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The Casting Crowns version:

The lyrics originate from the poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written on Christmas day in 1863. But the original was not a feel-good song but one born in grief. Longfellow’s wife had died in a fire in 1860. And on December 1, 1863, the widower received the news that his eldest son, 19-year-old Charley, had been nearly paralyzed by a gunshot wound fighting for the Union in the Civil War. It was with that background that he penned this poem about the dissonance between the Christmas bells, the singing of “peace on earth,” and the world around him of injustice and violence—ending with the hope for eschatological peace.

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!”

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 the earth, good-will to men.”

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7 thoughts on “The Original “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day””

  1. Chris Land says:

    I love their version of this song. It is my favorite.

  2. ChrisB says:

    I love their version. I keeps the pain of the song while adding more emphasis to the hope. And their tune rocks.

  3. MarkO says:

    I like Longfellow’s good intentions with the words. The back story makes those good intentions more meaningful to me, BUT I still struggle with a religious Christmas song which is devoid of the Gospel as being suitable for worship.

    This is not really a song for Christian worship. It is more of a general “let’s hope for the best” holiday song. The words fit better into the theistic cultural ethos (the kind our country was founded on) than into a Jesus Christ exalting ethos (the kind the Reformers worked and lived for).

  4. First time I heard this song was in this animation “The Story of Christmas”

  5. We just did this version in our program this year. (I’ll post selections on my YouTube channel sometime after I get the DVD edited.) It’s a beautiful version of an already great song, but I think too few have reflected on the words. This is a season that seems so joyous, but also seems to be such a time of sorrow for so many. Indeed, there is much sorrow in this world, and it was for the sorrow of our sin that God came incarnate, wrapped in frail flesh, so to reconcile us to himself.

  6. This is a song I sang often while serving in the military. Those who have to implement a country’s policy on the battlefield can especially identify with such a message. I’ve always preferred Harry Bellafonte’s version because he sings it with such pathos, then finally victory…unlike so many who do a very sing-song happy caroling version. Also there’s an alternate tune that fails to reflect the somber lyrics.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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