Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) is one of the best known of American poets. During a time of personal and national crisis, he wrote the poem that has become a familiar Christmas hymn. Hymnologist William J. Reynolds vividly recounts the circumstances under which the poem was written. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the hymn I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day actually on Christmas Day in 1863 for the children of the Sunday School of the Unitarian Church of the Disciples, Boston. The Civil War was at its worst. Six months earlier the Battle of Gettysburg had resulted in 40,000 men having been killed, wounded, or reported missing on both sides. Following a long siege, Vicksburg had been taken by the Union forces and 30,000 Confederate soldiers taken prisoner. In fact, Longfellow’s own son Charley, 19 years of age, had been wounded in the war about a month before. Longfellow, a recent widower, was caring for his son in their own home. It is not difficult to understand how Longfellow bowed his head in despair and thought “there is no peace on earth.” The poet pours out his soul for peace and good will in a very troubled day. (Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal , ed. Wesley L. Forbis, Nashville: Convention Press,1992, 150-151).
It was not until 1872 that Longfellow’s poem, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, was set to music. The English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody he had previously used as early as 1848.
Written by Harry Eskew who has been a teacher of hymnology for his entire adult life. An active member of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and a former editor of its journal The Hymn, with Hugh McElrath he wrote Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology. Read full bio at singwithunderstanding.com.