Appalachia Christmas Music

The World in Solemn Stillness Lay

EdmundSears It came upon a midnight clear


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 chapter 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.

File:Richard Storrs Willis.jpg

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 rest in trench


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


It Came upon the Midnight Clear is the second track on Pap and Paul’s Songs of Christmas cd.

Wish you had one of the cds? I’m giving one of the first issued cds away-all you have to do to be entered in the giveaway is leave a comment on this post.

The first issue of the Christmas cd has 8 songs on it. The second issue has 15. It Came upon the Midnight Clear is on both!

If you’d like to buy a copy of the second issue of Songs of Christmas go here.

*Giveaway ends Wednesday November 18.


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.


This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig and The Acorn in November 2013.

Sources: *Wikipedia-photo, *Public Domain-photo; *Collins, Ace. Stories behind the best-loved songs of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. Print.


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  • Reply
    December 21, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    Gayle-thank you for the comment!I got my information from the book: Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas written by Ace Collins. 
    I probably didnt explain it as well as Mr. Collins did-sorry about that! You are right-there are 2 different songs. The arrangement of music is what was combined. You can read a little more about it in this google book. 
    I hope you have a great night!!

  • Reply
    December 21, 2015 at 11:01 am

    I am confused. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night are two completely different songs., not the reworking of the former into the latter. Help!

  • Reply
    C. Ron Perry, Sr.
    November 15, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    Wonderful story Tipper. Thanks for sharing it and the song with us.

  • Reply
    Edwin Ammons
    November 15, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    Yeah Pap and Paul are that good but what about the bobbing head and bouncing thumb that intermittently enters and exits screen right. The bass is the heartbeat of a ballad and this band’s bassist is the best.
    ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Today’s post rating by (me)

  • Reply
    November 15, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    Thanks, Tipper, for sharing with us the history of hymns and carols. In light of the recent horror that Paris is experiencing, singing and praying for peace as we enter another Holy season means so much to all our hearts. Your family of singers and musicians are a gift to all of us.

  • Reply
    November 15, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    I agree with Miss Cindy! We have to find peace in ourselves first in order to make a better world. Pap and Paul ate both simply amazing. Can listen to them all day!

  • Reply
    November 15, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    In the second paragraph you wrote, “the second book of Luke in the Bible” ??? How about “the second chapter of the book of Luke”?

  • Reply
    November 15, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    I was not familiar with the history of this Christmas Carol. Thanks for sharing it and, of course, the beautiful presentation of Pap and Paul!

  • Reply
    November 15, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Very interesting story, it just amazes me how some of these songs come to be.. Very nice job on the song.. The holidays will bring some sadness this year, we lost a lot of good friends and family this past year and my heart goes out for the empty chair at their table.. My Nephew leaves for Marine Basic Training the last of this Month, and we’re concerned for him, but God is able to heal the emptiness and loneliness..

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney Jr.
    November 15, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    It Came Upon The Midnight Clear: Very well done. A song with so much meaning.
    Thank you for posting.

  • Reply
    Sam Ensley
    November 15, 2015 at 11:35 am

    I had never paid that much attention to this song until I heard the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band do it. The guitar work is great. I’m looking forward to hearing Jerry and Paul’s version.
    My grandson and I attended the car show at Martins Creek School yesterday and had a great time. It was really good to spend some time talking with Jerry.

  • Reply
    November 15, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Always enjoy your history posts of any kind, but particularly like those related to song writers. Seems like a lot of the religious songs were written by northerners. Didn’t we have any southern and/or women song writers of note ?

  • Reply
    November 15, 2015 at 9:28 am

    Christmas carols sang as they were in my childhood are my favorite. I don’t care much for “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” as seems too close for comfort…just joshing. After reading your post, I noted our servicemen stationed in France were very familiar with “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” My Dad was, in fact stationed in France during this war, and he was with the 66th Infantry Division with nickname “Black Panther Division.” He rarely ever spoke of the war, and even my childish prodding could not pull from him the dark experiences of that war.
    I am comforted to know these men cherished and sang our Christmas Carols, as nothing says home like a Christmas Carol. I would love to win Pap and Paul’s version, and will surely play and share with family. Thanks for the history, Tipper, and I remain appreciative of all I learn from you. And, they say we can’t teach an old dog new tricks! I learn something new from you each single day.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 15, 2015 at 9:20 am

    There are such interesting stories behind the writing of songs. Yes, Peace on Earth is worth pondering on. A friend told me once that first we have to find peace in ourselves. I just love hearing Pap’s sweet, sweet voice.

  • Reply
    Mike Tarnowsky
    November 15, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for the history of the song. Aways liked the music, sang the words, but never really
    analyzed the words and the message they told. It is amazing that many songs came out of despair and gave promise of better things to come. I think that concept is biblical.
    Now I’ll have to really read the lyrics of the music I play to understand what the writer may have been feeling when it was written. Thanks for your efforts on this web site. Mike T.
    P.s. Thanksgiving song I’m playing is ‘Faith of our Fathers’ at a fund raiser.
    Happy Thanksgiving to all your family.

  • Reply
    eva nell mull wike, PhD
    November 15, 2015 at 8:05 am

    A beautiful post! Your comments about the WWI soldiers brought back memories of this past summer when we walked through some of the battle fields of France. Our grandson (age 18) got down in the trenches and walked slowly as our Guide told us of the horrible details of the War. She made it an unforgettable moment when she reminded our grandson that many of the soldiers were his age!
    Hope your Sunday is sunny and bright. Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    November 15, 2015 at 7:40 am

    I had never really thought before about how people felt as they saw the Civil War drawing near. It must have been especially hard in the border states where the choice of which side ran through families, between friends, through church congregations and through communities. Perhaps it is a saving grace that’s given that those who have fought can put away bitterness and live in peace with former enemies. I have only gradually come to appreciate Christmas as a time to look higher, think higher and reach higher than we do in the day-to-day.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    November 15, 2015 at 7:28 am

    I love Christmas carols, hearing them ad singing them, and appreciate Pap and Paul and their renditions of them. They do so well on “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.” And thanks for the hymn’s history. I enjoy hearing the stories behind the carols. This one is especially touching. I hope everyone is looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas!
    And have a good Lord’s Day today!

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