This Christmas hymn was written by Edmund Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian minister in Wayland, Massachusetts, in 1849. It was a troubled time. The California Gold Rush was creating excitement, but was also disrupting the lives of men and women caught up in Gold Fever. The Industrial Revolution was pulling people from their small, marginal farms to the cities, where they often just exchanged one form of poverty for another. And, of course, the tensions over slavery, which would soon plunge the nation into its most terrible war, were already present.
In that troubled context, Sears wrote this hymn that emphasizes peace as a gift from “heaven’s all-gracious king” (v. 1). He portrays angels bringing peace to a still-weary world—angels hovering above “sad and lowly plains” (v. 2). Sears portrays a painful view of life, with its “crushing load” —and “painful steps and slow”—and a “weary road”—but offers the hope of “glad and golden hours” that will “come swiftly on the wing” (v. 3). And he looks forward to the fulfillment of prophecy—”When the NEW heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace their King” (v. 4).
Sears didn’t start from scratch when he wrote this hymn at Christmastime in 1849. A dozen years earlier, he had written a poem entitled, “Calm on the Listening Ear.” He pulled that poem from his files, made some revisions, and this hymn was born.
Sears was accustomed to submitting articles for publication, so he submitted this verse to The Christian Register, which published it in December, 1849.
The hymn tune was written later by Richard Willis, a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune—a newspaper that is no longer published but was quite influential in its time. Willis had studied music in Germany, and knew Felix Mendelssohn.
I have read that, even though he was a Unitarian, Sears believed in the divinity of Jesus. However, this is one of the few Christmas hymns that fail to mention “Jesus” or “Christ,” so I am not sure that was true. Nevertheless, Christians who do believe in the divinity of Jesus have sung the hymn for a century and a half, seeing Jesus in “heaven’s all-gracious King” (v. 1) and “The Prince of Peace” (v. 4). If Sears didn’t believe in Jesus’ divinity, he certainly left room for those of us who do to find Jesus in this hymn.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan