Keeping the Hymns Close By

Angels We Have Heard on High

Author – Unknown French poets
Hymn tune – Gloria
English Translation – James Chadwick, 1813-1882
Published in English in 1862

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men. Luke 2:13,14

The entire hymn is a traditional French carol dating from the 1700s. Several versions, or translations, of the text can be found, but they all stem from the same source and are inspired by Luke 2:6-20. The verses were written by unknown French poets.

The original hymn was “Les anges dans nos campagnes” which included eight stanzas arranged in a dialogue form. It was published in North America in Nouveau recueil de cantiques (New Hymnal) in 1819. The English translation by James Chadwick was titled “Christmas Hymn” and was reduced to four stanzas. It was published in English in 1862, the words saying:

Angels we have heard on high/Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply/Echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Gloria, in excelsis Deo is the Latin wording for the angelic anthem, “Glory to God in the highest!” It comes from Luke 2:14. Our English words excel and excellent come from the same root, meaning to rise or to ascend or to be high. The Latin word Deo means God.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” is a song of invitation from Christians to others to come celebrate Christ’s birth with them. The carol begins in a festive spirit, but then, in the second stanza, asks why there is a celebration. In the third stanza, an invitation to is given to join the celebration. The fourth stanza concludes the carol with the observation of Christ’s birth and the Christian’s joyful response. This was the song proclaimed by the angels over Shepherds Field the night Christ was born. The musical score stretches out and emphasizes the words in a way that is uniquely fun to sing and deeply stirring, as we lift our voices to proclaim: Jesus has come! Hope has arrived on earth! A Savior is born! Glory to God on High! Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Taken from Then Sings My Soul Keepsake Edition by Robert J. Morgan Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Morgan. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. Used by permission from “History of Hymns” by Dr. C. Michael Hawn, Director of the Sacred Music Program and Distinguished Professor, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.