I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American Poet who is a national treasure, penned the words to this lilting song.  It was set to music in 1872 by John B. Calkin.  Most church songbooks leave stanzas out of the song to shorten it to a mere three stanzas.

I live close to a college that has a bell tower.  At six o’clock each evening the bells chime out a song and then strike the hour.  I suppose it was the chiming of bells on that Christmas Even on 1864 that stirred the poet’s heart.  Longfellow kept a regular journal.  It is from those journal entries we learn the stories of things that tore his heart, particularly at Christmas.

In 1861 a fire accidentally set by a brisk wind and a candle put Fanny Longfellow’s dress on fire.  Before the fire could be extinguished, her body was so badly burned that the next morning she succumbed in death.  Longfellow was so badly burned in the effort to save her life that he was also was severely burned.

The country was in a war within its own borders over the right to own slaves.  Longfellow watched his oldest son, just 20 years old go off to battle for the Union.  By 1864, just four months before the surrender of Lee, Charles was hit in the shoulder that left one arm paralyzed.

The chiming of the bells brought these seven stanzas forth from the poet’s pen.  Words that are heart-wrenching but in the last verse deliver hope.  Those words bring hope to me this Christmas.  “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep! The Wrong shall fail; the Right prevail!

“Christmas Bells”
(The original poem, complete with all seven stanzas)

“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!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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!”

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


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