I really hate the fact that I cannot sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear“; I take great pleasure in the tune CAROL. But the words were written Edward Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian minister, and even if it were possible for me to sing in a Christian congregation a song written by a Unitarian, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” fails the test for a number of other reasons.

The carol takes as its theme the angel’s song of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” Leave aside the fact that this is probably not a very good rendering of the meaning of Luke 2:14. Sears, writing this poem in 1850, appears to be post-millennial at best; he wants to usher in the age with “peace” and social good-will. This is good, old-fashioned 19th century liberalism at its very finest.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.

Verses one and two set the stage. The angels brought this message of peace and social harmony. Now they continue to sing this “heavenly music o’er all the weary world.” Sears is concerned the world is not listening, even though the angels are so intent on seeing that we do.

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.

You probably have not sung the third verse. Here we begin to see Sear’s point even more explicitly, though it comes through much clearer in the verses following. We are not listening to the angels. We are still engaging in our wars and battles.

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!

Now Sears turns his attention to those who are poor and afflicted by society. Yes, you who are being mistreated by the social injustices of your time, rest in the fact that “glad and golden hours comes swiftly on the wing.”

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Here comes the climax. Any thinking person who has been in a congregation where this song was sung (hopefully) at least wondered to himself, “what in the world is this verse about?” Sears wants us who are beneath “life’s crushing load” to know that “the days are hastening on” until the “age of gold” finally comes. Yes, society is getting there, and we should rest in that. Soon the whole world will enter this age of peace and good-will towards one another.

Eric Routley says that this hymn “characteristically links the Christmas mesage with the social and international needs of the world” (Hymns and Human Life [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], 228). This was written during an age when the achievement and hope in man was at its peak; Calvinism and its emphasis on depravity and divine grace was slouching under the weight of progress. Sears hoped in the promise of human progress, and it comes out in this carol. The “ever circling years” will bring the “age of gold.”

For those of you who have a say in your church’s worship, I urge you not to lead your congregations in singing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” No Christian congregation should sing it. No, instead of the promise of a social agenda, we must confess our faith in and proclaim the glory of the true gospel of salvation through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead of the greatness of humanity, we must exalt the Son of God who became man to save us in our depravity, whom the (oft neglected) verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful” so eloquently exalts:

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! He abhors not the virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created;
O Come let us Adore Him,
O Come let us Adore Him,
O Come let us Adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

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