Bells Tell the Story of Peace on Earth

By Joyce D. Sohl

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.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on Christmas Day, 1864 in the midst of the Civil War. He recalled the message of the angels to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, promising good news, great joy, a Messiah, and peace on earth. He also was dealing with the wounding of his son, Charles in the war and the recent death of his wife. In what is now the third stanza in the carol he wrote:

 And in despair I bowed by 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.’

Longfellow could have written his carol during this Advent/Christmas season. For “peace on earth” is not part of our reality today. War rages in many corners of the world; hate of those who are different from us in race, sexuality, or religion is rampant even here in the United States; the promise of peace and great joy is still mocked by word and action of those in power; and those on the margins of our society, as were the shepherds, are still afraid because they do not believe that peace with justice will prevail.

Despair though, is not the last word in this carol. In the next stanza Longfellow wrote: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.” He expressed hope and an affirmation that God has promised steadfast love and faithfulness. It is God that is in charge – not us, or the government, or terrorists or warriors, or bosses or teachers. No God is in charge and each of us must articulate this faith over and over again.

Longfellow closed his carol with these words:

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!

As we face the tumult and trouble in our world and communities, may we once again hear the bells ringing out loud and clear the call for peace on earth. May we express a trust in God’s goodness, love and faithfulness as we journey on our way to Bethlehem. May we echo the voices of the angels, the ringing of bells and the chant in our hearts of “Peace on earth, good will to men!”

Joyce Sohl

Joyce D. Sohl has been Laywoman-in-Residence since 2009 as a full-time volunteer. She retired as CEO of United Methodist Women in 2004. She is the author of 4 books, a teacher, retreat leader, writer and non-professional musician. Here at the Center her work is in the area of Spirituality & the Arts with such programs as Tuesdays in the Chapel, Vespers & All That Jazz, Poet’s Corner, and quarterly retreats and art exhibits.