‘Goodwill to men’ came from dark time for poet
Published 5:03 am Sunday, December 18, 2022
God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The year was 1860 and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was at the peak of his successful career as a poet.
Abraham Lincoln had just been elected president, giving hope to many in the nation.
But things soon turned dark for America and for Longfellow, personally.
The Civil War began the following year and Longfellow’s wife died of severe burns after her dress accidentally caught fire.
Longfellow sustained severe burns on his hands and face from trying to save his wife. He was so badly burned that he could not even attend her funeral.
In his diary for Christmas Day 1861, he wrote, “how inexpressibly sad are the holidays.”
In 1862, the Civil War escalated and the death toll from the war began to mount.
In his diary for that year, Longfellow wrote of Christmas, “’A Merry Christmas,’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
In 1863, Longfellow’s son, who had run away to join the Union Army, was severely wounded and returned home in December.
There is no entry in Longfellow’s diary for that Christmas.
For Christmas Day that year, Longfellow wanted to pull out of his despair, so he decided to try to capture the joy of Christmas.
He began: “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.”
As Longfellow came to the sixth stanza, he was stopped by the thought of the condition of his beloved country.
The Battle of Gettysburg was not long past.
Days looked dark and he probably asked himself the question, “How can I write about peace on earth, goodwill to men in this war-torn country, where brother fights against brother and father against son?”
But he kept writing… “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!”
Here’s where the parallels with our present day begin to surface.
A day where the moorings of character, integrity and truth have given way to opinion and chaos.
E.M. Bounds, in his treasured works on prayer, writes in regard to time of Jesus birth, “The Jews were much better when Christ came than in the ages before it. It was the golden age of their Pharisaic religion. Their golden religious age crucified Christ. There was never more praying, never less praying. Never more sacrifice, never less sacrifice. Never less idolatry, never more idolatry, never more temple worship. Never less God worship. Never more lip service, never less heart service, never more church goers never less saints”
Now back to Longfellow’s words.
But then, catching an eternal perspective and the real message of Christmas and Christ Himself, he wrote: 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!”
Such a powerful echo of the timeless message describing how the birth of Christ brings peace to a troubled world and peace to a troubled heart as well!
Jesus was born as the prophets foretold… Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Micah 5:2 “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
I have always loved these words… “Love hath a hem of its garments that reaches the very dust, it can touch the stains in the streets and the lanes, because it can, it must. It dares not rest on the mountain; it’s bound to come to the vale. For it cannot find fullness of mind, until it falls on the lives that fail.”
E. Stanley Jones described this gift, God’s gift to mankind… “He was goodness that was approachable, not meticulous but merciful, not standing on pedestals to be worshipped, but bending in lowly service over the lost. Never did majesty and meekness so blend and become so beautiful. Never did word and work so blend in harmony as they did in him.”
When it comes to the story of Christmas I think it is safe to say that we’ve all walked these halls before.
I mean, you know the feeling when you are seeing something or some place for the second or third time and someone you’re with is seeing it for the first time?
You’re not as attentive as they. You’re more relaxed and less observant than they are and for good reason, you’ve seen this before!
That’s the danger of the Christmas story.
We’ve all walked past these statues and monuments many times, therefore we face the possibility of losing the awe and wonder of Bethlehem’s message… Peace on earth good will to men. Now more than ever, this is just what the world needs to hear!
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on Earth, good will to men!
Tim Throckmorton is the national director of Family Resource Council’s Community Impact Teams.