Monday, December 20, 2010

Background Story Behind "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."

FamilyLife publishes a weekly article called The Marriage Memo. The memo for this week was especially interesting, giving the background behind the the hymn "I Head the Bells on Christmas Day" (taken from a poem by Longfellow).

Might be fun to share this with your family tonight and to have a conversation.
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The Bells of Hope
by Dave Boehi

Christmas was not a happy time for him.

His country was embroiled in a war he hated. His own son had returned home with severe wounds.

He also grieved deeply for his beloved wife, who had died after a freak accident in their home two years before. On the first Christmas after losing her, he wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." Six months later he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."

Indeed, the very idea of "peace on earth"--proclaimed by the angels upon Christ's birth and echoed by the church bells he heard on Christmas Day--seemed like a terrible joke.

And so on Christmas Day in 1863, with the American Civil War still raging, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called "Christmas Bells."

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!


Today we know these words from the song that was inspired by Longfellow's poem: "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Two of Longfellow's verses, referring to the Civil War, do not appear in the song:

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!


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!


Longfellow's next verse, which does appear in the song, may be the saddest words I've seen in a Christmas carol. They reflect the misery of a man who felt no hope:

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, goodwill to men!"


Fortunately the poem does not end there. For somehow the Christmas bells that morning reminded  Longfellow of a deeper truth:

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, goodwill to men!"


When life goes wrong

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is one of my favorite carols because it is so honest and yet, in the end, so full of hope.

We all face times when life goes wrong and we feel despair. The despair after the death of a loved one, or the despair that accompanies a life-threatening disease. The despair of a marriage relationship that has drifted into isolation. The despair of a child who rejects everything you believe. The despair of a problem at work that you can't solve, or a career that feels like it's going nowhere. The despair of feeling powerless to break free of a secret sin.

Longfellow's dark cloud began to lift when he chose to focus on the fact that God is alive, that He is sovereign and has a greater plan than we can understand. We will never see the type of "peace on earth" that so many long for, because the heart of man remains unchanged. But we can experience peace in our hearts when we put our faith and trust in the God who created the universe. I think that's the kind of peace Longfellow finally experienced.

It's the same truth that the biblical character Job understood after losing everything he had. In the end he realized he needed to put his trust totally in God. "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted," he told God. "... Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (Job 42:2-3).

Choosing to trust God

Over the years I've interviewed a number of married couples who had experienced the type of hardships that doom many relationships--financial difficulties, death of a child, debilitating disease, and more. They all faced a crisis of faith, when they had to come to terms with the fact that life was not going as they had envisioned. They only experienced healing and peace when they acknowledged their trust in the God who created them and had a plan for their lives.

One husband, overwhelmed with the reality of raising a child with special needs and the pressure it was putting on his marriage, said, "I remember praying in the midst of my tears, Lord, I have nothing to believe in if I can't believe You are good and You are sovereign. I'm not sure I feel that, but if it's not true, then what's life about? I am going to choose to believe that you would not allow anything but good to come into my life."

On that December morning in 1863, Longfellow recognized these same truths, that "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep." Christmas reminds us that God demonstrated His goodness and sovereignty by sending His son to live on earth and pay the penalty for our sin so that we could experience true peace with God. As Romans 5:8 tells us, "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
God reached down to a world of despair and gave it hope.

Then ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!


[A contemporary rendition of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" was recorded by the group Casting Crowns. Click here to watch it on YouTube.]

© Copyright 2010 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

2 comments:

John and Pam Majors said...

I enjoyed this since that is one of my very favorite carols. I did not know the history. Thanks for the enlightenment, and for including the verses that were omitted from the song.

Brandi Luke said...

I lost a child 3yrs ago. I feel Longfellow despair, and ultimate reconnection with this world we live in and our sovereign God. This had be crying tears of disparity and joy.