OUR penultimate carol, like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, is by the great hymn-writer Charles Wesley. But while Hark! The Herald Angels was a Wesley original revised (and greatly improved) by another writer, Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending was a Wesley rewrite of an original by the relatively unknown John Cennick.
Cennick was born into an Anglican family in Reading in 1718. When he was nine he heard his dying aunt say: ‘Last night the Lord stood by me and invited me to drink of the fountain of life freely, and I shall stand before the Lord as bold as a lion.’ These words haunted him, becoming the focus of his own fear of death.
He left school at 13 and, failing to get employment, engaged in petty crime and gambling. At 17 he seems to have fallen into a serious depression lasting for two years until he walked into a church.
There he heard the words of Psalm 34: ‘Great are the troubles of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth him out of them all! And he that putteth his trust in God shall not be desolate.’
He said later: ‘My heart danced for joy and my dying soul revived. I heard the voice of Jesus saying, “I am thy salvation”. I no more groaned under the weight of sin. The fears of hell were taken away . . . Christ loved me and died for me, I rejoiced in God my Saviour.’
Cennick joined the nascent Methodist movement but after various differences he moved to the Moravians, an old Protestant denomination. He spent much time as an itinerant evangelist in England and Ireland, often enduring violent opposition, and established more than 40 churches. In 1752 he published a hymn with the opening line Lo! He Cometh, Countless Trumpets, based on Revelation 1:7, which tells of Christ’s Second Coming.
He was only 36 when he died of a fever, leaving a wife and two children, and is buried at the Moravian cemetery in Chelsea.
Three years later Charles Wesley substantially revised Cennick’s hymn and published it under his name as Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending in his Hymns of Intercession for all Mankind of 1758. (Presumably there were no laws about copyright or plagiarism in those days, as such rewrites seem to have been common.)
It is commonly sung to the tune Helmsley, first published in 1763 and attributed to Thomas Olivers (1725–1799), a Welsh Methodist preacher who was said to have heard it whistled in the street. The most likely source is thought to be an Irish song called Guardian Angels, Now Protect Me. Olivers was also author of the Methodists’ Arminian Magazine from 1775 to 1789, when he was sacked by John Wesley for numerous printing errors (sub-editors take note).
Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending was known as one of the Four Great Anglican Hymns in the 19th century after the Rev James King found it was published in 51 of 52 hymnals from the member churches of the Anglican Communion around the world. The others were All Praise to Thee, my God, this Night, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.
I could not find a good video of a choral performance but this audio-only version by the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral and the English Brass Ensemble in 1988 is lovely. It has had only 380 views on YouTube at the time of writing, which seems a shame.