The story behind, “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day”


On Christmas Day 1863, American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, composed the poem we sing as a Christmas carol. At the height of the Civil War, Longfellow wrote with a heavy heart fighting his own battle within his heart.

Here’s the rest of the story behind the carol:

Longfellow’s wife, Fannie, had died less than two years earlier when her dress caught fire. He tried to extinguish the flames with a rug and then his own body, but her burns were so severe she died the next day. Henry received such serious burns on his face that he grew a beard to hide the scars. Henry and Fannie had lost an infant but had five surviving children.

March, 1863, the oldest child, Charles, at age eighteen secretly boarded a train to Washington D.C. to join the Union Army. Just a month before Christmas on Nov. 27th, Charlie, as he was called, was seriously wounded: the bullet came within inches of paralyzing him. His injuries would take months to heal.

carillon-3441162_1280On Christmas Day Longfellow, now a 57 year-old widow with five children heard church bells celebrating “Peace on earth.” The dissonance between Henry’s life and the words in Luke 2:14 was profound. Words that were part of Longfellow’s poem, but are not included in our carol, reveal the struggle of the Civil War at that time.

Then from each black, accursed mouth,

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carol’s drowned

Of Peace on earth, good will to men.

My favorite lyrics are in the last verse:

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.”

Today, I hear the grievous news of violence in the streets of Chicago and in Syria and Afghanistan. I hear of the renewed persecution of the Christian Church in China. I hear of thousands hovering at our southern border having fled violence in their homeland. I hear of innocent babies denied a birthday. I hear of the Opioid epidemic robbing children of their parents and parents of their children.

But, as a believer and follower of Jesus, I anticipate His return. This time, not a child fleeing the violence of Herod with his parents. No, I am waiting to hear the sounds of His glorious return as the King of all Kings, followed by the armies of heaven to bring an end to the injustice and violence in our world. This is our hope!

This Christmas, let us pause to love the babe in the manger. Let us reflect on His wonderful life and His death and resurrection. But, pause to anticipate Jesus’ return when “The wrong shall fail and the right prevail.” When there will finally be “peace on earth, good-will to men.”

I love the way our church sings this carol today. Intermittently, in the carol, we repeat, “I can hear them! I can hear them! I can hear them!”

Can you hear them?


So from the Front Porch Swing, I wish you and yours a blessed Christmas. May the peace of God guard your hearts in the New Year.


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