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In 1864, one of America’s great poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote the poem which became the well-known carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

When I first heard this song, I wondered, “Why does he suddenly shift from joy at hearing the Christmas bells into such deep despair?” It starts with:

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 he says:

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!”

The question is clearly answered when we see two verses of the original that are not included in our hymn. In these verses Longfellow speaks of the horrors of the American Civil War that was tearing the country apart. In fact, his son had been seriously wounded in that conflict not long before he wrote the song. (The death of Longfellow’s wife two years earlier may have contributed to his mood too.) Listen to what they say:

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 hearthstones of a continent

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Little wonder he is tempted to despair. And yet he concludes with the resounding affirmation, "God is not dead, nor does he sleep!" Through the Savior whose birth the angels celebrated, God will accomplish what he has promised.

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