About Our Iowa Heritage

Hi. I'm Marty Boller. After 30+ years of pastoral ministry, we're now focusing on exploring the fingerprints of God in the life stories of those who have gone before us. If you love history and love Iowa. Join us!

A Good Christmas-Time Reminder…

Above is the bell that hung in Iowa City’s Old Capitol Bell Tower from 1864 to 2001. This bell tolled for three days and nights after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, chimed for several days to mark the end of World War II, rung in celebration of America’s Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, and solemnly marked the loss of so many lives immediately following 9/11 in 2001. Click here to read more about The Bells of Iowa City.

In these troubling times in America, I must confess…

There are days I look heavenward and ask the ancient question, “God, are you there?”

I’ve been around the block with Jesus long enough to know that seasons like this, when I wonder where God’s hand is, are not a sign of a loss of Christian faith but simply a resting place where we stop, take a deep breath, and remind ourselves what we truly believe about God, our world, and ourselves. As a matter of fact, as I search the scriptures and read church history, I discover that many dedicated followers of God from Job to Abraham, King David to the Master, Himself, and Luther to Mother Theresa, have had their moments when God seemed far away – distanced from the present troubles we presently find ourselves in.

This Christmas season, Sandy & I have been paying attention to one old hymn that seems to speak about these seasons of faith when circumstances don’t make sense and God seems far away.

It’s called I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The lyrics were written in 1863 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Allow me to tell you the story…

In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow’s personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army without his father’s blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer,” he wrote. “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.” Charles was soon appointed as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of Mine Run. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished. Longfellow wrote his poem on Christmas Day in 1863 and it was first published in February 1865, in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields.

It was not until 1872 that Longfellow’s poem was set to music. The English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem as a processional accompanied with a melody “Waltham” that he previously used as early as 1848. The Calkin version of the carol was long the standard. Less commonly, the poem has also been set to Joseph Mainzer’s 1845 composition “Mainzer”. Other melodies have been composed more recently, most notably in 1956 by Johnny Marks. Bing Crosby recorded the song (verses 1, 2, 6, 7) on October 3, 1956, using Marks’s melody. It was released as a single and reached No. 55 on the hit list and was praised by both Billboard and Variety. Marks’s tune has since received more than 60 commercial recordings, with total sales exceeding 5 million copies.

I find it interesting that over the years, the verses that refer to the Civil War have long been forgotten. Yet in these troubling days when America seems so divided along political lines, I’m going to include those verses as well. Keep in mind that the refrain “peace on Earth, goodwill to men” is a reference to the Christmas text found in Luke 2:14.

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 earth, good-will to men.”

With that said, I bid you, my dear friends, a blessed Christmas. May the good-will of God expand to all men and women worldwide, may His peace prevail, and may the Good Lord Bless and Keep You throughout the coming 2022.

Marty Boller

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Wikipedia