Angels We Have Heard on High

Score of Angels We Have Heard on High

Angels We Have Heard on High was written in 1862 and is based on the older French carol, Les Anges dans nos campagnes.

And that French carol was based on an even older story, more than 1,000 years older, found in the Gospel according to Saint Luke (Luke 2:8-21).

And the story in Luke is fulfilling and even older prophecy, 700 years before the birth of Jesus, detailed in Isa. 7:14.

by Douglas Hargreaves
Sydney, NSW

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Angels We Have Heard on High

Today's most common version of the Christmas carol Angels We Have Heard on High was written in 1862 by Fr. James Chadwick from Drogheda, Ireland. He was at that time chaplain to Lord Stourton and a few years later was elected bishop of the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, Durham.

James based the words on an 18th century French carol Les Anges dans nos campagnes, which is based on Luke 2:8-21.

And Luke chapter 2 is fulfilling and even older prophecy, 700 years before the birth of Jesus, detailed in Isa. 7:14.

The story we read in Luke is about some local shepherds, looking after their sheep through the night. An angel appeared and said "Do not be afraid."

Do not be afraid? They were kidding, right?

Let's just imagine the scene. You are a poor lonely shepherd, sitting quietly on the hillside, minding your own business by looking out for jackals that might attack your flock. And suddenly, without warning, an angel appears, "...and the glory of the Lord shone around them". Luke 2:9 goes on to say "and they were terrified." You can bet they were!

The angel says "Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: To you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord."

After this a great choir of angels appeared saying "Glory to God in the highest, on Earth peace, goodwill toward men" and this is repeated in the carol below:

1 Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o'er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Refrain Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
2 Come to Bethlehem and see
Him Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
3 See Him in a manger laid
Whom the angels praise above;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While we raise our hearts in love.
4 Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?

One version has a slight variation of the first verse, to avoid the apostrophe in "0'er the plains" (which sounds like "Oh! The plains"):

1 Angels we have heard on high,
Singing sweetly through the night,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their brave delight.

The music for this carol is usually 'Gloria', by Edward Shippen Barnes from New Jersey, USA.

'Gloria', by Edward Shippen Barnes
'Gloria', by Edward Shippen Barnes
(Click image for full score)

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Like many carols, remembering the words depends on the carol being sung at least once every Christmas from your childhood years. The rousing refrain is a just four words, sung twice, and repeated at the end of each verse. Therefore, it tends to stick in the memory much more easily than the rest of the carol.

'Gloria in Excelsis Deo!' is also an alternative refrain for at least one other carol: 'Ding Dong Merrily on High'. That carol traditionally has the refrain: 'Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!' but occasionally 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo!' is sung instead.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo! is Latin for 'Glory to God in the highest' (from Luke 2:14), which is the title of an older rousing hymn:


Glória in excélsis Deo
Glory be to God on high.

et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis.
And in earth peace towards men of good will.

Laudámus te,
We praise thee.

benedícimus te,
We bless thee

adorámus te,
We worship thee

glorificámus te
We glorify thee

grátias ágimus tibi propter magnam glóriam tuam
We give thanks to thee for thy great glory

Dómine Deus, Rex cæléstis
O Lord God, heavenly King

Deus Pater omnípotens.
God the Father almighty

Dómine Fili Unigénite, Iesu Christe
O Lord, the only-begotten Son Jesu Christ

Dómine Deus, Agnus Dei, Fílius Patris
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father

qui tollis peccáta mundi, miserére nobis;
Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us

qui tollis peccáta mundi, súscipe deprecatiónem nostram.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer

Qui sedes ad déxteram Patris, miserére nobis.
Thou that sittest at the right of the Father, have mercy upon us

Quóniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dóminus, tu solus Altíssimus
For thou only art Holy. Thou only art the Lord. Thou only art the Most High

Iesu Christe, cum Sancto Spíritu: in glória Dei Patris.
Thou only, O Jesu Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art Most High in the glory of God the Father.


This older 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo!' is a fabulous piece, but not an easy sing-along for most people. In contrast, Angels We Have Heard on High is much less challenging and with the music supplied by Edward Barnes, the carol remains as popular today as it was in 1862.

If you have further information about this carol, please email us and we'll add it to this page.

The traditional understanding of text of Luke 2:14 is "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (KJV) but this has serious theological consequences as it leads one to believe that peace is owed to all men, regardless of their will.

More recent translations show "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!" (NET)


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