Yesterday in my sermon at First Presbyterian Church in Anderson, I told the story of the history
behind the song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It is a fascinating story so I thought I
would share it with you in “Chaplain’s Corner.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was sick with grief as Christmas approached in 1863. He was
still mourning the death of his wife Frances, who had died in a house fire. His oldest son,
Charles Appleton Longfellow, or Charlie, had enlisted to fight for the North in the Civil War–
against his father’s wishes.
On December 1, Longfellow got word that Charlie had been severely wounded at the Battle of
New Hope in Virginia. While personally tending to Charlie in the days that followed, Longfellow
often heard church bells. Conflicted and disillusioned about his faith-especially the seemingly
empty promises of a so called Prince of Peace, Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas
I heard the bells on Christmas Day,
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet their words
Repeat of peace on earth,
Goodwill 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!
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!”
Longfellow goes from joy to despair to hope in just a few short stanzas, reflecting a universal
human longing: Since God has promised to heal our broken world, why hasn’t he done so
If you do a quick survey of friends, family and total strangers, it won’t take long to hear
exasperated sighs that 2023 can’t end soon enough-accompanied by the creeping suspicion
that 2024 may turn out to be even worse. The world is a total mess and going downhill right?
Not so fast! Data from scores of reliable sources suggest we are living in the healthiest, safest,
and most economically vibrant time in human history. We are blessed with more technological
conveniences than ever before.
So why isn’t that the lead story every night on the national news? Of course we have serious
problems out there. Climate change, pollution, nuclear stockpiles, crime.
So why in light of so many positive storylines do our hearts so often feel so heavy? It’s one of
the great paradoxes of our time: almost everything is getting better, but we keep feeling
worse. Like Longfellow, many feel disappointed with God.
Ringing church bells became a reminder of what he saw as God’s unkept promises, “Peace on
earth and goodwill toward men,” Really?
It dawned on Longfellow that God often takes the “long way.” It was a long time before the
prophets’ words about the Messiah were fulfilled. The Christmas Story is Exhibit A that God
often takes the long way. Longfellow would probably have been surprised to learn that his
private reflections in 1863 would one day become a Christmas card and song. But his words of hope still ring true.
Ron Naylor, Chaplain