The words for this American carol are based on a poem written by a young Unitarian minister in Massachusetts, Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876), reportedly at the request of his friend and fellow minister, W.P. Lunt. It was first presented at his 1849 Sunday School Christmas celebration and was originally published on December 29, 1849 in a church magazine, The Christian Register
. The poem was not the first Christmas poetry by Sears; he had written other Nativity lyrics and several books on religious topics. In addition, he was the editor for the Boston-based Monthly Religious Magazine
from 1859 to 1871.
The following year, inspired by the poem, a friend of Sears, Richard Storrs Willis(1819-1900), adapted the words to a melody called "Carol," which he had written for the organ. Willis, who was an eminent editor and critic for The New York Tribune
, had studied music in Europe as a young man with, among others, Felix Mendelssohn, the composer of the music for "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
." Mendelssohn so much admired Willis's work that he rearranged some of it for orchestra.