This poetic hymn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has long been one of my favorites at Christmas. Especially when I see people surround by grief and still recognizing, as Longfellow did, the hope that we have in Christ. The song was originally called Christmas Bells but the title was later changed to the one we now recognize, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.
Until I started researching carols for this series I never knew the background of Longfellow, although he is perhaps one of the greatest American poets to date. I love reading and sometimes I ignore the author in favor of the writings. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s story brought me to tears as I read it and, yet, at the same time, encouraged me that he could find peace amidst so much tragedy.
Two years before he wrote I Heard the Bells, Henry’s wife, Fannie, was tragically killed in a fire and he was severely burned in trying to save her. For two years he lived in his grief, looking after 6 children. He wrote one year that the children would all say “Merry Christmas” to him, and yet, he would never feel that again. Such sweet love for his wife.
During that time period, the Civil War had begun. Longfellow’s son, Charles, enlisted to fight. He was commissioned as an officer but just a few months later, on November 27, Charles was shot. The bullet entered his shoulder and exited through his back, narrowly missing his spine. Henry rushed to his son’s side and was told by the first doctor they saw that his son would be paralyzed. Later, three other doctors told Longfellow that his son would not be paralyzed but would need months of recuperation in order to walk again.
On Christmas Day, Henry Longfellow heard the bells ringing and sat and wrote this iconic poem. Knowing the story behind it, makes the words even more poignant. I can picture him sitting, thinking about the horrors of war and his love for his wife as he wrote, “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.”
And then it’s like the Lord stepped in and spoke to the poet’s heart. “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.” I always feel a great swell in my chest at this verse. When I sing it, it’s like the words need to be sung from the rooftop for all the world to hear! We all experience grief and tragedy, but the truth remains the same:
God Is Not Dead, Nor Doth He Sleep!
If there is one thing I tell everyone I meet, it is this! My hope is that this song resonates in your heart this Christmas. God is still on His throne and even though we can’t see it, the wrong will fail and the right prevail.