This is the 4th and last of my December 2010 Sunday series giving the surprisingly rich anti-slavery history of some of our beloved Christmas hymns. Read also the histories of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and  “O Holy Night.”

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

In December 1863 poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was still grieving the death by fire of his wife Francis 2 years before when receiving word their oldest son Charles had been seriously injured as a Union soldier in the Civil War.

A fierce abolitionist, Longfellow awakened in despair that Christmas morning, unsure of both the fate of his son and his country.  It was against this backdrop Longfellow wrote the melancholy poem “Christmas Bells” when hearing church bells peel throughout Boston proclaiming the birth of Christ. Two of the middle verses were later dropped to adapt the poem into a Christmas carol, which composer John Caulkin set to music. Those 2 verses give the current verse 3 (the last verse below) much more context:

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!”

Johnny Cash called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” his favorite Christmas carol…

Longfellow’s poem has been set to various melodies. Here is Casting Crowns’ haunting yet beautifully hopeful version…

Read more on the history of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” here and here.

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