In 1849 Pastor Dr. Edmond Sears wrote a Christmas message for his congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts. The message included the words to the Christmas carol It Came Upon The Midnight Clear.
Sears was saddened by the poverty he encountered in his community and by the division the country as a whole faced over slavery. He struggled with writing the special Christmas message, but was inspired by the second book of Luke in the Bible. While Sears pondered the miraculous story of shepherds being visited by an Angel with the glory of the Lord shining upon them, he wrote a short poem and titled it It Came upon the Midnight Clear. Sears combined the words from an old poem he had written with his new poem and the Christmas carol we sing today was born.
Sears was also an editor for a newspaper and magazine. Working in the print business allowed Sears to publish his poem, ensuring more people than those who attended his church would be exposed to his writing.
Richard Storrs Willis was a choral composer. Willis came across the poem written by Sears and realized a tune he had written fit it perfectly. In 1850 Willis published the song, naming it Study Number 23. Ten years later Willis republished the song with a new arrangement and called it While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night. The second version is the song we are familiar with today.
It took 2 men-Sears and Willis-to produce a song that fit neatly into most hymn books, however it took thousands of men to make the song a true Christmas carol that is woven tightly into the Christmas culture of America.
American soldiers sung It Came Upon The Midnight Clear while they were stationed in France during the war. One can imagine how the words of the song struck a chord with soldiers fighting for their very lives. The song became such an important anthem to the soldiers, that the ones who made it back home made sure the song was part of their Christmas tradition for years to come.
The follow lines seems to take on greater meaning for me when I think of soldiers fighting in a strange and distant land:
Peace on earth, good will to men From heavens all gracious King, The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing
O’er all the weary world: Above its sad and lowly plains They bend on hovering wing, And ever o’er its Bable sounds The blessed 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
Truthfully, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear hasn’t ever been one of my favorite Christmas songs. But after researching the history of the song-it’s moved farther up the list. I love thinking about Sears writing the poem in a fit of sad inspiration; Willis discovering he’d already composed music that fit the words perfectly; and most of all those WWI soldiers who sung the song as a way of making them feel closer to home.
Sources: *Wikipedia-photo, *Public Domain-photo; *Collins, Ace. Stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. Print.