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The Unforgettable Story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”


By Dennis Rainey




Note from Dennis: This is one of my treasured stories of Christmas. I’ve run it before on this blog, but I thought you’d enjoy seeing it again.

America is divided on so many fronts—political strife, disparity between the rich and poor, civil discontent, racial injustice. Mistrust abounds in all segments of society, in 360 degrees. Our great nation feels like a mess.


I’m reminded that God uses the difficult times in our lives to bring us and others back to Him. After all, isn’t Christmas all about “Peace on earth”?


One of my favorite stories about Christmas is a powerful account about personal tragedy and its unforgettable message. I remember the day I was reading a blog post by Justin Taylor about how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem which eventually became the hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 

Longfellow’s context was also one of national division, the Civil War, as well as personal loss. His wife, Fannie, had died when her dress caught fire. Henry tried to put the fire out by smothering the flame with his own body, but it was too late. Then two years later his 18-year-old son Charley left home and signed up to serve in Lincoln’s Union Army.


On December 1, 1863, Longfellow was having dinner with his family when he received a war telegram stating his son Charley had been severely wounded in battle. Surgeons were concerned about paralysis, and they warned he would face a very long recovery.


A paragraph from Justin Taylor’s blog post sets the stage for the war taking place in Longfellow’s heart:

On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him.

He heard the bells that Christmas day and the singing of "peace on earth" (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.


I pictured Longfellow wrestling with what he saw and felt and picking up a pen to craft a poem which would eventually become a hymn I used to sing as a boy:

I heard the bells on Christmas day 

Their old familiar carols play 

And mild and sweet their songs repeat 

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 rang the bells, more loud and deep

God is not dead, nor does He sleep

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men

Then 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


Click here to watch a video about this story that includes an amazing modern-day version of this song.  Even now, as I absorb the music and words, tears come to my eyes when I think about my Savior and how He came to give all of us broken human beings peace with God and “peace on earth.”



For a powerful Christmas devotion for your family:

1. Print copies of the words for each person to follow along and read, as you …

2. Explain the context of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s life, then watch the video on your laptop (or television if you can connect it to YouTube). Watch it again, then discuss the words to the hymn:


·         How does Jesus bring peace to our heart?

·         Why is Jesus the only One who bring peace on earth?

·         Who do you need to talk to about their relationship with the “Prince of Peace” (2 Corinthians 5:20)?”


3. Then pray for each other and our country.


Merry Christmas!


Dennis Rainey


Scroll down to see the words to the hymn.


I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


I heard the bells on Christmas day Their old familiar carols play And mild and sweet their songs repeat Of peace on earth good will to men


And the bells are ringing (peace on earth) Like a choir they're singing (peace on earth) In my heart I hear them (peace on earth) 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


But the bells are ringing (peace on earth) Like a choir singing (peace on earth) Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth) Peace on earth, good will to men


Then rang the bells, more loud and deep God is not dead, nor does He sleep The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men


Then 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


And the bells they're ringing (peace on earth) Like a choir they're singing (peace on earth) And with our hearts we'll hear them (peace on earth) Peace on earth, good will to men


Do you hear the bells they're ringing? (peace on earth) The life the angels singing (peace on earth) Open up your heart and hear them (peace on earth) Peace on earth, good will to men

Peace on earth, peace on earth

Peace on earth, Good will to men


 

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