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History Book: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep”

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WORLD Radio - History Book: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s son is wounded during the Civil War 160 years ago


The Battle of Chickamauga, an American Civil War battle fought on September 18 – 20, 1863, between the U.S. Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Getty Images/Photo by Keith Lance

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, December 11th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next, the WORLD History Book. Today, how personal loss and the war between the states created a well-loved Christmas carol. WORLD Radio executive producer Paul Butler has the story.

PAUL BUTLER, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: America’s most famous 19th century poet was the prolific writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

He was born into a religious family. In college he became a Unitarian. He had a high view of God and His creation, but he didn’t believe in original sin, the Trinity, or the preexistence of Christ. As a young man he wrote of religion this way:

LONGFELLOW: Would it not be better for mankind if we should consider it as a cheerful and social companion…and not as a stern and chiding taskmaster, to whom we must cling at last through mere despair, because we have nothing else on earth to which we can cling?

But Longefellow would soon learn that in moments of despair, he would need something to cling to. While studying abroad, Longfellow’s first wife died of miscarriage complications. He returned to America a more somber man, and threw himself into his writing.

He started teaching Modern Languages at Harvard University in 1834. His fame grew as a writer. He remarried in 1843 and by all accounts Frances Elizabeth Appleton and Henry Wadswsorth Longfellow had a happy home.

But in 1861, tragedy struck once again. While Frances was sealing an envelope with wax, her dress caught fire. Longfellow ran into the room and tried smothering it with a rug—but it was too little too late. She died of her injuries. Longfellow was severely burned himself in the process. It is one of the reasons he wore a long beard the rest of his life—to hide the physical scars. The inner scars couldn’t be hidden. Six months after the fire, Henry wrote of his anguish to a friend:

LONGFELLOW: I cannot speak of the desolation of this house and the sorrow which overwhelms and crushes me. It seems indeed as if the whole  world were reeling and sinking under my feet.

The nation’s Civil War added to Longfellow’s heartache. He had been engaged in the fight to end slavery since the 1840s. Many of his poems furthered the abolitionist movement and later motivated the Union troops. And while he believed the cause was right, he was despondent over the loss of human life. After news of the Union’s second defeat at Manassas, Longfellow wrote:

LONGFELLOW:  Every shell from the cannon's mouth bursts not only on the battlefield but in far away homes North or South carrying dismay and death.

In 1863, Longfellow was caught off guard when his own son Charles ran off to join the Union Army without his father’s blessing. It was yet one more devastating blow for the famous poet.

On December 1st, 1863, Longfellow is at dinner when a telegram arrives. He reads that his son has been severely wounded. Longfellow immediately leaves for Washington D.C.

After two fitful days of waiting and searching, father and son are eventually reunited. Charles is in critical condition, but stable. Longfellow brings him home. Henry doesn’t write much in his journal for a few months…but as Charles recovers, so too does his father.

Folklore claims that it’s during this Christmas of 1863—as Longfellow still mourns the devastating loss of his second wife—and the near death of his son…that he hears church bells on December 25th and is inspired to sit down and write his poem: “Christmas Bells.” But there is no record of it in his journal. The poem is first published in 1865, and in subsequent publications it bears the authorship date of December 25th, 1864, more than a year after his son’s arrival home. Meaning he writes the poem after months of reflection, not in a moment of sorrowful inspiration.

It’s likely that he heard church bells on Christmas day 1864…and perhaps they brought him back to Christmas bells the year before…or the many painful Christmases before that. But a poem isn’t a photograph or recording of a moment of time. Rather it is a meditation.

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

Bells are a recurring image in Longfellow’s writing. They appear in a handful of his poems over the years. They symbolize the broad declaration of truth.

And thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth good will to men

The church bells are the unifying theme in the poem. The final line of each stanza is more than a refrain…its very repetition mimics the pealing of bells.

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

But in Longfellow’s day, the hope of peace is in danger of being drowned out by devastating war between the states. It is here that he draws upon his earlier journal entry about the battle of Manassas.

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

The second to last stanza is the most personal of the poem. Longfellow meditates on the condition of his own soul while speaking for the nation:

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

But then the poet metaphorically hears the bells over the tumult of war. And each line of the final stanza seems to put into words what the bells ring out…not just at Christmas, but all year round.

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

19th century Baptist Theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong is one of many Christians over the generations to appreciate Longfellow’s writing…yet he points out that Longfellow fundamentally misunderstood the Prince of Peace. Strong writes that Longfellow’s “Jesus is a model of virtue…but he is not what the New Testament represents him to be—Immanuel, God with us, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.’

And it is only after the world understands that, will wrong fail, and right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.

My thanks to Moody Radio’s Jon Gauger for bringing to life the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Paul Butler.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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