Posted by: rcottrill | December 18, 2017

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

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Words: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (b. Feb. 27, 1807; d. Mar. 24, 1882)
Music: Waltham (or Calkin), by John Baptiste Calkin (b. Mar. 16, 1827; d. May 15, 1905)


Wordwise Hymns (for another article see here)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Longfellow was a respected scholar, and one of America’s greatest writers. But tragedy seemed to dog his steps. His first wife died of illness. Later, he married again, but his second wife died in a fire. Then came the Civil War, which was to touch his own family.

Church bells have been around for about sixteen centuries. In many communities they sound out their booming peals to summon worshipers to a church service, to welcome in the new year, or to announce a wedding or a funeral. But in the Second World War, the church bells of Britain were silenced. They were only to be rung to inform the populace of an enemy invasion.

Bells are hung in the steeple of a church, or in a bell tower, each with a long rope attached. When it’s pulled from below, the bell swings and begins to ring. Some churches have a number of bells that sound different musical notes. These are rung in various intricate patterns called changes. In 1934, Dorothy Sayers published a mystery story called The Nine Tailors, with complicated clues that revolved around ringing the changes.

A more versatile collection of bells is the carillon, which can play actual tunes. Classed as a musical instrument, it’s the second heaviest of these, only surpassed by the largest pipe organs. The carillon consists of at least twenty-three bells, commonly hung in the bell tower of a church or a municipal building. The bells are rung by striking the enlarged keys of a keyboard with the fists, or by using foot pedals.

The ringing of church bells in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to celebrate Christmas Day in 1863, led to the writing of one of our Christmas carols. But it was not a joyous time in the home of the author, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The country was in the middle of the American Civil War. Not only did the conflict divide North and South. Sometimes families were split in their loyalties, and ended up fighting one another. More than six hundred thousand died in the war, and many more were wounded, including Longfellow’s nineteen-year-old son, Charles. The poet asked those around him–and the Lord as well–“Where is the peace?” Where was the fulfilment of the angelic message of peace to the shepherds of Bethlehem: “Peace on earth” (Lk. 2:14)?

The original Greek of the angel message is perhaps better rendered, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His [God’s] favour rests” (NIV). The favour (or gracious gift) of God’s peace is claimed through faith in the Saviour who was born that day. “For He Himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:14).

And one day Christ will return to reign, finally bringing peace on earth. God’s plan for His Son will be fulfilled. That hope is behind what the poet wrote that Christmas Day, as he put his thoughts on paper.

Here are some stanzas of Longfellow’s familiar carol, including a couple we never sing now. They are addressed particularly to the death and destruction of the Civil War, revealing how the author found his way to hope, in a deeply troubling time.

1) 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.

4) Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

5) It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

6) 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.”

7) 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.”

1) Have you heard church bells? (If so, what mood or message did they convey to you?)

2) At first, Longfellow thought of the bells as a mockery. What brought a brighter mood to him?

Wordwise Hymns (for another article see here)
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. I love bells.

  2. I have heard church bells over in UK while there visiting, but I’ve noticed over the years that we’ve heard them less and less. And seen the churches turned into restaurants and apartment buildings. Church bells pealing is a lovely sound, especially when they play a tune. When it’s just bells pealing sort of randomly, it is not quite as nice. Church bells sound like a call to worship, which I suppose they are?

    Longfellow had a good thought, that God will make everything right in the end. Yet in the meantime, God has granted peace, spiritual peace, for those who have believed on our Lord Jesus Christ: Apart from Christ we are enemies of God and alienated from Him. Yet because of His mercy, He has provided the basis for our reconciliation to Him. The Bible tells us that through believing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for one’s sins, we can be forgiven and reconciled to our Creator God. Peace on earth is temporal but peace with God is eternal. Peace on earth would be wonderful but peace with God is far, far better!

    Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2


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