Henry Longfellow was one of the most widely known American poets in the 19th century. What’s not as well-known is a poem he wrote called, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day which was eventually put to music and has since become a cherished Christmas hymn. What’s beautiful about this Christmas melody is the incredible story that led him to put his pen to paper on Christmas morning, 1863.
The Story Behind the Song
Henry and his beloved wife, Elizabeth, were married for 18 years and had six children. Tragedy struck when Elizabeth was attempting to seal an envelope with sealing wax, and her dress caught fire. Henry responded to his wife’s screams and attempted to extinguish the flames with his own body, but his attempts were in vain, and she died the next morning. The burns left on Henry’s body were so bad that he was unable to attend his own wife’s funeral.
Just two years later, Charles, his eldest son, left his home in Massachusetts to join Lincoln’s army, wanting to fight in the Civil War. On December 1st, 1863, Henry received the news that his son was severely injured due to a bullet hitting part of his spine. The news conveyed included the possibility of paralysis; regardless, Henry was informed, his son’s recovery would be long and difficult.
That Christmas morning, Henry, a 57-year-old widow and father of sixth children with one facing the possibility of paralysis, stood outside his home overcome with agony and sorrow, his heart as cold as the bitter winter that surrounded him.
It was then that the Christmas bells began ringing in Cambridge. Simultaneous to their glorious chiming, he heard the choir in the church begin singing “Peace on Earth,” an anthem based on Luke 2:14. Surrounded by the resounding melodies of the bells and the lyrics that declared: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Henry entered the warmth of his home and penned the words to I Hear the Bells. He writes this in the last stanzas:
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.”
In the midst of his despair, he recognizes that the sin and brokenness in the world mocks the voice that declares: “Peace on earth!” And yet, as the ringing swells and reaches his soul, the melody settles and reminds him of the hope that God is alive and that righteousness will prevail, no matter what evils or hardships are faced in this life.
Can You Hear the Bells This Christmas Season?
It’s often during the Christmas season that the pain from suffering is felt more acutely. We feel intense longing for the loved one who passed away; the empty chair from a child unable to return home for the holidays feels like it sits center-stage, and the disease we’re battling makes us nostalgic and reflective, causing us to wonder if we will be present with our families next year or not.
No one can entirely remove that pain in this life, and yet, what this time of year reminds us of more than any other is the peace that is provided to us through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. John 14:27 says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” The peace that Jesus provides does not require happy or good circumstances, but it is a peace that is present even when we feel desperate from our pain.
And this peace from Jesus cannot be taken away. It’s not the kind of peace offered by our neighborhood protection or by a doctor’s promise of healing. It’s a peace that reminds us that Jesus has overcome all the troubles in this life, and He is the only one who can claim this. It is His peace that He bestows on us, and if you have experienced it, you know how extraordinary, how unmatched it truly is.
Jesus came to earth for you, beloved by Christ, and He gave His life in order for righteousness to prevail. And in doing this, Jesus says to you, and to me, the unmatched peace that I have with my Father you will now experience by the power of Holy Spirit. That peace is a deep, heart-guarding peace that is felt in the whirlwind of suffering and pain. It’s a peace that rings louder than the woes of this world.
Can you hear the bells ringing amid your pain and suffering this Christmas? Those bells that declare the peace of God may be but a quiet chime right now, but they are there. Listen for them. The bells reinforce the truth that we can hold fast to our faithful Father who is always true. Their melodies declare that His righteous hand holds us firmly when our feeble knees fail. And when fear knocks at the door, the ringing of the bells reminds us that we can fall into the sovereign grip of our Savior who holds us secure. His peace he gives us.
Do you hear the bells ringing this Christmas?
Listen to Caroline Cobb’s beautiful arrangement of I Hear the Bells on Christmas day
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash