(Non)Traditional Christmas Post 4/6 : A History of Peace on Earth

(This post was inspired by a conversation with Jennifer Birdsong. Most all of the historical facts were cut and pasted and sometimes summarized from here.)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tried to extinguish the flames that were enveloping his wife, first with a rug and then with his own body, but it wasn’t enough.

She died the next morning, on July 10th, 1861 from severe burns.  Henry Longfellow couldn’t attend her funeral because his own face was burnt so badly - his familiar beard was grown in an attempt to cover the scars on his face. Over the following years, Longfellow would often fear that he would be sent to an asylum on account of his grief.

He was now a single parent of five children: two boys and three girls (ages 13, 10, 8—there had been a fourth, but she died as an infant), and his trials were far from over.

In March of 1863, less than two years later, Wadsworth’s eldest son Charles would walk out of the family’s house - unbeknownst to anyone—board a train bound for Washington, D.C. and join President Lincoln’s Union army and the battles of the Civil War.  Before the year’s end, he would be back in D.C. in intensive care.

While dining at home on December 1, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received a telegram that Charles had been severely wounded four days earlier. 

During the battle of the Mine Run Campaign, Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade. It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charley avoided being paralyzed by less than an inch.

Charley was carried into New Hope Church (Orange County, Virginia) and then transported to the Rapidan River then Washington D.C. where Henry and Charley’s younger brother, Ernest, met him on December 5. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was alarmed when informed by the army surgeon that his son’s wound “was very serious” and that “paralysis might ensue,” but three surgeons gave a more favorable report that evening, suggesting a recovery that would require him to be “long in healing,” at least six months.

On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observed around him. He heard the Christmas bells that December day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. 

He penned these words:

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!

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!

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!

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!”

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.”

Just over 150 years old, this poem still rings strong and true for us today, and not just for Americans or Westerners or Christians or whatever.  It rings true for everyone everywhere, because “there is no peace on earth.” “For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But there is hope.  

I’m not crazy about this song, but I am drawn to it.  The “Peace . . . on earth” rhythm is beautiful, like the bells ringing, singing their sublime message above the town, from the Civil War through the World Wars, and still today.  Still tomorrow.  

It’s easy to lose hope, to be discouraged.  But it’s during these times that the bells peal more loud and more deep, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!”  

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

Because, on Christmas morning, the King of kings was born.  I wish I could describe him to you, but, as the late Dr. S. M.  Lockeridge points out, he’s indescribable.

He supplies strength for the weak. He's available for the tempted and the tried. He sympathizes and He saves. He's the Almighty God who guides and keeps all his people. He heals the sick. He cleanses the lepers. He forgives sinners. He discharged debtors. He delivers the captives. He defends the feeble. He blesses the young. He serves the unfortunate. He regards the aged. He rewards the diligent and He beautifies the meek. That's my King.

(You can read the whole sermon here)

That’s the King that was born on Christmas day, and because He does not share power,

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.


Merry Christmas!


If you missed posts 1-3, here they are:

Post 1 : Top 64 Christmas songs of all time

Post 2 : Jarrett and Joseph

Post 3 : Movie Night