It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

Analysis by Katrina Lewis, Lyrics by Edmund Hamilton Sears

from Caroling Through the Season (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Visalia, December 25, 2016) (PDF on


Unitarian Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the poem "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" in 1849 at 39 years old, which was set to music the following year. It is considered Unitarian for never mentioning the Christ-child. Indeed British carol scholar, Erik Routley, wrote of the piece that, "in its original form, the hymn is little more than an ethical song, extolling the worth and splendor of peace among men."

It is rarely left in its original form, however. While most protestant hymnals include a version of the carol, the third verse in which Sears is most condemnatory of war is commonly omitted. He wrote during the Mexican War and the American forcible occupation of the southwest. He was outspoken about the wrongfulness of killing whether in private life or at war by order of the President, writing "And does he make men shoot and kill? Then let some pious folk, a gallows build in Washington, and hang up Mr. Polk." So this song might be a fitting rumination for the Unitarian Universalist Sixth Principle: "The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. "

But in striving toward peace, Sears envisions the compassion among humankind relevant to the Unitarian Universalist Second Principle: "The inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations." Ironically, the currrent Unitarian Universalist hymnal leaves out the fourth verse addressing the poor and downtrodden, and the equity that justice would bring.


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 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 o'er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

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.

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!

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 give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

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