Longfellow's Christmas: God's Not Dead, Nor Asleep


Here’s a good Christmas story for you. Charley Longfellow, son of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, felt it was his duty to join the ongoing fight between the North and the South. So, he crept away from home in the night and made it to Washington, D.C. to the recruiting station. No one in his family knew that he had left. The commander of the unit Charley was trying to enlist in wrote to HWL (as Charley called him) for written permission for Charley to join. Permission was granted.

Charley’s battle career was not without excitement. While he missed the battle of Gettysburg due to an illness, he did fight in several battles. On November 27, 1863, at the battle of Mine Run, Charley was shot through the left shoulder. The bullet travelled from his left shoulder, grazing the spine and exiting below the right shoulder. Charley was shipped back to Washington, D.C. for surgery and for recuperation.

On December 1, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was eating dinner when a telegram arrived, informing him of Charley’s condition. He and his youngest son immediately left for Washington, D.C. to be with Charley, care for him, and hopefully nurse him back to health. Upon arrival to D.C., Charley was examined by surgeons who felt his recovery should be complete, although the bullet grazed his spine, rendering him at least temporarily paralyzed.

During this dreadful time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famous poet, looked about him and could only see heartache, disaster, unbelievable grief, and a world gone absolutely wild. Seeking to make sense of it all, Longfellow penned the words of what has become a significant Christmas song, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

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!” (Words and story provided by Justin Taylor)

I think Longfellow captured the scenes well. You can almost see those cannons firing, smoke filling the air, screams of hatred and pain intermingled so that neither are distinguishable from the other. In the middle of the chaos, Longfellow wonders if peace and good-will would ever return. In fact, he wondered where God was in all of the horrific pandemonium. Look again at those last three stanzas. Longfellow chronicles death, destruction, and division that is capitalized by the strength of the hatred that was prevalent around him – it “mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

There are times today when Longfellow’s lines seem to be repeating themselves. San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, Roseburg, OR, Paris, and the list goes on: beheadings and burning, horrific images that flash across our television and computer screens. The New York Daily News proclaims, “God Isn’t Fixing This” after the San Bernardino shootings. While I believe they were mocking Christianity, there is some truth to that statement. God isn’t fixing this. You might even agree with Longfellow, “There is no peace on earth, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.”

But let me make the same declaration where Longfellow ended his poem. I firmly believe God is not surprised by what’s happening. He is fully aware. His lack of intervention does not mean that He is not aware and that He is not able. One day, He will intervene. In that day, we shall know Him for what He can do. The Psalmist proclaimed, “He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth, he breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; he burns the chariot in the fire. ‘Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” (Psalm 46:9-11, NASB)

Perhaps Longfellow had Psalm 46 in mind when he wrote the last stanza.

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.”

Friends, God is not dead nor asleep. The wrong shall fail and the right prevail. During this Christmas time, let’s not lose sight of our Redeemer, our Lord and our King of all kings.

Explore more seeds: download the free dedicatory address of the Francis Asbury statue by President Calvin Coolidge; view all of our resources related to Christmas in one place; check out these 14 Christmas sermon illustrations; view all of resources on suffering and evil here.


Dale Hale was an elder in the Wesleyan Holiness Association of Churches. He pastored nearly three years in Ponca City, OK., then spent the next seven plus years ministering in Council Bluffs, IA. He current serves as Director of Distributed Learning at Asbury Theological Seminary.