Christian, Why Do You Sing A Swedenborgian, Social-Gospel, Hymn Written By A Unitarian Minister?

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” (now typically titled, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”) was first published in 1834. It was written by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810–76), an Unitarian minister with Swedenborgian convictions. C. Michael Hawn, who teaches sacred music, describes him thus: “Sears, though an Unitarian, wrote in Sermons and Songs of the Christian Life (1875), “Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the Divinity of Christ.” He authored books quite popular in his day, including Athanasia, or Foregleams of Immortality (1857) and The Fourth Gospel, the Heart of Christ (1872). He defends the hymn on the ground that it was an early example of “the social gospel,” the movement later galvanized by Walter Rauschenbusch in which the gospel was re-defined in terms of this-worldly blessedness in contrast to salvation from sin and wrath by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

For orthodox Christians, however, the assertion that Sears believed in the divinity of Christ (because he was a Swedenborgian) will  not do. Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) was a scientist and a child of the Pietist movement, who became convinced that the world is essentially spiritual. The entry in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says, “The basis of Swedenborg’s system was a ‘doctrine of correspondence’ between the physical and spiritual worlds. He envisaged the spiritual world as containing various groupings of deceased human beings which made up a single great human being. He accepted Christ as the greatest manifestation of humanity, but rejected the doctrine of the Atonement.”

One of their doctrinal tenets holds: “There is one God whose essence is Divine Love and Wisdom. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all aspects of God just as body, mind, and soul are all aspects of one person.” This is the heresy of monarchian modalism, the belief that God is one such that the three persons are merely apparent but not actually distinct. Christians confess that God is one in three, distinct, consubstantial persons. In this case I use the adjective heretical in the narrow, strict sense of “contrary to the ecumenical faith.” They also hold the full-preterist heresy that Christ has already returned.  We confess in the ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan) that we expect the bodily return of Christ. In contrast, the Swedenborgians confess, “The Second Coming is an active process that is happening within us and the world. As we increase compassion, integrity, understanding, and healing in our lives, we are helping God create a ‘new Heaven and a new Earth.'” One sees here the connection between the “social gospel” theology of the hymn and Sears’ Swedenborgian convictions.

The Unitarian account of this hymn, by Ken Sawyer,  notes that this “Christmas” hymn never mentions Jesus but it does focus quite a bit on angels, which accords with Swedenborgian convictions. Christians have revised the hymn to make it more orthodox but the (sometimes omitted) third stanza makes clear that his interest was not in the incarnation but in calling for civil peace and harmony—Sawyer’s chronology is hard to reconcile with the original publication of the hymn. Whatever his social aims, this was never a hymn of praise to God for the incarnation and birth of Christ.

The Unitarians ask a reasonable question. Why do orthodox Christians sing a Christ-denying, “social-gospel, hymn written by a Unitarian-Swedenborgian heretic?

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  1. Thank you for the historical background and providing the forum.

    Perhaps, you could help us answer this question by telling us why the Apostle Paul used pagan poets and philosophers’ words in contradiction to the authors’ original intent in inspired Scripture. Why Jesus told his followers to use a coin created for the purpose of blasphemous propaganda, violating the the probation against images, and containing blasphemous anti-Christ inscriptions to pay taxes. Why instruments created by the seed of Cain (Gen. 4:21) were included in Temple worship? Why tools created by the seed of Cain were used to build the ark. Why the Joseph commanded Egyptians to embalm Israel, when the religious intent of the Egyptians in embalming was ungodly. Why David rejected Saul’s Jewish armor, but used Goliath’s pagan sword.

    Because it would seem to me from these examples that intention of the human creator of a thing in Scripture is secondary to the intended Christian use of it. So if the thing (idea, words, objects) can be used by God’s people without the intent or actual violation of God’s word it is acceptable.

    I am not defending the words of the hymn, but your main objection seems to be not the words–many of the worst which have been excised among Christians–but the source. And the Bible seems to allow us to use unbelievers stuff in a godly way.

    And on a secondary note, all stuff is good, because the component parts are necessarily good. The only thing that is evil in and of itself is a creature’s will turned against God and voluntary human constructions like pimping and freelance assassin. Words are ultimately God’s creation and are only sinful based on use, thus the Bible uses the words, “There is no God,” because the idea is not a sin. God can contemplate the possible construct of his own lack of existence, and so can we. The issue is when we draw something wicked from words, “‘There is no God,’ and now I shall sin.”

    So, I assume that you sing, “There is no God,” even though the intent of the fool in so saying is sin. But the words of the fool have now been sanctified by the author of the psalm and placed into a greater context of church singing.

    • Shane,

      My objection is not to quoting pagans. I am firmly committed to the traditional Reformed doctrine of common grace.

      The problem here is not merely the source but the language and intent of the hymn.

      There is a material difference between quoting pagans or spoiling the Egyptians to advance the truth and singing an uninspired hymn, in worship, which was written by a heretic with the intent of drawing our eyes away from Christ.

    • For the sake of argument can we assume that we are speaking of Christian singing outside of a gathered worship service? (I am trying to peel away the issue of psalms vs. uninspired hymns to get at the root of my concern.)

      You argument seems to be: we should sing the words of Acts 17:28, which are an apostolic quote in contradiction to the intended meaning of the first human authors, but we should not sing wholesome words in contradiction to the intended meaning of the uninspired author that have been edited for Christian singing.

      Why can’t we follow Paul’s example? He uses wholesome words, in contradiction to the intended meaning of the author, edited for the purpose of honoring God.

      Again, I am completely with you as to what the bare words mean, but we must part on the issue of authorial intent in hymns. Often we don’t have access to authorial intent, because its been lost to history, modified by editing, or ignorance on our part.

      Or as another example, I can sing Jehovah–which is not a Hebrew word but rather a transliteration of a Pharisaical attempt to veil the holy name of God–in good conscience because my intent is not to obscure the name of God, but worship the revealed God under the culturally appropriate symbols. But again the folks who “coined” Jehovah were not attempting to reveal the Lord to me, but rather to hide the most holy name of God within another name of God.

      • Shane,

        I said nothing about the RPW or Psalmody. I simply called attention to the historical and theological origins of a song widely and probably naively sung by Christians during the Christmas season.

        History matters. Context matters. I still believe in authorial intent. I don’t think it’s always that difficult to ascertain. I’m not a subjectivist nor a deconstructionist. The reader doesn’t reign over texts. If we pay attention to the original context, to the words themselves, to their arrangement etc we can discern what he meant.

        He was a Swedenborgian heretic. He was not a Christian. He was a minister in Unitarian Universalist Church. As I former attender/member of the UUA, I can say with confidence that the UUA is not a Christian association. They regard the cross as foolishness. As the UUA author said, they don’t talk much about Jesus. They don’t particularly care for Jesus. That’s his context. Even if he was from the more “conservative” wing of the older Unitarians, they were still Socinians who regarded Jesus chiefly as a prophet and do-gooder. Sears did not regard Jesus as the Son of God incarnate who came to substitute for his people. In Swedenborgian theology, we’re all divine! For them, Jesus was no more divine than you or I. At most, he’s the example of divinity to which we all aspire.

        That’s the context of song. That’s why Christ was not mentioned in the original text of the song. It was never about Christ. It was about social justice and the coming glory age to be brought about by the “social gospel.”

  2. It almost seems that some of the current challenges to the immutability of God/divine simplicity could be considered at least semi-monarchian modalism, based on some of the stuff above. Am I right in thinking this?

    That is Moreland/Craig, say,

    “It is the Trinity as a whole that is properly God. . . . [T]he Trinity alone is God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while divine, are not Gods. . . . We could think of the persons of the Trinity as divine because they are parts of the Trinity, that is, parts of God. It seems undeniable that there is some part-whole relation obtaining between the persons of the Trinity and the entire Godhead.”

    And from above:

    “There is one God whose essence is Divine Love and Wisdom. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all aspects of God just as body, mind, and soul are all aspects of one person.” This is the heresy of monarchian modalism, the belief that God is one such that the three persons are merely apparent but not actually distinct.

    To wit, I’m no theologian or seminarian, so I’m not super versed in this type of theology.

  3. Perhaps we see in the false view of God and His purpose, reflected in this hymn, the dangers posed to orthodox, Reformed theology, by those academics who would reformulate our doctrines on the attributes of God. That seems like a very good reason to reject this hymn, and the revisions of those who would reformulate understanding of God. It does not not accord with the standards of sound doctrine held by the Church. It is heresy.

  4. I had never come across this one before. It’s haunting, it echoes man’s desire for war to finally cease (apparently written just after the Mexican war), and its theology doesn’t err – it has none! A waste of time really.
    It fails to enunciate the answer to its question – but it has no wrong theology, like many of our popular hymns.

  5. I’d say that a hymn that replaces the good news of the giving of God’s only begotten son to be our Saviour with the announcement of some kind of golden age, is pretty terrible theology!

  6. Well, here we go again. The Reformed Grinches -aka the Hymn Police – strike again. This time, it’s a song whose text itself (I’m looking at #200 in The Trinity Hymnal) is not heterodox, but weak on doctrinal content and sentimental in that droopy 19th-century sort of way. No matter that orthodox Christians will put the best possible construction on each verse (“Love believes all things”) and can fill in the gaps, so to speak, with more solid Gospel truth. No, apparently we’re supposed to reject the hymn because of a suspect provenance (which almost no one knows about anyway), as we pronounce the harshest possible judgment on every phrase. Yet as they sing this hymn, many mature believers will recall edifying Biblical associations suggested by the text, while enjoying fond memories of Christmas seasons past. In spite of its shortcomings, “Midnight Clear” deserves its place in our annual traditions. Yes, the hymn fails to say some very important things, yet what it does say does not deny essential truths. There’s enough there to keep it, enjoy it, and praise God through it.

    After more than fifty years of being called a theological nitpicker. I find myself in the odd position to say just once to my Reformed brothers and sisters: Just give it a break, OK?

    So, rather than throwing a “Bah, humbug!” back to ya, I’ll simply say “Merry Christmas!”

    • Frank,

      The version at which you’re looking isn’t the original.

      We do know the provenance and the intent. It’s a deliberately Christless, Swedenborgian hymn.

      What were you sing in public worship is a zero-sum game. Every time we saying this Swedenborgian, Unitarian hymn that is another time that we are not singing God’s Word.

      Why is not God’s Word sufficient for public worship? I am not saying that you cannot sing this at home, although given its history and origin one might reasonably ask why. I am asking why we sing this in public worship instead of God’s Word, about which there can be no scruples.

      Given its history and intent, can you understand why some of your weaker brethren might struggle with this hymn?

  7. If our intent is to honor and glorify our Lord and Saviour, rather than simply to please ourselves, I cannot imagine how you can justify singing a hymn that seeks to remove the gospel truth of the birth of the Saviour. Yes, by golly. Have a holly, jolly Christmas without Christ!

  8. OK. While Reformed (even if I think the analogy of prayer is a legitimate thing to consider when we choose our sung praise–much as I think the Psalms and other biblical materials deserve pride of place), I descend from Lutherans and Jews. There’s a lot of the older Lutheran hymnody, whether German, Scandinavian, or Slav that I like, and find quite biblically sound; and I see strong parallels between the Mourners’ Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer. Granted, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “I Heard the Bells on Chrisgtmas Day” (by the Unitarian Longfellow) were never among my favorites, but I think we can legitimately join in aspirations for a better world (even while confessing it comes only through Christ ruling through his Word and Spirit).

    Dr. Clark, I never knew that y0u were a former UU. When I was growing up, suburbanite kids from both Christian and Jewish homes received the impression that it was the “neutral” religion. Little did we know that it was nothing but the cultured American’s halfway house to modern idolatries of science, state, and the bad old Augustinian self.

  9. I find it very telling, that not one of the defenders of this hymn has been able to use the argument that Christ our Saviour is praised and honoured by singing it.

  10. Leaving aside the issue of singing only canonical songs in worship (which I understand to be Dr. Clark’s position; but based on his second response to Shane that, I believe, is not the issue here), the focus of this song is on the angels’ message of peace on earth and the eventual fulfillment of that hope. I had always interpreted this song to refer to the Second Coming (just like Joy to the World, which has nothing to do with Christmas that I can tell). Am I missing any social-justice or UU dog whistles in the text? I don’t see anything that implies that the “Age of Gold” is initiated by mankind.

    • Don,

      The song reflects the Swedenborgian expectation of a future, earthly golden age brought about by cooperative social action/justice.

      It has nothing to do with the gospel, Christ, or grace.

    • OK, but where does it say anything about cooperative social action?

      It seems to me that “prophet bards” in the fourth verse would be referencing, e.g., Isaiah 11:6. Did the UU lyricist have something else in mind?

      Sorry, I’m searching for anything “Christ denying” in the text but I can’t identify it.

      • Don,

        You can only make this hymn orthodox by Deconstructing it, by removing it from it’s original context. The author was a Swedenborgian. He was a heretic. He was a Unitarian minister. Do you understand what that entails? It means he consciously denied the Trinity. When he spoke of the “deity of Christ” he did not mean what orthodox Christians have always meant by that.

        The Swedenborgians were early social gospellers. They and the Unitarians (did you read the UUA article linked above?) understood this hymn in its original, anti-war, social-gospel context. The eschatology here is of an earthly golden age not of a future blessedness described by Scripture. Of course it’s expressed poetically. He isn’t going to say, “I mean the social gospel as later articulated by Rauchsenbusch” but that’s what he’s about in this hymn.

        Again, we have to read it in its 19th-century, Swedenborgian/Unitarian context. We have to read the original text, not the text as revised by Christians.

        I must say, I’m a little surprised to see folks struggling so to read a text in its context (as distinct from ours). I thought that we’re all committed some kind of grammatical, historical hermeneutic, aren’t we? Perhaps folks don’t appreciate how radically different Swedenborgian theology is from Christian theology and how radically different the Unitarian Universalist theology is from Christian theology.

        Would we sing a hymn by Arius or Pelagius so long as the heresy was couched in poetic terms?

  11. God did not send His Son to initiate a golden age of social justice, but rather to reconcile fallen sinners to Himself through the perfect sacrifice and perfect obedience that Christ would render as their representative when they trust in
    Him. The fact that Chistians have naively been singing a hymn that was written with the intention of replacing the gospel with aspirations for a golden age of peace, is a travesty, not a reason to continue to sing it in worship. There are much better hymns to choose from, which actually do praise God for the awesome gift of His only begotten Son to live the life we cannot live and die the death we cannot die so that we might be reconciled to God by trusting in Him alone. To replace that message with aspirations for some kind of golden age of peace is a dishonour to God.

  12. Great article and another reason for us to adhere to the RP and sing God’s words back to him as a prayer. All singing in worship is praying so while there are some very good theologically founded hymns, it is still uninspired praying and given that we have other dubious hymn authors such as Charles Wesley, who while he was writing a lot of his hymns, believed in a type of Pelagianism called Perfectionism. And Issac Watts, who certainly was a unitarian and when you understand these non-orthodox theology and reread their hymns you have to wonder how they made it into the corpus.

    Of course if we just followed the RP these wouldn’t be problems.

  13. Many years ago I was happily singing in church when the Spirit brought me up short with the question: “Are you happy with what you are singing?” I realized immediately that I could not sing the words of that particular song before God with a good conscience.
    There and then I promised the Lord I would take care in future to sing with integrity of conscience. This has proved to be a long trial, as so much church music has not been fit to sing before God and has gotten worse. Arrogance is the most common fault these days.

    Dr Clark, with that proviso in mind, how does the RP deal with such as psalm 26, with its assertions such as;
    ‘Vindicate me, O LORD, For I have walked in my integrity.’
    ‘I have walked in Your truth.’
    ‘I have not sat with idolatrous mortals, Nor will I go in with hypocrites.’
    ‘I have hated the assembly of evildoers, And will not sit with the wicked.’
    ‘I will wash my hands in innocence; So I will go about Your altar, O LORD.’

    In my mind, these words can only be the words of Christ, by the Spirit to David as prophet, and I certainly could not in conscience sing them, as it just would not be true.

    • Allan,

      Sorry to delay but I’ve been on the run.

      This is really a question about hermeneutics. It’s difficult but not impossible.

      Who is the innocent One? Christ, of course. Before that, however, we may speak of the Psalmist, whoever it might be a given situation, as being relatively righteous in his context. There were times when David was righteous relative to his enemies but we understand those expressions of righteous indignation as anticipations of our Lord. We know that David was not the Messiah. If he ever thought he was the Messiah, David learned that he was not. He learned to look for another anointed King who is greater than David. Our Lord himself teaches this in Matt 22 where he interprets Ps 110.

      We may sing this with that twofold sense, remembering the righteous servants of the Lord in their own time but understanding that most truly and fully, these are Jesus’ words and true of us who, sola gratia, sola fide are in Christ.

      We do the same with calls for judgment. We know that Christ is coming. There is coming a time when he will not bear with the ungodly. Now is the inter-regnum, the in-between time. Now is the day of grace but that day will come to an end when Christ returns. We may pray imprecatory Psalms in anticipation of the coming judgment.

  14. “understanding that most truly and fully, these are Jesus’ words and true of us who, sola gratia, sola fide are in Christ.” When I let that sink in, it just blows me away! When we trust in Christ as our Saviour, what is true of Him is true of us!!! David was righteous because he trusted in Christ, that is why he could prophetically sing Jesus words, and we can too! That is the marvel of the birth of Christ, the fulfillment of this prophecy.

  15. I can definitely understant why this Swedenborgian social-gospel song isn’t one to be sung but does that mean I should sell my Volvo?

  16. This hymn was sung this past Lord’s Day in my church with one dissenting (or better yet silent) voice – mine. And those that sang were not obedient – do I dare say it – to the corporate command of Colossians 3:16. I believe that this would be the case whether one held an exclusive psalmody position or not. Seems fairly obvious to me that such drivel cannot teach or admonish based on the lack of content. To equate the use of this hymn with the apostle’s use of pagan poets seems a bit of a stretch to justify sentimentality over true worship. What we sing in worship matters. As Socrates says, “False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”

  17. I have come to the conclusion that we, as simple members, have a responsibility to complain to our pastors and elders when they do not uphold sound doctrine or fail to honor God, as in the singing of this hymn. Like the Bereans who compared Paul’s message with Scripture, we need to evaluate critically, what is preached and practiced in our churches to make sure it accords with sound doctrine. I think we all have a responsibility to make sure our church has the marks of the true church, such as teaching sound doctrine, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of proper discipline. If our leaders are not doing their job, that might mean talking to them about it, and if that does not solve the problem there is a complaint process. If we do nothing, we are only allowing it to continue as though we are in agreement with it.

  18. Please enlighten me.

    You mention that Edmund H. Sears was a Unitarian with Swedenborgian convictions. I’m a little confused.

    I always thought that New England Unitarianism, in its early years, was sort of like the Socianian-Rakovian-Transylvanian kind, in which God the Father is God, and the Word/Son/Jesus Christ is a sort of first created being at most–with the New England Unitarians ultimately settling for Jesus being a really good man (if he existed at all).

    Yet the Swedenborgians seem to be a kind of weird precursor of the Oneness/”Jesus only” Pentecostals. I suppose you could call them “Unitarians of the 2d Person”? Was that Sears’ real affiliation?

  19. I only read your post this morning. But it disrupted my Lord’s Day preparation because I was planning to focus on the third verse to emphasize my text in Matthew 11:28-30.
    I still have it in my order of service, but I plan to replace verses 3 and 4:

    3. And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
    Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
    “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” says Christ the King
    My easy yoke and burden light will peace unto you bring.

    4. For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold,
    When trumpet sounds shall ring from heaven to call both young and old;
    When Christ shall come for His dear church and glorious victory bring,
    And the whole world shall bend the knee and Christ’s great glory sing. A-men.

  20. A quick google search shows that the version you quote is very different from Sears’ original words. Sears’ intent was to remove all mention of Christ and His redeeming work and to replace it with a Unitarian vision of a social gospel. Are there not much better hymns we can sing, that do not have such dubious associations?

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