I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Advent: Day 22)

The famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, penned these words out of great personal tragedy. Life was good in 1831 when at the age of 24, Henry married his childhood sweetheart Mary Storer Potter. He was offered a job as a professor at Harvard but had to study abroad for a year before he got the job. He and Mary went to Europe and while there, Mary miscarried at 6 months pregnant. She did not survive the miscarriage and died in November of 1835 at the age of 22. Deeply saddened by her death, he returned home having lost both his wife and unborn child. Seven years later, Henry married Frances (Fanny) Appleton in 1843. Life was very happy for them and they were blessed with 6 children (one died as an infant). During these years, he continued to publish his literature, and Henry retired from Harvard in 1859 at the age of 52.

One summer day in July of 1861, Henry was taking a nap and Fanny was placing locks of her children’s hair into an envelope. She was attempting to seal the envelope with hot sealing wax when her dress suddenly caught fire. “Longfellow awakened from his nap and rushed to help her, throwing a rug over her, but it was too small. He stifled the flames with his body, but she was badly burned” (Wikipedia). She died the next morning; and Henry, having suffered severe burns as well, was too sick to attend her funeral. He was devastated after her tragic death. At the age of 54 he was a widower again, but this time with 5 children ages 16, 15, 11, 8 and 6.

Henry sank into deep depression. “At times he feared that he would be sent to an asylum on account of his grief” (Gospel Coalition). On Christmas of 1862 he recorded in his journal:

“A merry Christmas” say the children, but that is no more for me.”

New England Historical Society

“In 1863, Longfellow suffered another blow. The poet was a staunch abolitionist, but he, like the entire country, was troubled by the Civil War. His [eldest] son Charley in March of 1863 had decided that, regardless of his father’s wishes, he would join the fight” (New England Historical Society).

He slipped away in the night leaving only a note behind. Longfellow was obviously worried, but ultimately accepted his son’s decision. Eight months later, Charley was seriously wounded in battle. Longfellow traveled to be with his son and bring him home. “They arrived back at their Cambridge home on December 8, and a grim Longfellow set about the months-long process of trying to nurse his son back to health” (New England Historical Society).

The Civil War was harsh and Longfellow was overwhelmed with his sufferings. However, his hopelessness was silenced on Christmas Day of 1863 when in the distance, he heard the church bells ring. He picked up his pen and wrote “Christmas Bells.”

Excerpt from "Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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.

I thought how, as the day had come,
the belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th'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."

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."

Henry realized a truth that day that would change his perspective forever. God was (and is) still on the throne! Somehow the sound of those Christmas bells reminded him of that unalterable truth, and he had hope. His story so moved me, and as I reflected on Longfellow’s suffering I couldn’t help but think about the prophet Jeremiah’s words.

The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the LORD never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is His faithfulness; His mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in Him!”

Lamentations 3:19-24 NLT

Whatever your suffering, God’s grace is readily available to you through Jesus Christ. Just as Longfellow experienced hope in the midst of suffering, I pray that you will be reminded afresh this Christmas of the hope and grace you have in Christ!

Advent Reflections:

1. Did Longfellow’s story touch your heart as it did mine? What spoke to you the most about his story?

2. When we know God’s truth, we can have hope in the midst of suffering. Holidays can be hard for many reasons. How does knowing God is faithful help you “cope” during hard times?

3. Read 2 Corinthians 4:8-10. How does this passage encourage you when you are suffering?

4 Read Revelation 21:3-5. What things does God promise in this passage?

5 Based on Revelation 21:5, how do we know He will keep His promises and that this is a future fact?

Click here for the most amazing choral rendition combining the story of Longfellow on YouTube.

Click here for a piano version by David Huntsinger on YouTube.

2 thoughts on “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Advent: Day 22)

  1. Thanks for this moving account of great suffering and yet when hearing the Bells of Christmas those fears were drown out. I’m listening to Handel’s Messiah this morning and that is my “Bells of Christmas.” “And He shall reign forever and ever, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

    Liked by 1 person

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