He opposed slavery. He detested war. He preached equality among women and men. He left a good job to pursue physical and mental health.
And 170 years ago, he put pen to paper and wrote words you might sing this holy evening:
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.
Edmund Hamilton Sears was 39 years old during Advent in 1849. He’d grown up in Sandisfield, a tiny town in western Massachusetts, graduated from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., studied law, taught for a bit and then enrolled at the Harvard Divinity School in 1834, nearly three decades after Unitarians came to control the school’s leadership.
In 1838, according to the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography, Sears took over at First Congregational Church and Society in Wayland, Mass. Two years later, he started a lengthy stint at the much larger — and wealthier — Congregational Church in Lancaster, Mass. But by 1847, wracked by physical illness and depression, he returned to Wayland to convalesce.
In 1848 he resumed his old job in Wayland. The Mexican-American War ended In February of that year, just a few weeks before the start of the French Revolution. That ignited a wave of challenge and change across Europe, concurrent with increasing tension among American states centered on expansion and slavery.
UU World Magazine, a publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association, reports the origin of Sears’ most famous poem is unclear.
“Some say the carol was first performed by parishioners gathered in his home on Christmas Eve,” according to Ken Sawyer. “Another account says he wrote the carol for the Sunday school of the Unitarian church in Quincy, Mass.”
However or wherever it was sung that first year, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” didn’t sound like it does today because Richard Storrs Willis didn’t write the hymn tune “Carol” until 1850. (It still doesn’t sound like that in Europe, where the words usually are sung to “Noel,” a tune Arthur Sullivan adapted for Sears’ lyrics in 1874.)
“Probably more than any other Christmas carol, it talks about today — his day or our day,” Sawyer continued. “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.’ ”
The song has 228 words, and not one of them is “Jesus.” Sawyer notes many Christian traditions have scrubbed the carol from their liturgy, while others have changed lyrics. Growing up in a Presbyterian church, part of the mainline PC(USA), our hymnals omitted Sears’ powerful third stanza, restoring it in the “Glory To God” hymnal published in 2013:
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.
Yet it is the fourth stanza that recently caught my eye:
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.
The image of “life’s crushing load” rings with extra poignance considering the state of Sears’ life as he wrote, but echoed too in my own heart. I have few complaints personally — lovely wife, healthy children, gainful employment — but in this season of waiting and hope I yearn for the strength to pair my actions more fully with my words, and to focus on that personal goal instead of merely wishing others adopted the same approach.
“Of all the carols that use the Christian story and its language and images,” Sawyer concluded, “none lifts up a universal human hope more beautifully than Edmund Hamilton Sears’ did, singing of the perennial hope of peace.”
Believe what you’d like about Christmas. There are 364 other days, enough to teach peace will never be a reality on its own; it must be sought, found, taught and preserved. We can’t control others, but we can choose peace for ourselves, even — and especially — when it is difficult. Let it begin with me.