If Whitefield had avoided altering the poetry of Charles Wesley, perhaps more English speakers today would recognize the word “welkin,” or perhaps equally as likely, our churches would have passed over this Christmas carol long ago and let it fade into obscurity. We’ll never know, but God be praised for Wesley, Whitefield, and tunesmith Felix Mendelssohn, who have crafted a hymn of incarnation worthy to be declared from decades past through decades to come.
Although the name George Whitefield is not readily associated with Christian hymnody, he left his own mark on one of the most famous Christmas carols, penned by his friend and contemporary, Charles Wesley.
The Wesleys had an enduring friendship and connection with Whitefield, beginning with their Oxford “Holy Club,” followed by separate missionary journeys to America, and a call to open-air field preaching in England. During the earlier years of that association, the Wesleys published some of their most enduring poetry, especially in the first edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). This collection included “And can it be” — deeply inspired by Charles’ conversion in 1738 — “Christ the Lord is risen today,” “Commit thou all thy griefs,” “Jesus, thy boundless love to me,” and a Christmas hymn with a curious text:
Hark how all the Welkin rings
Glory to the King of Kings.
A modern reader might see the words “welkin rings” and immediately gravitate to something out of J.R.R. Tolkien. “Welkin” actually means “sky” or “heavens” — it was a common term in English poetry in that era. Wesley may have been inspired specifically by a poem of William Somerville about fox hunting, called “The Chase” (1735):
The welkin rings, Men, Dogs, Hills, Rock, and Woods
In the full consort join.