“Your son has been shot in the face,” the report read. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) leaned back in his chair.[1] Not again? Not another tragedy?

Peace Shattered by World Events

The year was 1863. The victim was Charles Longfellow, the famous poet’s son. However, the injury report from the Union army proved to be inaccurate. As young Longfellow and his comrades engaged the Confederates during the American Civil War, he had taken a bullet clean through his shoulder. Charles would survive, escaping paralysis by mere inches.

Peace Stolen by Searing Memories

Yet, Longfellow’s mind still lingered on his family’s tragedies. Not two years before, his wife’s screams had awoken the poet from an afternoon nap. Francis Longfellow’s voluminous dress had caught fire. Despite his valiant efforts, Longfellow could not smother the flames in time, and Francis died of her injuries the following day. Longfellow himself could not attend his wife’s funeral due to injuries from his attempts to save her. He wore a beard the rest of his life to hide the scars.

Peace Echoed in Music

On Christmas Day in December of 1863, the church bells of Boston rang out in the cold. They struck through the gloom in Longfellow’s mind. The ringing tones reminded the poet of God’s Christmas promise of “peace on earth, good will to men.” Below are the words to his familiar Christmas carol. I have also included stanzas about the cannons and upheaval of the Civil War which heighten the contrast between the gloom of Longfellow’s time and the hope of Christ.

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!

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!

Till 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!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
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.”

Peace Promised in God’s Word

The truths Longfellow incorporated into his Christmas carol continue to ring true today.[2] At this Christmas of 2020, our lives are not easy. The wrong on so many fronts seems to be winning. However, God promises that through Jesus Christ there will one day be peace on earth. God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail. Let us take hope and find lasting joy in the promises of God at Christmas.[3]

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Photo credit: Jose Maldanado and Ronni Kurtz on Unsplash.

[1] I first read the basic outline of this story in Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1996), 382. However, upon further research, I discovered that the dates in his chapter were incorrect. The injury report quote in the first line is paraphrased since I did not have access to a copy of the original. See also https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Wadsworth-Longfellow
https://www.nps.gov/articles/charles-longfellow-in-the-civil-war.htm https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/

[2] I wish I could write that Longfellow’s steadfast hope in God sustained him through the trials of his personal life and the Civil War; however, it seems that the talented poet merely enjoyed the warm feelings associated with the truth without experiencing the life-giving transformation of the gospel. His was the cultural Christianity of Unitarianism. The outward form and beauty of Christmas traditions in quaint New England churches provided comfort, but the spiritual reality had left with the denial of the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and other core beliefs of genuine Christianity. Today, much of the spirit of Christmas experienced by society at large is merely echoes of the true joy and peace in Christ. Read more about the dangers of nominal Christianity in my recent post.

[3] Read more stories of God’s promises in my recent devotional book, Daring Devotion: A 31-Day Journey with those who Lived God’s Promises.