*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 18th of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Great to be back on the show. Thanks to Sam Leanza Ortiz for filling in for letting our listeners in on my favorite primates, as well as my upcoming book on Christmas carols and my penchant for excellent boiled potatoes (few things are better when boiled. Except Potatoes.)
I am happy to be back the weekend before Christmas, and we have several shows leading up to next Saturday, which is either explicitly about Christmas or Christmas adjacent.
Imagine my delight when I was looking at my various notes and calendars for upcoming shows and saw that my first show back aligned with the birthday of one of the essential hymn writers in the Christian tradition and in the western Protestant tradition, which gave us so many of the words that we sing at Christmastime. On the 18th of December in 1707, Charles Wesley, brother of John and prolific hymn writer, was born.
Charles was the last of 18. That’s enough to give him a complex, but he was also the constant companion of his most gregarious older brother- the domineering and sometimes embarrassing John. Nevertheless, as the companion to John (who was capable of much good), he would travel from England to the New World, travel by horseback from town to town for out-of-door preaching services, all the well writing almost 9,000 poems and hymns.
And it is his “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” has become one of the classic Christmas hymns and statement of the theological implications for the birth of Christ.
On this show or others, you may have heard that the title initially caused some consternation amongst Wesley’s brother John and friend George Whitfield. But it wasn’t the strange yet quaint “Hark!” But the word he initially used for herald angels is “Welkin.” It’s archaic; you can look it up.
The tune he used initially was that which he used for the beloved Easter hymn “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” You can try that on your own time as well- but do it- sing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” to “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”
Eventually, a tune written by Felix Mendelsson was used- this is the one you know. It was initially written as a tune for a festival honoring Johann Gutenberg!
Instead of a dive into his life, I’d like to comment just a bit on his poetry and hymnody, which is a false distinction that makes my first point: hymnody is poetry (sometimes lousy poetry, but poetry nonetheless).
Point two: translated poetry can be beautiful, but there is no substitute for poetry in its original language. We see through a mirror darkly in translation, but it can, pardon the pun, really sing in our tongue.
And point three is about hymnody and poetry. Hymns and poems can be more easily remembered and memorized (think of the old epics- Homer, etc.… all poetry albeit of a different kind). If you believe that memorizing Bible verses is helpful (I’m in that camp btw), how much do you think our theology is formed by the hymns we know and love and memorize.
And here’s where we get back to Charles and his Christmas hymns- the words and theology has shaped my understanding of Christmas and the incarnation (and I assume many others).
Let’s finish with a few of the words he penned that you have surely sung in this or other Advent/Christmas seasons past. (Real fast- I just realized- sometimes I say “holiday” not because I’m some kinda pagan, but because the Advent police have come for me before and I’m scared of them)
Consider this all-timer:
“Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity Pleased as man with man to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel”
And lastly, from a different hymn (and one for Advent):
"Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee."
Today we remember Charles Wesley on the anniversary of his birth in 1707.
The last word for today comes from… calling an audible. Charles Wesley wrote the hymn “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing,” and while not Scripture- dig this stanza:
Jesus! The name that charms our fears, That bids our sorrows cease; ‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears, ‘Tis life, and health, and peace. He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free; His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 18th of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Wesley’s include Charles Wesley, the youngest son on Mr. Belvedere, and Westley with a T, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts. He is Christoper Gillespie
The show is written and read by a man who just saw Cary Elwes in Netflix’s “A Castle For Christmas” spoiler alert: she gets the castle, and so much more. I’m Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.