If you have ever studied the hymnbook, you have seen the name of Charles Wesley. He was the youngest brother of John Wesley, the great preacher, the youngest of eighteen children born in the family. Charles Wesley grew up in a musical home and lived to write more than 3000 hymns, many of which we know today. “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling,” “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” “And Can It Be,” “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”—these are just a few of the songs in our hymnbook by Wesley.
Charles Wesley tried to minister in the United States, like his brother, but returned to England after just a short time to take a church in London. But his ministry was still quite different from other pastors of his day. He cared about the regular people. He held services outdoors, visited prisons, and believed in energetic and relevant church music.
In 1737, Wesley wrote the words to a song, “Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the King of Kings.” The song was well accepted in his church and in other churches. “Welkin” was a reference to the firmament of heaven, the sky and stars, where the glory of the Lord is proclaimed. No one uses that word today, but the song wasn’t changed just recently.
Wesley had a friend with whom he differed on many things of doctrine and style. He and George Whitefield had attended college together. Whitefield was a former bartender who had become a Calvinist preacher. His words and style were revolutionary. Because his message often got him into trouble in the more subdued churches of his day, Whitefield was banned from most of them and spent his time preaching outdoors. He appealed to the common people and, when he came to the United States, became one of the most popular preachers of his day. Benjamin Franklin often marveled at hearing Whitefield preach.
George Whitefield was not as well educated as Charles Wesley. When Whitefield got ahold of the song Wesley had made popular for Christmas, he promptly changed the words. Instead of “how the welkin rings,” Whitefield wrote, “the herald angels sing.” Wesley was furious when he heard of the change.
I don’t know if he was more angry at the idea that Whitefield had the audacity to change the words to the song or at the fact that Whitefield made the song say something that wasn’t true. There is no reference in the Bible to the angels singing at the birth of Jesus, in spite of the fact that almost everyone will tell you that’s what they are doing in Luke 2:13. It appears that the interpretation of the verse comes from the popularity of the song.
As long as he lived, Charles Wesley would not sing the popular version of his song established by Whitefield. The church soon forgot the exact words Wesley had written.
(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here. These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend. Some of the stories are from my research. The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)