After several years of hard work Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister in Wayland, Massachusetts suffered a breakdown. He couldn’t return to work, and as he began to recover he took on part time work. In his dark days he heard of warfare and troubles. It was a time of revolution in Europe and the United States was at war with Mexico. He saw the world as full of ‘sin and strife’ and in those days, at the request of a friend, William Lunt, he expressed some of his hope for the troubled world in a poem. That poem is known to us now as the Carol It came upon the midnight clear.
Edmund Sears’ words are both beautiful and powerful. Unusually the words make no mention of Jesus. In the first verse our attention is turned to the angels message of the past. The carol becomes becomes prophetic in the last verse, which raises yet again the hope of a time to come of peace on earth. But the third verse strikingly addresses issues of the day – the times when Sears wrote, but also in many ways the times of today too:
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.
Sears’ song is remarkable for its focus not on Bethlehem, but on his own time, and on the ever-contemporary issue of war and peace. Written in 1849, it has long been assumed to be Sears’ response to the just ended Mexican-American War. Sears’ pacifism would take second place to his commitment to abolishing slavery in the Civil War, but his carol remains, repeated all over the world every year. Probably more than any other Christmas carol, it talks about today — his day or our day. It says that the call to peace and goodwill to all is as loud on any other day as it was on that midnight of old, if we would but listen “in solemn stillness.”
Of all the carols that use the Christian story and its language and images, none lifts up a universal human hope more beautifully than Edmund Hamilton Sears’s did, singing of the perennial hope of peace.
Prayer: Lord our God, give us courage to be still, to hush the noise, and hear the angels sing of peace for all.
Listen here to the Choir of Winchester Cathedral singing the Carol to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s well know tune ‘Noel.’ In the United States it is usually sung to the tune ‘Carol’ – which was written for it, and preferred by Sears.