Edmund Hamilton Sears: A Unitarian Christmas carol
by Ken Sawyer
Even in Unitarian Universalist churches that rarely talk about Jesus, we sing Christmas carols. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising: Their popularity in America began about the time a Unitarian minister, the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," in 1849.
Sears was the minister of the small congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts, in the late 1830s, but went to Lancaster, Massachusetts, to serve a larger congregation. After seven years of hard work, he suffered a breakdown and returned to Wayland. He wrote his famous carol while serving as a part-time preacher in Wayland, which called him back to full-time service in 1850. (He retired in 1865.)
Some say the carol was first performed by parishioners gathered in his home on Christmas Eve. Another account says he wrote the carol for the Sunday school of the Unitarian church in Quincy, Massachusetts. (In those days, people didn't sing carols in church, where they were thought inappropriately childish or secular, as opposed to old hymns like "O Come, All Ye Faithful," and not many carols had been written.) We don't know where the carol was first performed, nor do we know what tune they sang, since the one to which we sing it now wasn't written until the next year, by a New York organist named Richard Storrs Willis.
Sears' words are both beautiful and powerful. The message is grounded in the first verse in the biblical past. It becomes prophetic in the last verse, which raises yet again the hope of a time to come of peace on earth. But it is most strikingly put in his third verse:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
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."
This point of view can be disconcerting to some Christians, who note that the "angel song" doesn't have anything in particular to do with Jesus, who is never mentioned. Indeed, some Christians have been trying to have our popular carol removed from their denominational hymnbooks. Others have simply rewritten the words. I know, that sounds like something UUs would do. In fact, we have, tinkering with some sexist language. But in some denominations' hymnbooks, the last verse has been rewritten to give Jesus a larger role. Ironically, Sears was considered theologically conservative by other Unitarians in his day.
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.
The Rev. Kenneth W. Sawyer is minister of First Parish Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. He is the co-author of Thematic Preaching: An Introduction (Chalice Press, 2001; $26.99), available from the UUA Bookstore, (800) 215-9076.