Our Favorite Carols

A look at some popular classics and theological favorites.

Leslie Mansell, Pastor, Takoma Park Church

God sent his Singers upon earth With songs of sadness and of mirth, That they might touch the hearts of men, And bring them back to heaven again.--HENRY LONGFELLOW

When God Himself came down to earth He sent a choir from the very courts of glory to herald the news. Never since the morning stars sang together at the dawn of creation has earth heard such music. It must have been thrilling to hear the angel choir singing "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men." That celestial anthem has never died away. Even amid this rushing twentieth century, multitudes from every clime and color pause each year to re-echo the angels' song in the Christmas carols we sing around the world. Despite the clash of cultures and the hostility of races, there is everywhere in the hearts of men a longing for peace. Humanity has ever been the object of God's love, and when heaven draws near, rough-handed men of the soil join in fellowship with merchants and sages in the spirit of reverent worship. Nothing so touches hearts as does the Christmas story told in song. Its power was seen in 1917, when battle-scarred soldiers ceased fire and emerging from their trenches, sang each in his own language the wondrous story.

"Silent Night"

"Silent night, holy night." There seems to be magic in these very words. And as we sing these lines again this year let us by faith enter the rude shelter that served as "delivery room" and "nursery" for heav­en's infant King when He came to earth. While standing there, let us join in adora­tion with the shepherds and the Wise Men as we ponder anew the wondrous gift. Then with uplifted heart and reverent spirit we may sing with millions around the world, "Alleluia to our King . . . Christ the Saviour is born."

It was an Austrian, Joseph Mohr, of Oberndorf, who wrote these words 140 years ago while preparing his sermon on the eve of Christmas, 1818. His friend, Franz Gruber, a schoolmaster and the or­ganist of the little chapel, was so over­joyed with the poem that he arranged the music that night, and together they sang the newly born carol as a duet the fol­lowing day. Not a note or a word has been changed since then. It instantly became a favorite and was sung by the folksingers at fairs, festivals, and church gatherings all over Europe. Of all the carols, this has been acclaimed as perhaps the best loved and most widely used. It has a simple yet haunting melody that appeals to all.

"Joy to the World"

One of the most jubilant of our carols is Isaac Watts's. "Joy to the World." To Ad­ventists this is not only a message of the first advent but also a song of the Second Ad­vent. The change of one word on the part of some editor in our early hymnbooks made this a song of the future as well as of the past. In our churches we sing "Joy to the world, the Lord will come" instead of "the Lord is come," and yet all will agree that most of the words are equally appro­priate. "Let every heart prepare Him room," is surely good admonition for those who look forward to the time when "the Lord will reign!" In that land of delight, death and the curse will be no more, no "thorns infest the ground," and the na­tions will indeed prove "the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love."

The first and second advents are insep­arably connected, the second impossible without the first, the first meaningless with­out the second.

"The First Noel"

From the earliest days of Christianity, carols were in use, for the story of our Saviour's birth has always had a fascina­tion. One of the oldest of those we use is "Noel." It emerges from the Middle Ages, but its beginning is lost in antiquity. The poem itself is in the simplest form, and while there are slight errors in the narra­tion, they are of small consequence when we realize that in those days the multitude knew little of geography and less about science. In spite of this it is a moving lyric that everyone enjoys singing. The word Noel [French] or Nowell [English] comes from the Latin and means "birthday." For centuries joyous-hearted peasants, stand­ing in the snow, sang this carol outside the palaces of wealthy lords, and together all joined in the spirit of praise, for it is ever true that at Bethlehem, shepherds and sages unite in the adoration of Christ the Lord.

"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"

Perhaps the most completely descriptive of all the carols came from the pen of Na­hum Tate of Dublin, Ireland, who later became poet laureate of England. Published as far back as 1703, this actually antedates the hymns of Isaac Watts and was one of the earliest hymns in the English language. It therefore marks the first breakaway from the old metrical version of the psalms. For nearly three hundred years this lovely carol, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," has gladdened the hearts of men. Each stanza is virtually a paraphrase of some part of the New Testament record. Orig­inally the first stanza read:

While humble shepherds watched their flocks

In Bethlehem's plains by night;

An angel sent from heaven appeared

And filled the plains with light.

"O Come, All Ye Faithful"

No Yuletide would be complete without "Adeste Fideles" or "O Come, All Ye Faith­ful." For many years the author remained anonymous and it was known as the un­known "Portuguese Hymn." Not until 1946 was he discovered. Through a recent dis­covery of some old manuscripts we now know that, while the author's identity is not certain, it was John Francis Wade, an Eng­lishman, who first published the song. His business was to copy music. He later moved to Douai, France, and in 1744 he wrote this lyric. Six years later it was used regu­larly in the English Roman Catholic col­lege in Lisbon, Portugal. This doubtless is the origin of its title "Portuguese Hymn." The theology in this carol is important, for here we find the infant Christ being des­ignated "God" in the highest sense. Simple, sincere, and vivid in imagery, it calls upon all to adore Him. As early as 1756 it came to be used regularly in the Portuguese Em­bassy in London. Some musicians feel that the tune has a similarity to some of Handel's phrasing. The great composer could well have added his touch of genius to this great tune, for at that time he was at the height of his career. Like "Silent Night," this is sung by Protestants and Catholics with equal interest.

"Hark! the Herald Angels Sing"

And what would Christmas be without Charles Wesley's well-known carol "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing"? Written in 1739, just a few months after the Great Awaken­ing, this song rings with reality. The orig­inal poem had ten stanzas in which the story of the salvation of man was traced from his fall to his redemption. As such, this became particularly serviceable in the early days of the Methodist class meetings.

The tune "Mendelssohn," which we today associate with this carol, was not the tune the Wesleys used. It was William Cum­mings who in 1818 took this tune from one of Mendelssohn's manuscripts and joined it with the well-known words, the opening lines of which were altered by George Whitefield. it first appeared "Hark how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of kings." Two hundred years ago they sang this same carol to the tune "Worgan," the one we use today for Wesley's great Easter hymn "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today (Church Hymnal, p. 134). This suits the words equally well even if we retain the florid "Alleluias." To do so, however, lengthens the hymn considerably, and it is just as effective if we sing the words straight through. The theme is superb.

"O Little Town of Bethlehem"

One of the sweetest and perhaps the most truly poetic of all the carols comes to us not from old England but from New England. It was written by one not so much a poet as a preacher, Phillips Brooks, some­times called the Prince of American Preach­ers. In 1865 this Boston pulpiteer was given a year's leave of absence by his church to tour Europe and the Middle East. It was at Christmas time that he came to Bethle­hem, and riding on horseback in the mystic moonlight, he looked down over the shep­herds' field. Anyone who has scanned that area by night can enter into the spirit that gripped the soul of that young man. The whole panorama evidently passed before him, and aided by a vivid imagination, his faith in heaven's wondrous Gift became more real. The effect of that night's im­pressions can better be understood when we realize that it was two years before he penned the lines we know so well today. Each line has a beauty of its own:

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie,

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by;

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

Quickly this loved carol swept the world and was added to the list of favorites. Lewis Redner, the church organist and superin­tendent of the author's Sunday school, com­posed the tune that so beautifully fits the message. Brooks not only tells the story of the Gift but as an evangelist appeals for men to accept the Babe of Bethlehem:

No ear may hear His coming,

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still,

The dear Christ enters in.

Into a world of sin and sorrow our Sav­iour came nineteen centuries ago, and into just such a world He will come again, not in silence to be cradled in a manger, but as King of kings and Lord of lords. In glory celestial He will descend the skies, and the very heavens will blaze with His presence. Only those whose hearts have become the abiding place of His Spirit and have pre­pared Him room, will welcome His return and find at last a home in His everlasting kingdom of peace. So as we sing anew of this wondrous Gift to the human race, let us yield our lives to Him, that by His grace we might be among those who with joy await the coming Lord as Prince of Peace.


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Leslie Mansell, Pastor, Takoma Park Church

December 1958

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