Friday, December 21, 2012

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The famous Longfellow brothers were born and raised in Portland, Maine, in the 1800’s. Henry Wadsworth was born in 1807, and younger brother Samuel arrived in 1819. Henry became a Harvard professor of literature and one of America’s greatest writers, and Samuel became a Unitarian minister and hymnist.

While Henry was publishing his books, however, dark clouds were gathering over his life and over all of America. In 1861, his wife tragically died when her dress caught fire in their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That same year, the Civil War broke out. Two years later, Henry’s son Charley, age seventeen, ran away from home and hopped aboard a train to join President Lincoln’s army.

Charley proved a brave and popular soldier. He saw action at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but in early June he contracted typhoid fever and malaria and was sent home to recover. He missed the Battle of Gettysburg, but by August Charley was well enough to return to the field. On November 27, during the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia, he was shot through the left shoulder. The bullet nicked his spine and came close to paralyzing him. He was carried into the church and later taken to Washington to recuperate.

 Receiving the news on December 1, 1863, Henry immediately left for Washington. He found his son well enough to travel, and they headed back to Cambridge, arriving home on December 8. For weeks Henry sat by his son’s bedside, slowly nursing his boy back to health.

On Christmas day, December 25, 1863, Henry gave vent to his feelings in this plaintive carol that can only be understood against the backdrop of war. Two stanzas now omitted from most hymnals speak of the cannons thundering in the South and of hatred tearing apart “the hearth-stones of a continent.” The poet feels like dropping his head in despair, but then he hears the Christmas bells. Their triumphant pealing reminds him that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.”

 The Sunday school children of the Unitarian Church of the Disciples in Boston first sang the carol during that year’s Christmas celebration. How wonderful that such a song could emerge from the bloody clouds of the War Between the States.

From "Come Let Us Adore Him" by Robert J. Morgan

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