Have you ever noticed that It Came Upon the Midnight Clear never actually mentions Jesus by name? It never even mentions His birth. That’s because the song was not technically written as a Christmas carol (though it indirectly mentions it in the first verse and is now universally adopted as one). It had little to do with Jesus’ birth, and other than that first stanza, the angels singing are not the angels of Christmas, but simply the angels of heaven in general.
Edmund Sears was the author of this popular poem turned Christmas carol. He was born in 1810 and ultimately became a Unitarian pastor. The interesting thing about Sears was that he was not consistent with Unitarian theology in one of its major doctrines. Edmund Sears stated to believe in both the humanity and deity of Christ, while Unitarian doctrine denies His deity. Having graduated from Harvard Divinity School, Sears desired to serve churches in small, rural towns so that he may have time to study and write. It was while pastoring in one of these small towns, Wayland, Massachusetts, that Sears took out an old poem that he had written a dozen or so years earlier, and copying the tempo and structure, wrote a new poem: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (though it may have been a reworking of the older).
The poem was written soon after a desperate battle that Sears had with depression in 1849. It was also written soon after a desperate war with Mexico had ended. Still it was written just after news had arrived that gold was found in California. Throw in the tensions of abolitionists versus slave-owners, a divided Congress (Lincoln just elected to the House), and the Industrial Revolution taking fathers from their families, you have all the makings of a poem longing for better days ahead. By 1850, Richard Storrs Willis had given it the tune we know it today (“Carol”).
Much like The Battle-Hymn of the Republic, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, Americanized biblical themes, though to be more clear in Sears’ case it Americanized Apocryphal themes. The basis for the poem came from the Apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon:
For while gentle silence enveloped all things [clear], and night in its swift course was now half gone [midnight], your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed [the U.S.A.], a stern warrior.Wisdom 18:14-15, NRSV
While we would look at this and see how this could fit into the Christmas story and Bethlehem, Sears–at best–applied this to the United States in his own day and time.
That being said…I really like this song. It is one of my top 10 Christmas songs, but in reality I would view it more of an Advent song. The words of this carol are not wrong (perhaps the idea of angels with wings and harps are); in fact, they perfectly describe the longings we each have as Christians. We live in a weary world. There is sadness and madness throughout. Sin, suffering, war, greed, hopelessness are all realities that we live in and with. Yet the years are hastening on; Jesus will not always tarry, but will one day come. Come, Lord Jesus.
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 heaven’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 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 blessed angels sing.
Yet 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.
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!
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.