Words by Edmund Hamilton Sears
Music by Richard Storrs Willis
Oliver Wendell Holmes once declared this hymn to be “one of the finest and most beautiful ever written.” Sears, a retiring young Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, was dismayed by such public praise, saying he preferred to lead a quiet life in some half-forgotten parish. The poem was first published in 1849 in a church magazine and was adapted the following year to a tune composed by Richard Storrs Willis. Willis, by that time an eminent editor and critic for the New York Tribune, had studied music in Europe as a young man, with, among others, Felix Mendelssohn, who so much admired Willis’ work that he arranged some of it for orchestra.
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, goodwill to men,
From heav’n’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 unfurl’d;
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and howly plains,
They bend on hovr’ing wing;
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold.
When the new heav’n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole of world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.