I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

December 18, 2013

by Dr. David Allen

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of America’s most beloved poets. His poetry brought him world-wide acclaim with such masterpieces as “Evangeline,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” and “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Many a child in school was pulled to the edge of his seat while listening to Longfellow’s famous poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Longfellow was no stranger to tragedy and sorrow. His first wife died in a miscarriage and his second wife perished in a house fire. His oldest son, Charles, was seriously wounded while serving as a Union Army officer during the Civil War.

On Christmas Day, 1864, the carnage of the Civil War distressed Longfellow beyond measure. The horrendous suffering and countless young bodies and lives maimed or lost weighed heavily upon him. While sitting by the bedside of Charles who was recovering from his near-fatal wounds, Longfellow composed the words to a poem he entitled, “Christmas Bells.”  Eight years later the words were edited and set to music. Today, most any hymnal you peruse will contain his poem/song entitled, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Three stanzas speak directly about the ongoing war in Longfellow’s day:

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!”

Longfellow did not end his poem in despair with bowed head, for he knew God was writing a grander narrative. His closing stanza expresses it clearly:

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!”

Back in 2005, Sherri and I spent Christmas separated from our son, Jared, who was fighting a war in Iraq thousands of miles away. For nine months, like so many other parents, we were never sure but that a sedan might pull up in front of our house and well-dressed military personnel arrive at our front door to tell us the news that Jared was not coming home. Thankfully, one day at the airbase in Fort Worth, Texas, a C 130 Transport slowly lumbered in the sky toward the runway and touched down. Moments later, some of America’s finest emerged to the cheering families awaiting them. Of course, his mother saw him before I did, but I’ll never forget the emotion of that day when I saw Jared walk across that tarmac and I knew he was safely home.

This Christmas, as Christians sing this and other carols of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we do so with the clear vision that our world is not teetering or tottering out of control. The King of Kings, upon whose shoulders the governments rest, reigns in heaven! One day the trumpet will sound, and the first Noel will become the last Noel.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!


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