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Since I as a pro-lifer identify with the 19th-century abolitionist movement – which struggled mightily and victoriously to free an oppressed people considered property, not persons – I was encouraged and inspired to discovery the rich anti-slavery heritage behind and within many of our beloved Christmas hymns. There are likely more, but here are the stories behind four:
‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’
In December 1863, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was still grieving the death of his wife Frances two years prior when receiving word their oldest son, Charles, had been seriously injured as a Union soldier in the Civil War.
A fierce abolitionist, Longfellow awakened in despair that Christmas morning, unsure of both the fate of his son and his country.
It was against this backdrop Longfellow wrote the melancholy poem “Christmas Bells” when hearing church bells peel throughout Boston proclaiming the birth of Christ. Two of the middle verses were later dropped to adapt the poem into a Christmas carol, which composer John Caulkin set to music. Those two verses give the current verse three (the last verse cited below) richer context:
Then from each black, accursed mouthâ€¨
The cannon thundered in the South,
â€¨And with the sound
â€¨The carols drowned
â€¨Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
â€¨The hearth-stones of a continent,
â€¨And made forlornâ€¨
The households born
â€¨Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
â€¨”There is no peace on earth,” I said:
â€¨”For hate is strong,â€¨
And mocks the song
â€¨Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Johnny Cash called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” his favorite Christmas carol …
‘O Holy Night’
In 1847, his parish priest asked French poet Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure to compose a Christmas poem. Placide wrote “Cantique de Noel” while contemplating what it would have been like to be present at Christ’s birth and asked his friend Adolphe-Charles Adam to set it to music.
The song became an instant classic in France but was later denounced by the church after Placide himself denounced the church and became a Socialist Communist, and it was also learned Adam was a Jew.
A decade later, American abolitionist and Pastor John Sullivan Dwight learned of the beautiful song and saw something more when translating it into English.
According to Ace Collins in his book, “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas,” verse three “supported Dwight’s own view of slavery in the South. … Dwight’s English translation of ‘O Holy Night’ quickly found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.”
Here is the literal English translation of verse three:
The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:â€¨
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.â€¨
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
â€¨Love unites those that iron had chained.
â€¨Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
â€¨For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
And here is Dwight’s translation:
Truly He taught us to love one another;â€¨
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
â€¨Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;â€¨
And in His name all oppression shall cease.â€¨
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,â€¨
Let all within us praise His holy name.
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’
Episcopalian Pastor Phillips Brooks was so outspoken in his opposition to slavery and support of the North he was asked to preach the funeral eulogy of slain President Abraham Lincoln.
“That solemn honor, in tandem with leading the congregation of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church through the bloody years of the Civil War, had taken its toll,” wrote author Collins in his aforementioned book. “Worn out and badly needing a spiritual rebirth, Brooks took a sabbatical… to tour the Middle East.”
On Christmas Eve 1865, compelled to escape the crowds, Brooks rode alone by horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and spent several hours during the night in worship, prayer and contemplation.
Preparing for a Christmas Eve service three years later, Brooks recalled his experience and wrote the poem we now know as “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” His church organist, Lewis Redner, set it to music.
Where children pure and happyâ€¨
Pray to the blessed Child,â€¨
Where Misery cries out to Thee,â€¨
Son of the Mother mild;â€¨
Where Charity stands watching,â€¨
And Faith holds wide the door,â€¨
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
â€¨And Christmas comes once more.
‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’
John Wesley Work Jr., an African-American professor at Fisk University in Nashville, first published the lyrics and music to this slave spiritual in 1907.
Wrote Collins in his book:
The song had come from the fields of the South, born from the inspiration of a slave’s Christmas, and it was unique in that, in the hundreds of Negro spirituals the work family saved from extinction, few had been written about Christmas. Most, as would seem only natural, centered on earthly pain and suffering, and the joy and happiness that only heaven seemed to offer.
Yet here, standing against the backdrop of such haunting spirituals as, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” was “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a triumphant piece that embraced the wonder of lowly shepherds touched by God at the very first Christmas.
Verses one and three:
While shepherds kept their watching
â€¨o’er silent flocks by night,
â€¨Behold, throughout the heavens
â€¨There shone a holy light …
â€¨â€¨Down in a lowly manger
â€¨The humble Christ was born
â€¨And God sent us salvationâ€¨
That blessed Christmas morn
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” became an anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Peter, Paul and Mary adapted the words to refer to the Israelites’ exodus from slavery, as an analogy to that modern-day struggle. The pro-live movement could clearly adapt the words today …
So, pro-lifers, take heart, as even in the midst of his despair Longfellow proclaimed in the final verse of his poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:â€¨
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;â€¨
The wrong shall fail, the right prevailâ€¨
With peace on earth, good will to men.”