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.
You’re probably familiar with these words from the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
The words for this popular carol actually come from a poem penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during a time of hopelessness for Longfellow and for the United States of America.
In 1861, as you know, the conflict between the North and South escalated into a war which pitted countrymen against each other in a struggle for freedom and equality. During this time of war, our nation descended into the darkest period of its existence previous to that point and ever since.
In the face of this overwhelming national crisis, Longfellow met with tragedy in his own life. In the summer of 1861, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, was preserving some of their daughter’s hair in wax when her dress caught fire. To protect her children, she ran into Longfellow’s study where Longfellow eventually was able to put the fire out.
But the burns caused by the fire resulted in Fanny’s death, and Longfellow himself sustained burns that scarred him for life.
Longfellow went through a period of intense grief over the death of his wife. Not long after, Longfellow’s son, Charles, left to join the war.
Longfellow was likely hearkening back to these times of war, uncertainty, and hopelessness when he penned this verse for the poem Christmas Bells.
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.’
When we look around at our communities, nation, and world, we can see hopelessness.
There is very little peace on earth and hate is strong.
As we continually slip further into societal degradation, further into moral chaos, further into hopelessness, further into hate and pain, peace on earth can seem like an unattainable goal.
On Christmas day the year his wife died, Longfellow’s journal was silent.
The next year, 1862, Christmas day arrived, and Longfellow’s journal was again silent.
Then, on Christmas day 1863, after having received the news that his son, Charles, who had sustained life-threatening wounds in the war would live, Longfellow wrote the words for the poem Christmas Bells, penning this stanza in direct contrast to the despair that he and his nation had experienced.
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.
More than 2,000 years ago peace and hope came to earth in the form of a baby.
He lived among us, died, and rose again, so that we could know Him and the hope that He brings. In the midst of the hate, the sickness, the hurt, the wars, and the despair, Peace came.
And Peace remains.
When you’re tempted to give up hope, remember Jesus.
Remember His hope and peace. And remember that it is our job to take that message of hope and peace to all the world.
If you’re facing a situation or problem that seems too hopeless or too hard to overcome, remember those words that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote almost 150 years ago.
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.
(Elijah Friedeman, author of The Millennial Perspective, is the grandson of Janice Friedeman, Great Bend. His columns can also be heard on his father, Matt Friedeman’s, radio program on American Family Radio.)