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The Quiet Story of Edmund Sears, The Author of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”

Edmund Sears was a quiet hero, lost to most histories but not to time. He lived an honest, modest life – kind to others, devoted to his family, avoiding unnecessary drama or attention. His life was simply one of goodness. In 1810, Edmund was born on a Massachusetts farm. He came of age in complex times, at least in his personal life. Edmund didn’t fit in, as he thought he should and as his brothers did in school. As he later recalled, “I went to school in an old loose gown, with the head piece and the body all in one. Because of the way I dressed, my schoolmates wondered to what species I belonged.” Though quietly ashamed of his differences, Edmund persevered thanks to his mother’s high expectations.

Edmund had a bit of a scrupulous complex and even though he never acted out, he still feared punishment.

“I was never punished at school, it wasn’t in my disposition to act out or act at all, but the fear of punishment always haunted me and weighed on my spirit.”

As Edmund grew, though still in school and living at home, he worked on the farm but his brain was always singing and looking for words that rhymed. Edmund was painfully shy, but wanted to be a preacher. When he was twelve years old he wrote a full discourse on Luke 16:25 and presented it to the bushes behind his house.

“I carefully hid all of my manuscripts from my family; I knew if they found them I would be met with ridicule,” Edmund recalled. With his brothers graduating from school and leaving home, Edmund’s natural shyness and timidity increased, becoming a perpetual disadvantage.

“I wish I had a sister. I missed out not having one, for I was just the boy who needed all of a sister’s attention and tenderness.”

Edmund had an extreme sensitivity to environmental, social and emotional stimuli. In a burgeoning field of study that scientists call SPS or Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Edmund would have been regarded as one whose brain regions were hyper sensitive, leading to greater empathy, awareness and depth of processing. But there are side effects and negative consequences of being this aware.

Edmund later recorded in his personal journal: “I grew up ignorant in a great degree to the various forms of society, yet with all that morbid sensitiveness I was made to suffer intolerably whenever I was guilty of any violation of expectation. I used to see young people, my peers, enjoying sleigh rides, parties, dances, to which I would be invited, but afraid to go. Nevertheless, there seemed to always be someone who understood me; and a kind hearted fellow who would sit next to me at school with a kind inviting word or look of welcome or soothing pity for me.”

For these reasons, Edmund was often left in obscurity, though he understood that to be successful in life he would need to live through his insecurities or at least become friends with those of a similar disposition. He found such a friend in Charlie.

“At 16 years old I became best friends with Charlie. We were drawn together, not by hobbies but by character, I think. He left a decided impression on me. Though also shy, Charlie had a keen interest in fun and a lively sense for the ludicrous. He had such a good nature and warm benevolence that the most sensitive spirit would never feel wounded by him. He was full of life and hope and took cheerful views of everything. His genial spirit sent flashes of sunshine upon all around him.”

It was the acceptance and understanding of peers like Charlie that transformed the estranged, shy, and sensitive Edmund into a role model whose words continue to inspire millions every Christmas.

After graduating high school, Edmund pursued divinity studies in college. Upon graduating, he preached out West for a year before accepting an ordination call from a Unitarian society to become their minister. Two years later, he married Ellen Bacon, who understood Edmund’s need as a scholarly intellectual-turned-minister for seclusion to study and meditate. She shielded him from unnecessary interruptions.

Years into Edmund and his wife’s marriage, scarlet fever swept through their community. Their 10-year-old daughter Katy, a child of pure innocence and virtue, fell ill. The family feared it was scarlet fever. After a week of worsening sickness and restless nights, Edmund held his delirious daughter.

“Father, do you think I will die?” Katy asked.

Edmund agonized over how to respond. Complete honesty could break his daughter’s spirit, yet false assurances went against his principles. Shielding Katy from suffering was all that mattered.

“I believe you will recover,” he said at last. “We couldn’t go on without our little Katy.”

Reassured, Katy told her mother, “Father says he couldn’t live without me. Everything will be alright.”

But when Katy’s condition failed to improve and the doctor returned, she asked him directly, “Do you think I’m dangerously ill?”

The doctor’s silence was answer enough. Katy said to her mother, “He didn’t respond because he doesn’t think I’ll get better.”

Seeing her mother’s anguished tears, Katy asked, “Why are you crying?”

“Because I can’t bear to see my darling suffer.”

Katy raised her trembling hand and gently wiped her mother’s tears. “You can live without me, but I couldn’t do without you.”

Losing their 10-year-old daughter devastated Edmund and his wife. Outwardly they carried on, but inwardly they never fully recovered. In time, the stresses of ministry and life took their toll, and Edmund had a mental breakdown. He and his family returned to his hometown and Edmund’s theology had evolved. Many found his universalist, mercy-centered form of worship too lenient and controversial. But Edmund avoided stirring unnecessary discord, quietly preaching his message of divine mercy.

Yet the merciful majesty of Edmund Sears and the universal religion that he preached can be found in the second stanza of his famous Christmas hymn. Prior to this hymn, the term “cloven skies” was popularized in a poem “Ministry of Angels” about the judgment of God parting the skies to rain down on the people. But Edmund rewrote the meaning of the cloven skies as heavens opening to release blessings, not warnings: “Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled.”

He believed in the universal salvation of humanity, which he expressed in the enduring lyrics of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”: “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: O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!”

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, goodwill to men, from heav’n’s all gracious king
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurl
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.

O ye, 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
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

For lo the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old
When with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold
When the new heaven and earth shall own the prince of peace their King
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.