A quick search of your music streaming service of choice for the Christmas hymn “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” will reveal a number of renditions. Contemporary Christian artists like MercyMe and Casting Crowns, Americana duets like The Civil Wars, and even The Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash, have recorded the old hymn which finds its origin in the pen of an American poet.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1883) produced the poem in 1863. When the poem was set to music two verses were removed, and the remaining five verses were reordered slightly. For those of us who are familiar with the Christmas hymn, we know it and have sung it in the edited form. Unfortunately, these changes blur the historical context of the original poem. Longfellow composed this poem in response to personal and national trauma.
In early 1863, Henry and Fanny’s first child, Charles, ran off from their family home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to enlist as a private in the Union Army during the Civil War. On November 27th, Charley was injured when a bullet entered his left shoulder, traveled across his back narrowly missing his spine, and exited under his right shoulder blade. Thankfully, Charley would recover without harm or paralysis. However, Henry would later write a friend saying that this event caused him “a great deal of trouble and anxiety.” As the story goes, Longfellow produced this poem on December 25th of 1863 just after the near death of his son in the tumult of the Civil War.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a response to the horror and injustice of the Civil War. The cries of Black Americans for liberation from the unconscionable, the thundering of Southern cannons, and the rending of a continent seemed to nearly drown out the angelic announcement on the first Christmas morning. Yet, the bells cannot be silenced. Longfellow writes:
“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.’”
Long before the Civil War nearly tore the continent in two, the heavens were rent wide. The Lord came down. The Prince of Peace descended to the songs of angels preaching peace to those near and far. Through Jesus’s death and resurrection, Isaiah’s announcement will prove true: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa. 2:4). In light of the peace that is coming, we who bow the knee to the Prince of Peace can live as peacemakers, and we can keep singing of peace on earth and good will to men.
Seth Harvey is married to Kali, and they have two elementary school-aged children. Seth serves as a pastor of Christ the King Church in Hickory, NC. Before Hickory, Seth pastored for nearly a decade in North Georgia, where, by God’s grace, he and his family were instrumental in replanting Emmanuel Community Church. Seth earned his MDiv from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC and is currently pursuing his ThM there.