COMMENTARY: The message of the bells

by Dr. Gregory Tomlin, |
REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

FORT WORTH, Texas (Christian Examiner) – When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned his famous poem, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, he was experiencing the darkest, most troublesome days of his life.

In 1860, three years prior to his composition of the poem – later set to music by English musician John Baptiste Calkin – Longfellow's wife perished in a fire at home. Suddenly finding himself a single father, he poured himself into the lives of his five children.

One of them, Charles Appleton Longfellow, a romantic like his father, left home not long after to join the Union Army as many of his peers had done at the outset of the Civil War. His youth (he was 17 then) delayed the enlistment for a while, but Longfellow eventually gave permission for Charles to enlist and he ended up serving in the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. He was a natural leader and was commissioned as an officer with the unit in 1863.

Charles fought at Chancellorsville, but was soon forced to return home with malaria and, perhaps, typhoid as well. Months later, he was back in the field, and on November 27, 1863, Charles was involved in a running battle at New Hope Church, Va. During the engagement, he was gravely wounded when a bullet traversed his back from his left shoulder to his right shoulder.

Nearly paralyzed from the chest down, Charles was sent to Washington, D.C., to recuperate and, not long after, his father and brother joined him.

No one knows what church bells in the city were the inspiration for Longfellow's Christmas poem, but suffice it to say, their pealing resonated with him. To him, it seemed strange that such peaceful sounds could be heard in a country so devastated by war and so plagued with the question of whether or not the country, "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," as Abraham Lincoln said, could long survive.

In the poem, each stanza ending with the phrase "Of peace on earth, good-will to men," Longfellow wrote of how the bells continued to play "peace on earth" as the clouds of war darkened the nation. In spite of all the church had done, war had still come to America. Political ferment and open conflict threatened to tear the people apart.

It is the last two stanzas of the poem that were so powerful then, and I believe they speak to us today in the midst of the political infighting, terrorism, war, abortion, child abuse, protest movements, riots in our cities, mass shootings in our schools, drug cartel violence on our border, and movies that lampoon God, faith and true, biblical love.

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!'

Mr. Longfellow was right. God is not dead. He is here with us. Emmanuel is with us in this our dark and troublesome hour where our enemies want to kill American citizens because of where they were born, and Christians because they were born again.

Christmas is the time that we should be reflecting on the pealing of those church bells and what they mean. They herald both a challenge for the church and the triumphal victory of the incarnational Christ, who was born to his virgin mother in the lowliest estate among the beasts of the field.

It was from this lowly estate that the Prince of Peace rose from the backwater of Galilee to the cross of Calvary.

I'm sure on the day the crucifixion occurred, had church bells been ringing in a long war, Mary may have asked why there was no peace on earth, the same way Longfellow did. In a few days, however, she'd have her answer, as did the poet.

"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, 'God is not dead nor doth her sleep!'"

Today, Queen Elizabeth II is delivering her Christmas address. Early excerpts of the speech note that the queen is focusing on the concepts of light and darkness in the Gospel of John. She is optimistic that light will prevail and, with the help of Christian values, a peaceful and more tolerant world will unfold. I, too, believe that will happen as God brings peace in his time and his way.

That way, of course, is the second appearing of his Son, who will come not as a lowly peasant, but as the High King of Heaven. So let the church be mindful that we must never cease proclaiming "peace on earth, good-will to men," no matter how tiresome it becomes and no matter the circumstances that surround us.

Doing so will prove to a dying world that this is the spirit of Christ and Christmas in us.

Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also Assistant Professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University Divinity School. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.