And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
— Luke 2.8-9
In 1849, Edmund Sears was working a Christmas Eve sermon for his congregation in Massachusetts, but he was discouraged. The debate over slavery was growing in the nation and the dejection of poverty was rising in his community. In addition to preaching the divinity of Christ, Sears also preached and practiced ministry to the lost, helpless, and poor. Thus, the poverty and hopelessness of his neighbors was on his mind as he worked on his Christmas message. How could he write about the light of the world when the world seemed so dark?
Then he meditated on Luke 2:8-9. As he considered the miracle of the birth of the Christ, he wrote a five-verse poem, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” He then recalled another Christmas poem he had written a decade before: “Calm on the list’ning ear of night comes heaven’s melodious strains.” Starting his message with his older Christmas poem, he quickly wrote a short sermon and decided to end his Christmas service with his newest poem.
Although most people consider his poem-turned-carol to be joyful and uplifting, many of its original hearers thought it was challenging. Sears wanted his congregation to celebrate Christmas, but he also wanted them to feed the poor, solve the nation’s social problems, and consider how they could bear God’s image in their daily lives. Nowhere is this message more obvious than in the poem’s third verse.
The poem appeared in the December 29, 1849 issue of The Christian Register. Yet it was not set to music until the following year by Robert Storrs Willis, who studied under Felix Mendelssohn in Germany.
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (Listen: Ella Fitzgerald – 3:19)
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.