Feast of Edmund Hamilton Sears (January 17)   1 comment

Above:  Edmund Hamilton Sears

Image in the Public Domain

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EDMUND HAMILTON SEARS (APRIL 6, 1810-JANUARY 16, 1876)

U.S. Unitarian Minister and Hymn Writer

Edmund Hamilton Sears, born in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, on April 6, 1810, graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1837 and entered the ranks of Unitarian clergymen.  He spent most of his career at Wayland, Massachusetts.  Conservative by Unitarian standards at the time (much less today), Sears affirmed the deity of Christ.  This became apparent in his most scholarly theological book, The Fourth Gospel, the Heart of Christ.

Sears wrote nearly 500 hymns.  Within my library I have found the texts of two of them, both Christmas carols.  The first comes from 1834.

1.  Calm, on the listening ear of night,

Come heaven’s melodious strains,

Where wild Judea stretches far

Her silver mantled plains.

2.  Celestial choirs, from courts above,

Shed sacred glories there;

And angels, with their sparkling lyres,

Make music on the air.

3.  The answering hills of Palestine

Send back the glad reply;

And greet, from all their holy heights,

The Dayspring from on high.

4.  O’er the blue depths of Galilee

There comes a holier calm;

And Sharon waves, in solemn praise,

Her silent groves of palm.

5.  “Glory to God!” the sounding skies

Loud with their anthems ring;

“Peace to the earth, good will to men,”

From heaven’s eternal king!

6.  Light on thy hills, Jerusalem!

The Prince of Peace is born!

And bright, on Bethlehem’s joyous plains,

Breaks the first Christmas morn.

Sears was also a pacifist, opposing the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848.  (This was a good war to oppose, given that President James Knox Polk started it on a false pretense and that it was a war of conquest, not self-defense.)  The pastor’s most famous hymn, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” which he wrote in 1849 and published the following year, mixes the Christmas story from Luke with a critique of that conflict:

1.  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, good will to men,

From heaven’s all gracious King.”

The world in silent stillness lay

To hear the angels sing.

2. Still through the cloven skies they come

With peaceful wings unfurled,

And still their heavenly music floats

O’er all the weary world;

Above its sad and lowly plains

They bend on hovering wing,

And ever o’er its Babel sounds

The blessed angels sing.

3.  Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world has suffered long;

Beneath the heavenly strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The tidings which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing!

4. And you, 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;

Oh, rest beside the weary road

And hear the angels sing!

5.  For lo! The days are hast’ning on,

By prophets seen of old,

When with the ever-circling years

Shall come the time foretold,

When peace shall over all the earth

Its ancient splendors fling,

And all the world give back the song

Which now the angels sing.

I grew up singing this carol yet blissfully unaware of the wonderfully prophetic politics of the hymn.  Then again, I grew up in reactionary rural southern Georgia, U.S.A.  Pacifists and critics of U.S. wars were not (and are not) popular there.  And Unitarians are a rare and exotic species in those parts.

F.Y.I.:  The reference to midnight in the carol comes from Christian tradition, which gets that from the Wisdom of Solomon 18:15, which states that the angel of death departed to smite the Egyptian firstborn sons at midnight during the time of plagues.  Many early Christians conflated that poetic account with the Lukan narrative of Christ’s birth and a choir of angels singing to shepherds.

The Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears died at Weston, Massachusetts, on January 16, 1876.

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God of peace, love of you pervaded the life of Edmund Hamilton Sears.  Inspired by his witness, may we work for peace and justice in our own day.  In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, fully human and fully divine.  Amen.

Isaiah 7:1-25

Psalm 110

Romans 16:25-27

Luke 2:1-20

Kenneth Randolph Taylor

May 16, 2010

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

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Revised on November 20, 2016

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One response to “Feast of Edmund Hamilton Sears (January 17)

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  1. Pingback: Feast of Eliza Scudder (September 26) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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