I Heard the Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Christmas poem  “Christmas Bells,”  was turned into the most beloved Christmas carol by John Baptiste Calkin in 1872: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” There is a great story behind this poem/carol, one that expresses our ultimate hope.

Longfellow married the love of his life, Frances Appleton, in 1843.  They came to live in an historic old home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and were blessed with five children. The first shots of the Civil War took place in Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861. In July of that same year there was a terrible accident in the Longfellow home.

Fanny was using hot wax to preserve a curl she had cut from her daughter’s hair.  Some of the hot wax splashed on to her skirt and her clothing burst into flames. Fanny ran into Henry’s study. Longfellow came from around his desk and franticly tried to smother the flames with a small throw rug. It was not working, so he used his arms and body. He suffered severe burns on his hands, face, neck and arms. It was to no avail. Fanny died from her burns the next day.

Longworth’s trademark long beard was not a fashion statement. Unable to shave after the burns the beard grew.  It also served to cover the scars on his face and neck.

The Christmas of 1861, the first after Fanny’s death, brought this comment in Longfellow’s journal: “How inexpressibly sad are all the holidays.” The following year, Christmas of 1962, he wrote, “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.”

1863 brought the news of another tragedy. His oldest son, Charles, an officer in the Army of the Potomac, was severely wounded and made a cripple. Christmas of 1863 Longfellow’s pen was silent.

Then came the Christmas of 1864. The country was war weary and people wondered if the bloodshed would ever end.  Hearing the church bells on Christmas Day, Longfellow picked up his pen and wrote the poem “Christmas Bells.”  Eight years later it was turned into the carol “I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day.”

Originally seven stanzas, the two that made direct reference to the Civil War were removed. The last two stanzas express our ultimate hope – a new heavens and a new earth.

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!”

 

“God is not dead,” Longfellow proclaims. The time is coming when wrong will fail, and right will prevail; then there will be peace and goodwill to all.  This cannot happen on this blood and sin soaked soil. There must be a new heavens and the new earth.  This is the ultimate hope of our faith.

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