. Then there are ten more to write for Epiphany before I can move on to Lent and Easter. Eventually, I’ll get through the whole year of seasonal music. Meanwhile, I’m reliving Christmas these days.
After I research and write each reflection for the book, I give it to Mim for feedback to be sure the text flows well enough to make sense to her. Yesterday I finished writing about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” and gave it to Mim to read. She approved. But then I told her about my frustration of having to leave out so much information that I had gathered. I didn’t have room to include it all if I wanted to stick to the format of having just one page for each reflection. When I told her about all the interesting facts I was leaving out, she said, “Why don’t you write a blog post about it so you can include everything you want.” So that’s what this is – my extended reflection on the Christmas Carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”
As we’re experiencing a colder than usual spring these days, imagine yourself back in the Christmas season, singing the carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”
Tune Name: CAROL
Composer: Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900) American composer and organist.
Author: Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876) Unitarian minister.
Scripture: Luke 2:13-14
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.
Edmund Sears grew up on a farm in western Massachusetts, near the Berkshire Mountains. He once told a friend that as a child he imagined that the hilltops touched heaven and that angels rested on the hilltops between heaven and earth on their errands for God.
His parents taught him and his two brothers the importance of moral values, and they encouraged them to study – once the farm work was done. He graduated from Union College in New York, and worked briefly as a lawyer and a teacher, but soon went to Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister, graduating in 1837, at age 27.
The American Unitarian Association supported his work as a missionary in the frontier area around Toledo, Ohio for about a year. Then he returned to Massachusetts, where he accepted a position as pastor of a small Unitarian church in the town of Wayland. Meanwhile, he got married, and by the time his family grew to include four children, he realized he needed a larger church that could support his whole family. He accepted a call to a church in Lancaster, Massachusetts and served there for seven years.
The mid-1800s were stressful times in the United States. Americans were dealing with the affects of the Industrial Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, and the issue of slavery. The social disruption resulting from all these factors put a lot of pressure on Sears as the pastor of a large congregation, where he was trying to provide both leadership and personal support to the members. Sears had a breakdown and retreated back to the small town of Wayland to recover.
While recovering, Sears wrote the poem “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This poem is focused on two ideas: first, the angels that appeared on the night of Christ’s birth to announce, “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men!” and second, the dismal condition of the world in his day (and still today as we sing the song). The third stanza (often omitted from today’s hymnals) emphasizes the “woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long.” The last stanza reassures us that the time of peace will come eventually as the prophets foretold.
This carol has been controversial throughout its history. It may be the only Christmas carol that doesn’t even mention the birth of Christ. Since Sears was known to be a Unitarian, many religious conservatives claimed this carol proved his lack of belief that Christ is truly divine, and therefore the hymn should be removed from hymnals. Other churches rewrote parts of the carol to bring the birth of Christ into it. Because this hymn focused on the awful conditions on earth to contrast the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth,” this hymn is often considered one of the earliest hymns of the social gospel movement.
A year after writing this poem, Sears had recovered enough to accept a call back to the small church in Wayland to serve again as their part-time pastor. He also went back to writing extensively. He was quite outspoken about equal rights for men and women, and for the abolition of slavery. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, Sears declared from the pulpit that “when the human and Divine law were in conflict it was the duty of all to obey the latter.” In 1856, Sears preached a sermon entitled “Discourse” in which he not only condemned slavery as evil, but he directly condemned slave owners, as well. The sermon was considered such a strong argument against slavery that the Massachusetts Abolitionists printed it as a pamphlet to be widely distributed.
How the music for “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” became associated with the text is a mystery. Shortly after the poem was written, Richard Storrs Willis composed a musical exercise, “Study No. 23” in his “Church Chorals and Choir Studies.” Willis later wrote in a letter to a friend, “On my return from Europe in , I found that it (the tune) had been incorporated into various church collections apparently to Edmund Sears’ text.” No one knows who is responsible, or in what circumstances, the poem and the tune were joined together. However, the pairing has lasted for more than a hundred years, and it has become one of our favorite Christmas carols.
Imagine a choir of angels resting on the hilltops of the Berkshires as they return to heaven after their appearance on Earth for Christ’s birth. Perhaps with that image in mind, Sears wrote “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” As he pondered the angels’ message, and thought about all the anguish we’re still suffering down here, he wrote five stanzas. One of the most relevant stanzas to us today is seldom sung:
But with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And we, at war with earth, hear not the tidings, which they bring:
O hush the noise, and cease the strife, and hear the angels sing!