The Angel’s Song: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

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Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote his carol, The Angel’s Song –It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, from the well springs of his profound faith in God and the belief that through the centuries God sends his emissary angels to earth with a resounding message of peace. He also wrote his carol while recovering from a devastating illness and from the depths of profound despair.

In 1849, when Reverend Sears wrote his carol, the United States still reeled from the aftermath of the Mexican War and the burning issue of slavery that in another decade would ignite the Civil War. Europe reverberated with revolutions, and people all over the world warred with themselves and each other. No one seemed to be listening to the songs of peace the angels sang.

It’s unlikely that Reverend Sears thought of his song as a carol or that his contemporaries considered it to be a carol – at least not at first. Traditionally carols were defined as celebrating a seasonal topic and they featured alternating verses and chorus and music suitable for dancing. From the 1150s to the 1350s, carols were popular as dance songs and gradually their role expanded to processional songs that people sang during festivals. People also used carols to accompany religious mystery plays.

Carol singing declined after the Protestant Reformation because Calvinists disliked what they considered “nonessential” practices connected with Roman Catholicism. When Reverend Sears wrote The Angel’s Song in 1849, carols were just beginning a nineteenth century revival as famous composers began to write new and contemporary versions of their ancient forms and It Came Upon The Midnight Clear was one of the first of these new carols.

Farm Boy Edmund Sears Acquires an Education and Becomes a Minister

Like carols and carol singing and dancing, Reverend Sears was experiencing renaissance in his own life when he wrote The Angel’s Song. Born April 6, 1810, on a farm in Sandisfield, a town in western Massachusetts within sight of the Berkshire Hills, Edmund Hamilton Sears was the youngest of three sons of Joseph and Lucy Smith Sears. As a child, Edmund loved the Berkshire hills near his farm and later told friend and colleague Chandler Robbins that he imagined the hilltops touched heaven and that angel messengers rested on the hilltops between heaven and earth on their errands of love.

Edmund’s father Joseph taught him to appreciate poetry and later Edmund wrote that as a child he often did his chores with snatches of poetry running through his head. Both his father Joseph and mother Lucy taught Edmund the importance of moral principles and encouraged his love of study. Although farm work prevented Edmund from regularly attending school, he advanced in his studies enough to be admitted as a sophomore at Union College in Schenectady, New York in 1831, and he won a prize for his poetry while he studied there. He graduated from Union College in 1834 and studied law for nine months with a lawyer in Sandisfield.

After teaching briefly at Brattleboro Vermont Academy, Edmund studied for the ministry under Addison Brown, who was the minister of the Brattleboro Unitarian Church. Edmund became so fascinated with the writings of Boston ministers William Ellery Channing and Henry Ware that he enrolled at the Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating in 1837.

The American Unitarian Association supported his work as a missionary in a frontier area around Toledo, Ohio and in 1838, he served at the First Congregational Church and Society in Wayland, Massachusetts where his congregation was so impressed by his character and preaching that they called him to settle permanently with them. The church ordained and installed him as a minister in February 1839.

While Edmund practiced his student preaching in Barnstable, Massachusetts, he met Ellen Bacon and they were married in 1839. Since he didn’t have ambitions for a large city pulpit, Reverend Sears and his wife settled down for a quiet country life in Wayland.

As his family gradually grew to four children, Reverend Sears discovered that he needed a larger, richer church to support his family and between 1840-1847 he served a Congregational Church in Lancaster. In Lancaster, he suffered illness and depression and his condition grew so severe that he couldn’t project his preaching voice loud enough for a large congregation to hear or endure the physical work required to sustain a large congregation. Reverend Sears returned to Wayland for a year to rest and recovery, and when his health improved the Wayland congregation recalled him and he served there from 1848-1865, the year he retired. His lighter workload allowed him more time to write, and from 1859 to 1871 he served as the editor of The Monthly Religious Magazine. He contributed articles and poems to several magazines and he wrote theology books.

Contemporary ministers considered Reverend Edmund Sears as what they termed conservative and not sympathetic with broad church or radical Unitarians. Ironically, his theological writings influenced both Unitarian and non-Unitarian liberals. In his writing, Reverend Sears expressed both idealism and pessimism about the human condition, and explored human nature and the path to salvation. In his 1853 book Regeneration, he rejected the doctrine of original sin, but disagreed with some Unitarians about the perfectibility of human nature. Yet, he wrote that people are fashioned in God’s image and can develop their spiritual nature.

Although some 21st century Christians brand It Came Upon The Midnight Clear a “humanist” carol, the theology of Reverend Edmund Sears centered intensely on Christ. He believed that Christ was fully human and fully divine and the mediator between God and man. He also believed that God reaches down to humanity through his Son and angels, but his Peace depends on a human response.

Lydia Maria Child, novelist, Abolitionist and women’s rights activist, who wrote her own famous song, Over the River and Through the Woods, also lived in Wayland and she sometimes attended Unitarian services and critiqued her friend Edmund’s sermons. Although she wrote that he didn’t have the reforming temperament, she said that Reverend Sears did have the courage to stand up for his beliefs, even if they were controversial like his belief in male and female equality.

When the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law became enforced nationwide, Reverend Sears announced from his pulpit that when human and divine law conflicted, people must obey the Divine law. In his 1856 sermon Revolution or Reform, he declared slavery a crime and predicted that continued and unrepentant slavery of it would reap national retribution.

Reverend Sears Writes Hymns and Carols

In 1834, student Edmund Sears wrote a Christmas carol that he titled Calm on the Listening Ear of Night, describing the angel’s anthem resounding across the silent Palestine hills and plains.

Many American hymnals printed his first carol, but his second carol, The Angel’s Song- It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, became more popular. In this carol, Reverend Sears describes an angel chorus singing God’s message of peace on the earth, good will to men, but their songs fall on heedless humanity so immersed in wars and strife that they can’t hear the angel songs or God’s message of peace. Reverend Sears is tellingly contemporary in his third verse: 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.

In the last verse of his carol, Reverend Sears envisions a future where peace would reign over the earth and humanity would send back the song of peace that the angels have sung in vain for so many centuries. Besides his two carols, he wrote between 40 and 50 hymns.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear is Controversial

A controversial minister among the Unitarians, the carol that Reverend Sears wrote It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, provoked controversy as well. Some accounts say that his parishioners first performed his carol when they gathered at his home to celebrate Christmas Eve. Other accounts say that he wrote his carol for the Unitarian Sunday school in Quincy, Massachusetts. In December 1849, Reverend Dr. Morrison, editor of the Christian Register, first received the poem and liked it so well that he used it in several Christmas programs. He published it in his magazine, The Christian Register in December 1850.

No one knows what tune the first singers used to perform It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, because New York organist Richard Storrs Willis who had studied music with Felix Mendelssohn in Germany, didn’t adapt the words of Reverend Sears to a tune that he wrote that he called Carol, until about a decade after Reverend Sears first published the poem in 1849. Carol, the tune that Richard Willis wrote, became the most popular tune to sing to It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, but in 1874, in England composer Arthur Sullivan set the poem to a different tune that he called Noel. The carol is widely sung in England and popular in the United States.

When the Civil War ended, Reverend Sears resigned his pastorate in Wayland to write full time, but he accepted a call to succeed Joseph Field at a church in Weston, Massachusetts in 1866. In 1873, Reverend Sears enjoyed a European tour. In 1874, he fell from a tree while working in his garden and spent the next two years in constant pain. He died on January 16, 1876, from his injuries, but his angel carol is still sung over a century after his death.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear is as contemporary as a computer because instead of focusing on Bethlehem, it unites the time that Reverend Sears wrote it, the 19th century, with sadly still contemporary issues of war and peace. His poem spells out a call for peace and goodwill that echoes as “solemnly and stilly” and some would say futilely as the call that resounded in his time. Some Christians contend that because the “angel song” doesn’t mention Jesus, it should be removed from denominational hymnbooks and others have rewritten the words to include Jesus.

British carol scholar Erik Routley wrote that “in its original form the hymn is little more than an ethical song extolling the worth and splendor of peace among men.” Others appreciate the original carol for its language, images, and expression of angel and human centuries old hopes of peace and consider it a message from “Heaven’s All Gracious King.”

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear– Celtic Woman

The Choir of Selwyn College

Further Reading

Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography

Wayland Historical Society Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Hymnary, Reverend Edmund Sears Erik Routley. University Carol Book.Brighton: H. Freeman & Co., 1961.

Chandler Robbins, “Memoir of Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1891);

Books by Reverend Edmund Sears

The Pilgrim, 1857

Pictures of the Olden Time, 1857

Hindrances to a Successful Ministry, 1858

Christian Lyrics, 1860

The Town of Wayland in the Civil War of 1861-1865

Christian Life, 1875 Sermons and Songs of the Christian Life, 1875 Christ in the Life, 1877