IT CAME UPON THE MIDNIGHT CLEAR written in 1849
Though he was a Unitarian minister, Edmund Sears (1810-1876) believed in the deity of Christ. He also believed in the angel’s message of “peace on earth”.
Sears served the Unitarian congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts before moving on to a larger congregation in Lancaster. After 7 years of hard work, he suffered a breakdown and returned to Wayland. He wrote this song while serving as a part-time preacher in Wayland. Writing during a period of personal melancholy, and with news of revolution in Europe and the United States’ war with Mexico fresh in his mind, Sears portrayed the world as dark, full of “sin and strife,” and not hearing the Christmas message.
Sears is said to have written these words at the request of his friend, William Parsons Lunt, for Pastor Lunt’s Sunday School. One account says the carol was first performed by parishioners gathered in Sears’ home on Christmas Eve, but it is unknown to what tune as Willis’ familiar melody was not written until the following year.
This hymn, written in Massachusetts in 1849, focuses in that angels’ song of “peace on earth” (though the Bible never really says they sang those words). Like many other hymns written in America during the mid-1800s, it might be called a “horizontal hymn”. Such hymns called people to live well, to be at peace, and to honor God. It seeks to encourage people who are bent “beneath life’s crushing load”, as the third verse says, to stop and hear the message of Christmas shared by the angels.
Peace was a timely topic when Edmund wrote these words. Tensions were rising in America, leading toward the Civil War. It is believed Sears’ song was not focused on Bethlehem, but on his own time… and on the contemporary issue of war and peace. But the peace promised by the angels is not just international… it is personal, too.
Read this Christmas hymn, and – today – be a peacemaker, sharing that peace of which the angels spoke.
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 blessèd 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!
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.