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395

TWO FAMOUS CHRISTMAS HYMNS AND THEIR AUTHOR

To be the writer of one great hymn classic on the nativity is an enviable distinction, but to be the author of two immortal Christmas lyrics is fame that has probably come to only one man, and he an American. His name was Edmund Hamilton Sears, and so long as Christians celebrate Christmas, they will sing the two hymns he wrote—“It came upon a midnight clear” and “Calm on the listening ear of night.”

Strangely enough, an interval of sixteen years separated the writing of the two hymns. Sears had just graduated from Union College at the age of twenty-four when he wrote “Calm on the listening ear of night.” It appeared in the “Boston Observer,” and was immediately recognized as a poem of unusual merit. Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke of it as “one of the finest and most beautiful hymns ever written.”

Sixteen years elapsed, and then at Christmas time in 1850 the Christian world was delighted to find in the “Christian Register” another lyric, “It came upon the midnight clear,” which many believe is superior to the earlier hymn. The language of this hymn is so surpassingly lovely and its movement so rhythmical, it fairly sings itself.

There is, in fact, a close resemblance between the two hymns, and yet they are different. While the earlier hymn is largely descriptive, the later one is characterized by a note of joyous optimism and triumphant faith. In Sears’ “Sermons 396 and Songs” he published the one at the beginning, and the other at the close, of a sermon for Christmas Eve on 1 Tim. 2:6.

Each of the two hymns had five stanzas in its original form. The fourth stanza of the older hymn is usually omitted. It reads:

Light on thy hills, Jerusalem!

The Saviour now is born;

More bright on Bethlehem’s joyous plains

Breaks the first Christmas morn;

And brighter on Moriah’s brow,

Crowned with her temple-spires,

Which first proclaim the new-born light,

Clothed with its orient fires.

The stanza omitted from the second Christmas hymn sounds the only minor note heard in that otherwise hopeful and joyous lyric:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world hath 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!

Sears was a native of New England, having been born in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, in 1810. He completed his theological course at Harvard Divinity School in 1837, whereupon he entered the Unitarian Church, serving as a pastor for nearly forty years.

Surprise has often been expressed that a Unitarian could write such marvelous hymns on the nativity; but Sears was 397 a Unitarian in name rather than in fact. He leaned strongly toward Swedenborgian teachings, and believed implicitly in the deity of Christ.

In addition to his hymns, he wrote a few works in prose. His books on “Regeneration,” “Foregleams of Immortality,” and “The Fourth Gospel the Heart of Christ” were widely read in his day. These have now been almost entirely forgotten, but his two great hymns go singing through the years. They are found in practically all standard hymn-books, although the final stanza of “It came upon the midnight clear” is often altered. Sears died in 1876.

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