Review of Chronological Study Bible by Thomas Nelson

The Chronological Study Bible is something that’s pretty close to a must-have for anyone who’s serious about studying the Bible. We live at a time when there are hundreds of cheap “themed” Bibles that are really not much more than a standard Bible with a few devotionals thrown in randomly. This Bible, published by Thomas Nelson, was put together by no less than 13 contributors, each Ph.D.s and Th.Ms in various universities around the country. In the introduction, they state that one of the goals of the Bible is to “help Bible readers join the scholar’s quest for historical truth”.

A lot of us who read the Bible make the mistake of reading it in a vacuum. But something important to remember about the Bible is that while it was inspired by God, it was written by human beings who lived in the world. And so while a lot of people just read the Bible as a theoretical religious book, understanding the world that the authors lived in really helps you understand the text in context of their world. And in turn, we can apply the text more effectively to our world.

The Bible is the regular NKJV text of the Bible, but both entire books and sections of books have been rearranged to reflect as accurately as possible the actual order of the events described in the Bible. This might strike some purists as a bit sacrilegious, but the truth is that through the Bible’s history there have been different orderings, including when Jerome translated the Bible in the 4th century AD, when the Greek translation called the Septuagint was created, and the original Hebrew manuscripts. The editors of this Bible are transparent about the difficulties of providing exact dates for certain Bible passages and even disagreements among themselves, but the end product seems to be a very good reflection of chronology. It different slightly from other chronological Bibles I’ve seen, but the ordering never seems arbitrary and is always explained.

In addition to the chronological text, there are a huge number of features. They divide the Bible text into what they call “Epochs” and describe what was going on in world history at the same time as the events described in the Bible were happening. Their attention to detail is amazing. They talk about what daily life was for people living in the times and places that the Bible’s events took place. The full-color pages include photos of archaeological discoveries that help you further visualize the areas and the day-to-day lives. Where appropriate in the context, they give a lot of insights into world history–it’s amazing how understanding the history behind the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans help you understand the context of the words in the Bible. This isn’t a “Study Bible” in the traditional sense where every verse in annotated with background information or explanation, but on the other hand, nearly every page does have a useful call-out that provides this kind of context. I also love details such as how the top of every page tells you what years (BC or AD) the events occurred.

The book itself is stunningly beautiful. The version I had a chance to read had a greyish-green and blue faux-leather cover with the words “Chronological Student Bible” embossed in the front. I prefer the imitation leather cover to the hardcover, as it makes it lighter. The book is 1700 pages and about 9″ by 6″ by 2″, so it has to use very thin paper; if you’re not very careful with it it can tear easily. The one slightly annoying thing I found is that a lot of the pages are “stuck” together when the book is new, and you need to carefully pry them apart. But it’s a reasonable price to pay to keep the entire volume in one, and each page also has gold edging to finish the classic look.

As with any time you’re reading scholarly and academic commentary on the Bible, you do need to prepare yourself. Most of the time, the editors of this Bible stick to clearly researched historical facts, but even when they veer into conjecture, I find their commentary fair and good for me to use as reference. I know that some people might feel comfortable, for example, when they read that things like the fact that there were other accounts of the flood, or that authors traditionally associated with certain books may not have been the actual authors. While I like about these editors’ commentary is that they present the facts without necessarily drawing conclusions for you (for example, one Amazon reviewer said that the editors’ inclusion of other accounts of the flood implied that the Bible’s account was not reliable, but I don’t see the commentators ever saying that).


Overall, I highly recommend this Bible as one of the main ones in your library.

Review of Baby Wren and the Great Gift

Most children’s books you see these days seem to consist of cute (and not-so-cute) little illustrated animals and children with simplistic rhymes and ditties. But every now and again you come across one that transcends the banal and approaches being a thing of beauty, and even a work of art.

Baby Wren and the Great Gift is published by Christian children’s book publisher Zonderkids. It’s the story of a little wren who lives in a canyon who encounters various other animals also in the canyon–a kingfisher diving into the water, a sunfish splashing in the deep, an eagle soaring above the clouds, and so on–and laments that he doesn’t have the same gifts that they have. In the process, the author Sally-Lloyd Jones uses her undeniable gift of language to express the beauty and wonder of creation. Her words are supplemented by simple and yet stunningly beautiful watercolor paintings by Jen Corace.

(Spoiler follows)

Toward the end of the book, when you’re feeling a little sorry for the little wren, the wren takes in all the beauty it sees around it, and then the tiny bird starts to sing a song of thanks for all the beauty it has witnessed throughout the story. The little wren’s song fills the entire canyon and all the inhabitants of the canyon are blessed by the little bird’s joy.

The story is simple and yet surprisingly moving and powerful. Within this simple little story are so many lessons. First, it’s a reminder to children (or for that matter, anyone who feels “small”) that even though they may not be able to do the sorts of things others can, that God has still given them gifts that they can use to find and achieve their purpose in life and to make the world a better place. And second, it’s a reminder that humility and thanksgiving are among the most powerful gifts one can have, a lesson I appreciate tremendously in this world where so many children are made to feel entitled and the center of the universe.

Something that I find really interesting is that the author conveys all this without mentioning the words “Jesus” or “God”. It reminds me a little of the book of Esther in the Bible, which also doesn’t mention the name of God at all, and yet you could feel God’s work throughout. A non-Christian could read this book and appreciate it for how it teaches positive messages to children such as the importance of being thankful and the importance of finding out what their unique talents and gifts are. But of course, to Christians the message becomes much more powerful knowing that there’s a loving God behind all of it.

The book is hardcover and measures 9 inches by 11 inches. The paper is glossy and relatively thick, with the beautiful full-color watercolors.

This is one that easily get 5 out of 5 stars from me, and it’s one I hope I’ll be able to read to my daughter over and over again. Highly recommended.


Review of God is Watching Over You

A few months ago I reviewed a new book called Thank You, Lord for Everything, but P.J. Lyons and Tim Warnes. It instantly made its way into one of the books that I read with my little daughter. The words were simple yet full of meaning, and the illustrations of the little bear and his friends and family were utterly adorable.

I didn’t think they could top that, but Lyons and Warnes have published their second book called God is Watching Over You. And its another winner.

Like its predecessor, it’s a sturdy board book that measures about 8 inches by 8 inches. The cover is slightly plush to the touch, and the pages inside are made of solid cardboard, so the book itself will ensure many nights of reading.

Also like its predecessor, the story is simple and sweet, this time following the adventures of a little lamb as he finishes a day of play in the park and goes home with his mom and dad, stopping on the way to watch the stars come out, the birds go to sleep. He takes a bath, reads a book, says a prayer, climbs into bed with his treasured bear, and is tucked into bed by his dad. He takes one last peek out the window, and the mom comes and tucks him into bed again. The rhymes are pleasant and soothing, and it’s one of the absolutely perfect books to read to your sleepy little one.

The illustrations, like the previous volume, are also amazingly cute, fun, and whimsical without being saccharine. The little lamb is absolutely adorable and your little one will  feel an instant bond. There are wonderful details throughout you can have fun pointing out to your child. The full color illustrations pop off the page and are sure to catch the attention of your child.

The best age for the book is probably just when your child is starting to read–the words are simple enough for him or her to read along with you. But even if you have a younger child, he or she will still appreciate the soothing rhymes and the beautiful illustrations. And once again, the message is simple yet powerful–every day and every night God is watching over you. It’s a great lesson not just to your child, but a good reminder to you and me too.

In just two books I’ve become a big fan of Lyons and Warnes, and can’t wait to see what they come up with next. In the meantime, these two books definitely have a place in our bedtime routine for the next few years.

Review of Snuggle Time Prayers

Snuggle Time Prayers is another beautiful board book. It measures about 5 inches by 7 inches and has a slightly plush cardboard cover and about 15 sturdy cardboard pages inside.

The premise of the book is fairly simple. Each page features a short poem. Each poem has a simple title such as “I’m Amazing” or “God’s Love” and is accompanied by a scriptural reference and a beautiful full-color illustration that spans two pages.

The poems themselves are simple and each is written as a prayer to God, thanking Him and praising Him. While I did appreciate the message in each poem, I have to admit some of the poems just read a bit stilted to me, as if the author relied a bit too much on a rhyming dictionary to piece together the verses.

For everyone I played with / For food, and fun, and rest; / For every smile that came my way / Thanks, God–you’re the best!

Granted, the audience for these books is infants, toddlers, and young children who probably don’t care too much about sophisticated rhyme and meter, so we can cut the author a little slack. That said, I’d be sure to thumb through a preview of the book before you rush to buy it if you’re a bit picky when it comes to children’s poetry. I think most children and many adults will appreciate it, but there is a subset of adult readers who may have that “fingernails on a chalkboard” feeling when reading these rhymes. Simplicity is fine, but some may find the verses lacking a certain bit of artistry.

Similarly, the illustrations are beautiful, but while some might look at them as adorable and cute, I can see others possibly seeing them as a bit too schmaltzy or sentimental. If you like things like Cherished Teddies or Precious Moments figurines you’ll probably appreciate the artwork, but if you find those things a bit too “cutesy”, you may want to move on.

This is definitely one of those books that’s probably best judged “in the eye of the beholder”.  It wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it may be yours.

Review of Little One, God Loves You

Little One, God Loves You is a board book that clocks in at under 10 pages and roughly 80 words total. It was written by Amy Warren Hilliker. If the “Warren” sounds familiar, it’s because the author is the daughter of Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold over 30 million copies.

This book is actually a reissue from the original version that was released in 2004. The original version had illustrations of a cartoon multicultural family. In this version, they decided to go all bunny. The illustrations by Polona Lovsin are painted in watercolor style. The detail is exquisite, from the flowers and butterflies of the opening scene, to the family dinner of mommy, daddy, and brother/sister bunny sitting down to eat their carrot dinner with grandma and grandpa bunny (with the grey fur). The little baby bunny who’s the protagonist of the story is really, really adorable, and your child will instantly be able to identify with the little one as it wakes up, eats with its family, plays, helps out with chores, and says good night.

The message is “inspired by The Purpose Driven Life”. If you never read that book in years (or ever), here’s a reminder of how that book is organized:

  • What on Earth Am I Here For?
  • Purpose #1: You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure (Worship)
  • Purpose #2: You Were Formed for God’s Family (Fellowship)
  • Purpose #3: You Were Created to Become Like Christ (Discipleship)
  • Purpose #4: You Were Shaped for Serving God (Ministry)
  • Purpose #5: You Were Made for a Mission (Mission)


Rather than teaching these principles in a heavy-handed approach, this book does a nice job of demonstrating these principles through the life of this little baby bunny. The rhyme that corresponds to Purpose #3 reads “Little one, little one on the go / God’s the one who helps you grow”, along with cute pictures of the bunny playing in the grass. Purpose #4 is communicated by the rhyme “Little one, little one, show you care / Be God’s helper everywhere” with an illustration of the little bunny helping gather acorns.


Even though this book was inspired by The Purpose Driven Life, the book works regardless of whether you know that or not. That’s because the principles themselves are scripturally sound. It’s never too early to start to teach kids that God does have a purpose in their lives, and that their lives will be successful if they love God and serve others.

Great book, great illustrations, great message, and an easy read with lots of great pictures to look through. The marketing material for this book says that it’s for kids aged 4-8, but it’s so simple I think you can go younger.

Review of All Aboard the Ark

While most of the children’s books I’ve had the opportunity to review have been for children who have started to read already, All Aboard the Ark is a great book to read to infants and toddlers who maybe aren’t quite ready to read yet, but certainly recognize pictures in a book and who may even be learning basic words.

The book is certainly not a theological exposition of the story of Noah and the Ark, but of course that’s not what it’s meant to be (you won’t even find Noah in the book). But that’s okay. The main point of the story is to serve as a bedtime story using the story of the Ark as a backdrop. This is why the author of the book takes little artistic liberties (such as having all the animals taking a bath together in a giant wooden bathtub, and having all the animals taking a nap together under the stars once they get on dry ground to close the book). But the main points of the story are there–there are animals that go onto the ark two-by-two, there’s a big flood where the animals are safe, there’s a dove who finds an olive branch, and God makes a rainbow in his love.

The words are cute and easy-to-read. They’re simple rhymes such as “Rain pours down / We start to float / We’re nice and / warm inside our boat”. They’re printed in large colorful type.

But the star of the book are the pictures. They’re colorful hand-drawn cartoon illustrations that are a great balance of cute and funny. There are certainly a lot of details in each picture that’ll engage your youngster. The animals go two-by-two, of course; there’s a giraffe, an elephant, a turtle, a bunny, and a lion all happily enjoying their ride.

The board book format is durable and will survive many, many readings. The combination of simple but catchy rhymes and fun illustrations makes this a great book for the little one in your life.

Review of The Word of Promise New Testament (Audiobook)

If you’re anything like me, you’ve made resolutions over the past years (or decades) to read the entire Bible all the way through. On January 1 you read Genesis 1-3 right on track. But within a few weeks, usually around Leviticus, you start slipping. “I’ll catch up tomorrow”. And then a few months pass and you realize you haven’t even made it through the Pentateuch.

I’ve tried everything, buying “Read Your Bible Through in A Year” Bibles, using Bible Reading plans in every Bible app imaginable, blocking out an hour of my day. Nothing ever seems to stick, though. And in our increasing society of short attention spans, where it’s hard for people to read past one page of a blog post, much less the entire Bible, it’s happening more and more.

Ironically, through most of human history in the last 2000 years men struggled and even died for the privilege of reading just one page of the Bible, much less the whole thing. And I’m not talking just about the 1500 years before Gutenberg; there are still many countries around the world today that heavily regulate or even ban the ownership of the Bible.

The irony, of course, is that in the Western world, most of us have Bible sitting on shelves collecting dust. Some view the Bible as just a quaint historical document; some just view it as something their grandparents read. But we often forget that it’s the Living Word. So ironically, while it’s never been more ubiquitous than it is today, there’s no longer a need for the guy downstairs to compel kings and governments to ban it, as humans are banning it themselves.

Which leads me to this latest review. It’s an audiobook of the New Testament called The Word of Promise. And if you’ve been stuck trying to read the Bible through, you can try the next best thing, which is to listen to someone read it to you.

Over the years, there have been a couple great “Bibles on Tape”. Alexander Scourby originally recorded the King James Bible on LP records in the 1950s, and those were the gold standard for years. More recently, Max McLean released The Listener’s Bible, which continued the deep, resonant voice of Scourby, just with a slightly more pronounced accent and a continuous music track in the background.

The Word of Promise, released by Thomas Nelson, comes in both a New Testament Audio Bible and a Complete Audio Bible version. It’s unlike the Scourby and McLean audit Bibles in that there’s not just a single narrator, but a whole cast of them. And not just anyone. Jim Caviezel, best known for this portrayal of Christ in The Passion of the Christ, takes on narration of Jesus’ words. And other “parts” are narrated by other stars whose names you’ll recognize; Marisa Tomei, Michael York, Richard Dreyfuss, Stacy Keach, Lou Gossett, Jr, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Terence Stamp, and many, many more.

The Bible is presented in “Dramatic Audio Theater”, which more or less hearkens back to the days of old radio drama, complete with the background music track and subtle sound effects. The actors keep it subtle as well–none of them ham it up or play their roles overly dramatically, but keep it somewhere between a dramatic reading and regular narration. The acting doesn’t distract from the message itself, it only augments it. I remember when I used to teach Sunday school I’d have the kids “act out” the parts of the Bible in a similar way, and it really helps put you in the stories themselves and even helps you understand them more, rather than feel like you’re just reading a dry college textbook. Something else that drives me nuts is when people read the Bible in a group and start it with “verse 1”, “verse 2”, “verse 3”, which totally breaks up the flow of reading. Obviously that’s not something to worry about on this audio Bible.

The delivery mechanism of using audio CDs is feeling a bit antiquated at this point. As other reviewers have noted, the plastic case for the 2015 New Testament version isn’t exactly the easiest to open or to figure out how to get CDs in or out. And unless you’re in the car, chances are you hardly use a CD player anymore, so you’re more likely to copy the files into iTunes or something (which is what I did, one CD at a time). Granted, I’m one of those people who likes to have a physical copy myself rather than relying keeping everything online, but in this case I would have preferred distribution on a flash drive or something.

Overall, I highly recommend this–it feels like a natural progression from the Scourby LPs to the McLean cassettes to an audio Bible for this generation.

Review of The Beginner’s Bible and Kid-Sized Devotions

I remember when I was growing up my mom got me my very own copy of The Children’s Living Bible. I remember cherishing it. The edges of the book were a red color, which was different than the orange color of my brother’s and sister’s Bible. The cover had a picture of Jesus holding a little lamb and there were prints of various oil paintings of Bible scenes inside that I loved thumbing through to see. Even at an age where I’d just barely begun to be able to read, there was something in me that appreciated having a full Bible, not a dumbed-down abridged version, that I could carry round with me and flip to even as the adults were opening their Bibles.

The Beginner’s Bible is also a full-sized Bible. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition. Unlike other Bibles it doesn’t spend too much time on extraneous material–there’s a two-page Q&A on “Getting to Know Jesus”, a four-page preface about the version of the Bible (the New International Reader’s Version), and then you go right into Genesis. In the back of the Bible there’s a short eight-page dictionary and then a six-page list of “150 famous Bible stories” with the verses you can flip to. There’s a book introduction and an outline before each book that nicely sets it up. I was a little surprised to see the lack of maps, the one thing that as a child kept me awake during so many long sermons.

The highlight of this Bible, of course, are the full-color cartoon pictures. Every 100-150 pages or so there’s an insert with a detailed cartoon illustration in the style the Beginner’s Bible is known for–sort of comical illustrations of people with big round googly eyes. What they lack in any kind of theological significance they certainly make up for in capturing the attention of very young children, although they’re the sort of thing that kids will quickly grow out of.

The version of the Bible, the nIRV, is one I wasn’t familiar with before, but it follows along the same lines of the Living Bible and the Good News Bible of trying to paraphrase the Word into simple, accessibly, easy-to-understand language. Because the translation was based on the NIV (which itself was intended to be easier to read), it does a fairly good job at being both easy-to-read and accurate to the text. Since the NIV itself is already quite simple, it’s really up to you and your child’s language level as to whether you want to give them this version. I do like how where it doesn’t try to inject a layer of interpretation to verses with more difficult-to-understand concepts, but simply rewrite the verses in simpler English, still leaving it up to the reader to do his or her own interpretation.

Overall this Bible is an excellent “first Bible” for your child. He or she likely won’t read it cover-to-cover, but it’s nice to know that the whole thing is there if he or she ever needs it.

The “Kid-Sized Devotionals” that comes in this bundle was a little less impressive. On the surface it sounds like a great idea–365 bite-sized readings along with a prayer and a Bible verse, copiously decorated with Beginner’s Bible illustrations. The main problem is that you can kind of tell that they put all their work into the cartoon illustrations (which are excellent) and seemingly “phoned in” the devotional text itself. Each “devotional” isn’t really a devotional but just a part of a Bible story. This would be fine, but each “day” is also only about 3 sentences long, making for a very short reading each day that isn’t likely to stick with the child nor pique his or her interest. Likewise, the “prayer” consists only of a short 5-7 word sentence. I find I have to read a couple “days” at a time to engage the child.

Overall, the whole bundle gets 3.5 stars; the Bible is well made and the cartoons are engaging, so it’s no wonder it’s been a best-seller. But as they try to extend their brand, I do think they need to put a little more effort into understanding the substance of what makes things like devotionals “work” and not just go through the motions of what sounds good in a boardroom.


Review of Precious Moments 5-Minute Bedtime Treasury

Precious Moments are one of those things that just about everyone in the Christian world, and many in the secular world, know about. The little teardrop-shaped children are easily recognizable everywhere. They were first drawn by Samuel Butcher in the 1970’s. The first collectible figurine line was created in 1978, and throughout the 80’s and 90’s they were one of the hottest collectibles. They were oh-so-cute and the thing to get for birthdays, weddings, holidays, and special milestones in life.

Today the craze seems to have died down a bit, but the figurines are still available. And I was pleasantly surprised to see them make an appearance in the book I’ll be reviewing today, Precious Moments 5-Minute Bedtime Treasury.

The book itself is solidly made. It’s a slightly padded hardcover that measures a little smaller than a sheet of paper, about 11 inches by 8 inches. Every page inside is full color and made of a thicker stock than usual. The book has space in the front for a child to write a family tree, answer questions “all about me”, draw a handprint, and keep a record of church events. On the last two pages are spaces for someone to write a prayer for the child, and for the child to write his or her own.

The book doesn’t provide a suggested age range, you can probably start sharing this with them once they start understanding words and learning to read from ages 3-7. The stories are true to the title of the book–you can definitely get through them in 5 minutes, so it’s great to read with your child right before bed and then conclude with a Bible verse called a “bedtime Bible promise”. There’s an article in the book that talks about establishing a comforting routine at night.

The book is divided into three categories: God is Trustworthy (Old Testament stories), God is Good (Psalms and Proverbs), and God is Love (New Testament stories). There are about 46 stories in total. The stories are paraphrased from the International Children’s Bible, and do a pretty good job of being accurate and complete.

The star of this book, of course, are the adorable Precious Moments children. There are illustrations throughout of Precious Moments children as the characters of various Bible stories, or just pictures of them in everyday situations like a teacher teaching kids or a pair of kids having a picnic. Some of the illustrations are full-page ones filled with all kinds of detail that children would love just to stare at (in fact, especially for younger kids you might find there’s a lot more interest in the pictures than in the words). And the detail is such that you can go through every one with your child and point out different objects and animals. Every last illustration is absolutely delightful and reminiscent of those figurines and artwork we loved back in the 1980’s. If there’s one gripe I have, it’s just an recurring pet peeve of mine that they show an illustration of Christ as a Caucasian man with European features and a neatly trimmed beard. That’s of course probably not what He looked like, and I’m one who believes that we should leave what He did actually look like to each of our individual hearts. I wish more people could just portray Jesus the subtle, respectful manner that the movie Ben Hur did.

As for the text of the book, for the most part it seems to follow the Bible closely, not a surprise since it literally is a paraphrase from a Bible translation. The main pet peeve I have here is that certain words go a bit too far in my opinion in terms of sacrificing accuracy for sounding overly conversational and colloquial. For example, instead of the word “blessed” they use the word “happy”, which of course is not all accurate. Instead of the word “wise” they use “smart”, again, not quite the same thing. I appreciate the effort of trying to make the Bible to those with the most basic vocabulary, but it’s not like those words they replaced were very difficult ones.

Still, we’re in such dire need of great, engaging, appealing books for children these days and despite the flaws the selection of stories and beautiful illustrations make this a worthwhile purchase, especially if there are girls in your household. I look forward to being able to read it with my little girl.

Review of The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs

While I’ve been writing a lot of reviews on various kinds of books, my first love of course is with hymns and church music. And so when the opportunity came up for me to review The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs I jumped at the chance.

As you probably know by reading my writing on the Classic Hymns portion of this site, I love to dig into the history of hymns. It’s far too common for us to sing certain hymns so much that it begins to become routine. Very often, especially when you look at those beloved hymns that have stood the test of time, you’ll find that understanding the background of the hymn very often helps you appreciate the hymns so much more and helps you get so much more out of singing it. And all this is especially true of Christmas hymns and songs.

As happens whenever you look into the background of history of anyone or anything, you’ll probably find some of the histories behind the hymns fascinating and uplifting, and others on the more mundane side. But I think all can help you develop a deeper knowledge and appreciation for them.

This book dives deep into the background of 21 hymns and songs:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
O, Christmas Tree
The Holly and Ivy
I Saw Three Ships
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Good Christian Men, Rejoice
O Come, All Ye Faithful
While Shepherds Watched
O Holy Night
Ding dong! Merrily on High
Angels from the Realms of Glory
Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
Away in a Manger
I Wonder as I Wander
Good King Wenceslas
Personent Hodie
Here We Come a-Wassailing
The Twelve Days of Christmas
We Three Kings
What Child Is This
Jingle Bells

I’ll speak to the commentary around two of my favorite hymns, “O Holy Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.

O Holy Night, as most of us know, is of French origin. Placide Cappeau was asked to write a poem for a Christmas pageant that was set up to raise money for the local church’s window fund. His lyrics were coupled with leading opera composer Adoplhe Adam’s music, and a hymn was born and first performed Christmas Eve 1847.

The version of the hymn most of us know was the English translation by John Sullivan Dwight. As someone whose tried (and failed) in the past to translate hymns from one language to another, it’s a nearly impossible task to translate word-for-word and end up with a singable version. Dwight did the wise thing and rewrote the hymn, keeping the basic meaning but adding his own edits and style.

What’s fascinating when you look at the original French and the English translation is how much the hymn was a reflection of its times. Phrases such as “the slave is our brother” carried extra meaning on the eve of the French and American Revolutions.

The hymn, in both French and English, went on to take on a life of its own. A popular story, which may or may not be apocryphal, is that on Christmas Eve 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, one French soldier began to sing this hymn on the front lines in the darkness of the night. The Prussians, instead of firing at him, sang “Von Himmel Hoch” (a hymn written by by Martin Luther). And for that one night, there was peace.

On Christmas Eve 1906, the song became the first piece of music to be broadcast live on the radio, and remains one of the most beloved Christmas hymns today, as fresh today as the day it was written.

The story of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is equally fascinating. It provides the original lyrics (including a scan in his own handwriting) of Charles Wesley’s 9-stanza poem, first published in 1739. And it goes through the details of how Wesley’s original text was modified and what this did to the integrity of the hymn. The short answer is, in most cases it made the hymn much more singable, but at perhaps the expense of the deeper meanings of the original poem.

A good example of this is in the very first line. Wesley’s original lyrics were “Hark how all the welkin rings” which was changed to “Hark the herald angels sing”. We love the second version, mainly because we’ve fallen in love with it in our pulpits and I still get goosebumps when I hear Charlie Brown and his friends sing it every year. It’s interesting to know that the original word “welkin” was a real word (Shakespeare used it) that refers to “the sky, the firmament, the heavens”, and a much more apt description of what took place that night. Gant doesn’t suggest there’s anything wrong with the adapted translation, of course, but I appreciated the context of the original lyrics so that each time I sing it I can fully picture that scene in my head instead of the drawing of three angels with their hymnal drawn in the piano sheet music book I had growing up.

Gant also debunks certain false narratives about the hymn. For example, a common misconception is that Felix Mendelssohn disapproved of the lyrics to this hymn being coupled with his music. The truth is, Mendelssohn made this remark about an entirely different set of English lyrics and the coupling of Wesley’s lyrics to his music didn’t happen until years after his death. While we recognize Mendelssohn and Wesley in our hymnals, we never speak of a choirboy named William Hayman Cummings who brought them together.

The book is written in a rather “academic” style and that’s for good reason–the author is Andrew Gant who is a professor at Oxford University. He also happens to be a choirmaster, church musician, writer, and composer. In fact, in conjunction with this book he also published an accompaniment CD (sold separately).

As I read the book, a few things struck me. First, the depth of research is amazing, especially considering that many of these hymns were written hundreds of years ago. Gant does an excellent job of digging into minute details of the background of both hymn lyrics and tunes.

I love the fact that the full music and lyrics of each hymn is included, but also scanned images of original hymnal pages, typeset music for older and alternate variations of some of the hymns, and as I said, even scanned images of other historical artifacts.

If I had one gripe about the book, it’s a minor one. Sometimes the writing felt too academic and textbook-like when I would have preferred something a little more accessible. Granted, this is just personal preference and given that this book is likely going to be literally used as a textbook, it’s not something that I’d change. And I do appreciate that Gant did not sacrifice substance for style. I guess the onus falls on folks like me to take the meat of what Gant wrote and to turn it into a more casual, readable form (and as I expand the Classic Hymns section of the site, I will definitely be using his book as reference).