Christmas of 1863 was one of hopeless despair for Henry.

Less than two years previously, Henry’s wife, Fannie, tragically died after her long dress caught fire while she was cooking. He had been taking a nap but heard the commotion. He flew to her side and tried to extinguish the flames, first with a rug and then his body, but her burns were too severe. She died the next day and Henry’s facial burns were so significant that he was unable to attend her funeral.

Despair was embedded in the heart of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In March of 1863, Charley, Henry’s oldest son of 6 children, walked out of his home to travel 400 miles to join President Lincoln’s Union army. His father had not known his son’s heart or what he’d been thinking the day that he left.

Then while having dinner on Dec. 1, 1863, a telegram arrived to inform Henry that his son had been severely wounded when he was shot in the shoulder and the bullet whizzed his by spine. Henry traveled by train to be with his son. Three doctors performed surgery and suggested the recovery would be long and that paralysis was a possibility.

Peace eluded the great poet. War was raging not only in the nation, but in the heart of this man and father.

It was in that place of anguish, on Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow, a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, wrote one of his most famous poems.

“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.”

Henry heard the Christmas bells chiming that day and the melody of “peace on earth” echoed in his mind. Yet, he knew first hand that crippling violence raged and that horrific injustice ripped innocence away. There was no happiness, no peace.

Until he listened with a heart attuned to the truth of a God who rings the bell of hope for those who are hurting. Christ’s birth was God’s announcement that He is not dead and He does not sleep. Jesus is reminder, that wrong will fail and in time, right prevails... always.

So, though like Henry, we live in times of terrible injustice and unprecedented suffering Jesus brings peace and good-will.

Take a moment today and hear the bells.

Larry and Linda Kloster sponsor this column.


Community News Editor

Sally Ann Shurmur arrived at the Star-Tribune to cover sports two weeks after graduating from the University of Wyoming and now serves as community news editor. She was raised in Laramie and is a passionate fan of Cowboys football, food and family.

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