The inspiration for this hymn, like Horatio Spafford’s “It is Well With my Soul,” came out of tragedy and remorse. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, having an injured son and a dead wife, wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day. The third verse, which says, “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,’” shows the depth of despair Longfellow experienced. The fourth verse shows the faith and hope in God that Longfellow had in the face of despair.
The text for this hymn is based off of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1863 poem, “Christmas Bells.” The poem itself was inspired by several painful events in Longfellow’s life. For one, his son Charles joined the Union army without telling Henry before he left. Eventually, Charles was severely wounded in battle. Around the same time, Longfellow’s wife, Frances, tragically died from an accidental fire, which left Henry badly burned as well. Longfellow wrote his poem on Christmas Day, telling of the despair in his heart as he heard the Christmas bells play. Fortunately, this poem ends on an encouraging note, emphasizing hope and peace among men, despite the troubles of the world.
The tune WALTHAM was written by John Baptiste Calkin in 1872, during his time as the organist at St. Thomas’s Church in Camden Town. WALTHAM was written for Longfellow’s poem, and became Calkin’s best-known work. Although this tune is primarily used in “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” it has been paired with several other texts across the years.
As implied by the name, this song should be played in the Christmas season.
Read more about this hymn at Hymnary.org