Highlights

Christmas carols and the American Civil War

Dec 2005    

THE American Civil War sparked revival on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Between 100,000 and 200,000 Union soldiers reportedly converted to Christ, as did about 150,000 Confederates.

Many soldiers’ quarters featured chapels, and it was during this conflict that military chaplains became common.

The same era saw a flurry of hymn-writing and carol-writing, especially in the North. In 1849, with the Mexican-American war just over and smaller skirmishes (between settlers and American Indians and between slavery-supporters and abolitionists) igniting across the frontier, Edmund Hamilton Sears expressed a longing for peace in “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”. Sears, a New Englander, was not directly involved in these battles, but as a pastor and Christian journalist, he had cause to comment on them.

As scholar Alfred Edward Bailey noted in his 1950 classic The Gospel in Hymns, Sears’ carol specifically emphasises the social significance of the Christmas angels’ message.

Sears writes of a “weary world,” with “sad and lowly plains” where “Babel sounds” echo. He laments “two thousand years of wrong” and the fact that “man, at war with man, hears not / the love song which they [the angels] bring.” The carol’s last stanza anticipates the day “when peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendors fling.”

Instead of peace, the 15 years following Sears’ song saw unprecedented strife. The ravages of the war directly inspired another carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, which was penned by Maine native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1862.

The sadness of this song reflects Longfellow’s grief over the 1861 death of his second wife (burned to death at home when candles ignited her clothing), his bitter opposition to the war, and the sorrow of his son Charles having been gravely injured in battle.

Another carol to come out of Civil War experience is “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, by Phillips Brooks. A pastor in Philadelphia during the war, Brooks also ministered to Union soldiers. He called the Emancipation Proclamation “the greatest and most glorious thing our land has ever seen”.

Debate over the date when Brooks wrote his poem continues to this day, and it touches on how closely related the song is to the war and its aftermath.

One theory holds that Brooks wrote the text in 1868 and that the stillness in Bethlehem mirrors the stillness in Philadelphia, where a generation of young men had been wiped out.

More likely Brooks wrote the text in 1865, during a Christmastime visit to the Holy Land, and he was merely describing Bethlehem as he saw it. At any rate, the words were not set to music until 1868, after which the carol was sung annually by the children’s choir at Brooks’ church. Few people outside the parish knew of the carol until it suddenly appeared in newspapers about a decade later.

If Brooks had visited Bethlehem today, of course, he would have written a very different carol. Thankfully, the “hopes and fears” of even this tragic year are “met” in Jesus Christ. — Christianity Today. Copyright 2000 by Elesha Coffman

 

WAR SPARKED REVIVAL

* The American Civil War sparked revival —hundreds of thousands of soldiers were converted to Christ.
*Many soldiers’ quarters featured chapels, and military chaplains became common.
*The same era saw a flurry of hymn-writing and carol-writing.
*Among the carols written, which became famous, were “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”, “I Heard the Bells
on Christmas Day”, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.

 

Meaning Has No Meaning Without Love

MEANING has no meaning
without love,
Elevating sentience
to desire.
Reason has no reason to
approve
Revelation unsustained
by fire.
Yearn, then, with the
recklessness of burning,
Coming hungry to the
Christmas table,
Holding tight the objects
of your yearning,
Ready to find kings within
the stable.
In you there is a love that
brings to being
Such beauty as you cannot
hope to see,
Too simple and too glorious
for seeing,
Making it a sacrament
to be.
As love gives wings their will
and words their song,
So may it give to you days
sweet and long.

— By NICHOLAS GORDON,
as posted on the Internet.
Nicholas Gordon is an
English professor at
New Jersey City University.

Candles Are A Gift of Light

CANDLES are a gift of light,
A tiny sun, a bit of star.
No other dancer in the night
Dances with such sheer delight,
Little souls serene and bright,
Each a glimpse of what we are
Shining innocent and pure.

By NICHOLAS GORDON,
as posted on the Internet.

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