On Hearing Defiant Bells

December 21, 2011 — 1 Comment

There is a hauntingly interesting Christmas Carol that I’ve come to appreciate more and more in recent years and especially so in a culture so easily drawn into cynicism (and when I can so easily be drawn into cynicism.)   This song will be part of our Christmas Eve service this year and our praise band does this beautifully. 

Written by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day was penned during one of the darker periods in our nation’s history (Civil War).  But, on a personal level, Longfellow’s own life was in a season of darkness, heaviness and grief.

Longfellow’s wife, Fanny (Frances), perished in a tragic accident about a year earlier.  After trimming the hair of her daughter’s beautiful curls, Fanny decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax.  While melting the wax with a candle a few drops fell on her dress just when a breeze gusted through the window igniting the dress. She ran into Henry’s study where he tried unsuccessfully to smother the flames, first with a small carpet and then with his own body.  She died the next morning and Longfellow was unable to attend her funeral because of his own burns.  (Incidentally, the trademark full beard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow arose from his inability to shave after this tragedy.)

Now, move forward a year.  Longfellow had just received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of thePotomac, had been severely wounded.  Longfellow wrote in his journal these words about the holidays: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays. . .I can make no record of these days.  Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

And so Longfellow, a citizen in a nation at war with itself, a husband still in mourning, a father grieving, sat down on Christmas Day, 1864 and penned these incredible words of defiant hope called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 

I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day

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!


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!


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’s last verse is, to quote theologian Karl Barth, a picture of joy that is distinctly Christian — a type of joy which is a “defiant, nevertheless!”  What does that mean?  Simply that in a world with plentiful evidence to the contrary, as the people of God we affirm that “nevertheless, we are destined for wholeness and peace and everlasting goodness.”  Our God will never leave us nor forsake us.   

God is not dead; nor does He sleep.  The wrong shall fail.  The right shall prevail.  With peace on earth, good-will to men. 

To hear a live version of the song, click here: 

One response to On Hearing Defiant Bells


    I love knowing “…the rest of the story” and will be sharing this with our kids before the Christmas Eve service. Thank you for sharing.

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