There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. Luke 2:8–9
I wrote that hymn or Christmas carol—which I called The Angels’ Song—just before Christmas 1892. I had just received from a dear friend a gift of five thousand dollars for my missionary work in Montana; and I wrote this as a Christmas greeting and remembrance.
The last verse of the original, which does not appear in the hymn as here published, expressed my gratitude and was as follows:
God bless all those who help to give
From burdens a release!
God send his blessings on their home
And fill their lives with peace!
Meeting Mr. C. Whitney Coombs some time after that, he asked for the carol that he might set it to music. I gave it to him, and he made two settings for it in music, one as a solo and the other as a quartet, and published it.
The next year I asked him to set it to music that could be sung by Sunday School children. He did so, and I had it published in leaflet form and had it sung in all our Sunday schools at their Christmas festival. I then wrote a chorus for it which Mr. Coombs used nearly as I wrote it.
In the first edition of the Methodist Hymnal this hymn was erroneously attributed to C. Whitney Coombs, growing out of the fact that he was the first composer to set it to music.
Nutter, p. 67
Long years ago o’er Bethlehem’s hills
Was seen a wondrous thing;
As shepherds watched the sleeping flocks
They heard the angels sing.
The anthem rolled among the clouds
When earth was hushed and still;
Its notes proclaimed sweet peace on earth,
To all mankind good will.
Glory to God in the highest,
The angels’ song resounds,
Glory to God in the highest!
That song is sung by rich and poor,
Where’er the Christ is known;
’Tis sung in words, and sung in deeds,
Which bind all hearts in one.
Angels are still the choristers,
But we the shepherds are,
To bear the message which they bring,
To those both near and far: