A Christmas Day Reminder for Shepherd Leaders Everywhere

Holly Culhane reminds us how Henry Longfellow found hope in the Christmas bells, expressing resilience and faith that God would bring peace.

By Holly Culhane


In 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the most widely known and best-loved American poets of the 19th Century, penned the words to the poem, Christmas Bells. In the first verse, Longfellow recounts how hearing bells on Christmas Day reminded him “of peace on earth, good-will to men”, quoting Luke 2:14…


I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!


I picture the poet on a snowy New England Christmas Day hearing the bells peal in the distance as he walks home from celebrating a special time with family, friends, and thinking of how so many in his home country were longing for peace and how in his own heart peace may have been distant…


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!”


By this time, the American Civil War had been raging for two years, his son had been wounded in battle after joining the effort without his father’s blessing, Longfellow had lost his first wife to complications following a miscarriage while traveling in Europe and his second wife to a tragic fire when her dress caught fire while she was setting the curls in their daughter’s hair (and at which time he suffered severe burns to his hands, arms, and face trying to smother the fire), and in more recent years, he had suffered the loss of his brother, father, and mother.


But as the poem continued on, so did Longfellow, with hope in the only One who can comfort those who mourn and bring peace to the chaos of war…


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.”


It was not until 1872 that this poem was set to music. First by an organist using it in a processional, then most notably by Johnny Marks in 1956 to the tune we know today as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”.  Originally recorded by Bing Crosby, and then by Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, and Andy Williams, it was not until the contemporary Christian group Casting Crowns recorded the song in 2008 that it became a Number 1 Christian hit.


Without the benefit of each verse of the poem or each stanza of this carol, we cannot understand the depth of the emotion from which the words came when Longfellow penned them. And without the full knowledge of the circumstances of those we shepherd, we cannot comprehend the complexity of their lives, the gravity of their circumstances, or their own need for peace.


Whether in 1863 or in 2023, the world longs for a shepherd – our Savior whose birth we celebrate this Christmas, the One Who will bring ultimate peace – and the temporary under-shepherds, like you and me, whose Provision, Protection, and Presence are the hands of feet of the baby born to Mary.


May we be reminded of our responsibility this Christmas Day.


Shepherd well, dear friends….


For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.

Luke 2:11-14


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Presence Point

Presence Point equips leaders to intentionally live into their calling as shepherds in the lives of those they lead, and partners with multipliers to do the same within their sphere of influence.

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