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Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Q: Is the subject grammatically correct in the title “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”? That’s how it appears in our hymnal. Astonishingly, this is a practical issue, since we display the words during church services via video projection.

A: Yes, the subject is grammatically correct.

The plural subject “Angels” (part of the noun phrase “the Herald Angels”) agrees with the plural verb (“Sing”). The word “Hark!” in the title is a stand-alone imperative verb meaning “Listen!”

Although the grammar is correct, the punctuation and capitalization might seem odd to modern readers. If the title were written today, it would probably be either “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

However, we see no reason to modernize the title. In fact, we prefer the old-fashioned punctuation and capitalization. It gives the 18th-century hymn a patina of age.

Interestingly, the original hymn, written by Charles Wesley, was entitled “Hymn for Christmas-Day” and had nothing in it about “Herald Angels.”

Here are the opening lines from the earliest version of the hymn, as published in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), a collection of verse compiled by Charles and John Wesley, leaders of the Methodist movement:

Hark how all the welkin rings
“Glory to the King of kings,
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcil’d!”

George Whitefield, a preacher and friend of the Wesley brothers, rewrote the first two lines in A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship (1753):

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born King!”

In 1855, the English musician William H. Cummings made several other changes, including adding the refrain, when he set the hymn to music by Felix Mendelssohn.

The hymn has had other titles over the years (“On the Nativity,” “Christmas Hymn,” “An Ode,” “The Song of the Angels,” and so on), but it was often referred to simply by either its first line or a number in a hymnal.

The earliest examples we’ve found for “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” used as the title are in a list of sheet music for Christmas hymns in the Nov. 1, 1864, issue of the Musical Times.

In five different arrangements of the hymn for four voices, the title is written in all capital letters: “HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING.”

In an article that discusses the editing of Charles Wesley’s hymn, C. Michael Hawn, a sacred-music scholar, notes that changes in the texts of hymns are quite common.

“The average singer on Sunday morning would be amazed (or perhaps chagrined) to realize how few hymns before the twentieth century in our hymnals appear exactly in their original form,” Hawn writes.

He considers the replacement of the term “welkin” in the first line as “perhaps the most notable change” in the Wesley hymn.

And what, you’re probably wondering, is a welkin? As Hawn explains, it refers to “the sky or the firmament of the heavens, even the highest celestial sphere of the angels.”

Hawn cites a light-hearted comment by the Wesley scholar Ted Campbell that suggests the term may not have been a household word even in the 18th century:

“I have wondered if anybody but Charles knew what a welkin was supposed to be.”

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