Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) composed the words to one of my favorite Christmas carols, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” on Dec. 25, 1864. This carol was originally a poem entitled, “Christmas Bells,” which reflected Longfellow’s despair and grief during the years of the American Civil War and his confident hope of peace. Longfellow’s thoughts and emotions in this poem flowed from the war, the tragic death of his wife, Fanny, and the crippling injury of his son, Charles, from war wounds.
Fanny Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident in 1861, the same year the American Civil War began. The New York Times reported (July 12, 1861), “While seated at her library table, making seals for the entertainment of her two youngest children, a match or piece of lighted paper caught her dress, and she was in a moment enveloped in flames.” Longfellow ran to her and desperately sought to put out the flames. He threw his arms around his wife, trying to smother the fire, burning his own face, arms and hands in the heroic attempt to save his wife’s life. Fanny tragically died the next day.
Longfellow wrote on the first Christmas after Fanny’s death, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year later, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for Dec. 25, 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
On Dec. 1, 1863, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been grievously wounded in the battle of New Hope Church, Virginia, a part of the Mine Run Campaign. The Christmas of 1863 had no entry in Longfellow’s journal.
On Christmas Day in 1864, Longfellow penned the poem, “Christmas Bells.” The reelection of President Lincoln or his hope for the end of the terrible war may have been the occasion for the poem. His son, Charles, did not die of his war injuries. Charles actually died many years later on April 13, 1893 of pneumonia. The writing of “Christmas Bells” or “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” took place as Longfellow sat nursing his son and giving thanks for his survival.
We now sing the immortal words:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till, ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said:
‘For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!’”
As we sing or read the carol, we are reminded, as was Longfellow, that, “God is not dead, nor does He sleep.” The Psalmist writes in Psalm 121:4, “Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” Longfellow, in the midst of his grief, loss and misery affirms that “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”
This glorious carol is a triumphant message that in spite of our tragedies and losses, our confidence is in the Living God Whose ultimate purpose is to bring “… peace on Earth, good will to men.” May the Christ of Christmas, the Prince of Peace, grant you and your families His peace. “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).
Ken Thornton is pastor at First Baptist Church of Pine Bluff.
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