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Christmas Bells: From Despair to Assurance.

Dunker Church with the dead laying before it, on Antietam Battlefield (Library of Congress photo)

Born in 1807, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow became a famous poet and one of the most famous Americans. His life wasn’t all happiness, however. His first wife died in 1835 during a miscarriage. then in 1861, Longfellow’s second wife, Francis, died from injuries received from burns when her dress was ignited when sealing her daughter’s newly cut curls in wax. November 1863 brought Longfellow the news that his son Charles had been seriously wounded in fighting during the Civil War, and if not paralyzed would required many months to recover. Longfellow’s despair was deep, evidenced by journal comments like:

“I can make no record of these days, Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

H.W. Longfellow and his dog Trap (Longfellow Historical Site photo)

It was on Christmas day in 1864, hearing the church bells announcing the birth of Christ and the carols proclaiming “peace on earth, good-will to men,” that Longfellow penned the words of a poem that confessed his despair but finally affirmed his hope in the living God. Writing before the end of the Civil War, he included two verses that refer to the ravages of war that were omitted when the poem, “Christmas Bells” was made into the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” These two verses, while obsolete in the years following the end of the war, have become more applicable in our world today, where it seems that peace is fleeting and good-will only a dream.

Below is Longfellow’s original poem “Christmas Bells” with all seven verses. I encourage you to read through it all and affirm with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow the assurance of hope and peace that we have in the living God who ultimately will cause wrong to fail and right to prevail with “peace on earth, good-will to men!”

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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!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
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!”

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Bibliography

“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Website: Poets.org (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/henry-wadsworth-longfellow), accessed Dec. 22, 2017.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “Christmas Bells.” Website: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  A Maine Historical Society Website (http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=40), accessed Dec. 22, 2017.

Stewart, Tom. “The Story Behind I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Website: What Saith the Scripture (http://www.whatsaiththescripture.com/Fellowship/Edit_I.Heard.the.Bells.html), accessed Dec. 22, 2017.

Taylor, Justin. “The True Story of Pain and Hope Behind “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Website: The Gospel Coalition (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/), accessed Dec. 22, 2017.

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