blank.gif (51 bytes) Second Thoughts
Longfellow's
Christmas Legacy

by Ralph Heller, NPRI Senior Research Fellow

t would be interesting to know how Thomas Jefferson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—or even Franklin Roosevelt—might have reacted to today’s hypersensitivity to public prayer and things like singing Christmas carols in schools. Jefferson, after all, had ordered copies of the New Testament to be distributed at government expense to Indian tribes at the time of the Louisiana Purchase "so that they learn the moral code crucial to the prospects of liberty."

And on June 6, 1944 Roosevelt, the godfather of today’s liberalism, had not merely sanctioned prayer but actually led his countrymen in prayer on radio. The previous evening he had addressed the nation in one of his "fireside chats" but had withheld information about the Normandy Invasion about to be launched. But once the invasion had been launched Roosevelt returned to radio to address the nation: "...and so it has come to pass that I now ask you to join with me in prayer. Oh God, our sons—pride of our nation—are this day engaged in a mighty endeavor..."—although "endeavor" was pronounced "endeavah," naturally. Roosevelt was elected to the presidency four times without ever getting around to correctly pronouncing the letter "r."

What FDR and most statesmen have long understood is that there come times in the lives of men—the death of a beloved, some natural catastrophe or war—when men intuitively look to God for comfort and strength to endure, and this often turns out to be true even in the lives of men who are not absolutely sure that God exists.

No one has taught us this lesson so compellingly as the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote the poem that was destined to become a uniquely American Christmas carol. It was written on a wintry Christmas Eve during the Civil War when Longfellow was in his mid-fifties and already well known as the author of The Village Blacksmith and The Wreck of the Hesperus, although Tales of a Wayside Inn and Paul Revere’s Ride had not yet been published.

On that Christmas Eve Longfellow was alone and terribly distracted because his son was in the army and fighting in the Civil War. Responding to a knock on the door the great poet suddenly found himself listening to a messenger from Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, informing Longfellow that his son had been killed in battle.

Hours later and alone with his thoughts Longfellow heard church bells signaling midnight on Christmas Eve, whereupon he went to his desk and wrote the following lines:

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.

Relieved to find himself able to write despite his sorrow he wrote a second stanza for his little poem, reflecting on how church bells had been encouraging men for centuries:

I thought of how this day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rung so long the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

But as the midnight bells stopped ringing, leaving Longfellow alone with his sorrow, he became very angry and bitter and wrote a third stanza of bitterness and despair, a verse unlike any other to be found in a Christmas carol:

Then 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."

Beside himself in loneliness Longfellow turned from his desk and spent the rest of the night in sorrowful reflection, unable to sleep, until more church bells began ringing with the first rays of daylight, heralding Christmas Day. Longfellow returned to his desk and, remarkably, wrote one more stanza, one of the greatest affirmations of faith in western literature:

Then peeled the bells now 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."

Years later the poem would be set to music, and a fifth stanza was added about how the world "revolved from night to day," but only the first four stanzas are Longfellow’s. The great poet had discovered what many others would come to recognize—even Franklin Roosevelt.

On the eve of our time it was explained best by a Russian writer, Stefan Trofimovitch, who saw obsessive secularism as mankind’s biggest challenge: "The one essential condition of human existence," he wrote, "is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great. For if men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair."

This is what a president understood as his nation’s sons embarked on the largest and most dangerous invasion in history, and this is what a great American poet came to understand at his greatest moment of sorrow and despair on a long ago Christmas Eve.

May there never come a time when church bells have been silenced in America! NJ

Ralph Heller is senior consulting editor of Nevada Journal.


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