The Story Behind the Christmas Carol… “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

In Bethlehem, he attended a five-hour worship service from 10:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m. at the Church of the Nativity. He said of the event, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”

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Phillip Brooks (1835-1893) the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ was a very big man. He stood six feet six inches tall and weighed in at almost three hundred pounds. After graduating from Harvard at the age of twenty-two, he struggled as a teacher of Latin at Boston’s Latin School. He knew his subject very well but could not instill in his students the desire to study as he thought they should. These thoughts caused him to believe he had failed at teaching. Finally, he left his teaching occupation. He began to look to God through prayer and Bible study to find what his future held. Eventually, he entered Episcopal Theological Seminary to prepare for the ministry. He was ordained in 1859 at the age of twenty-four and began his ministry in Philadelphia.

He was a dynamic pulpiter. He would preach at a rate of 250 words per minute. In thirty-five to forty minutes, he could deliver a sermon that would take the average minister an hour. His preaching was topical rather than expositional. There were times when he was criticized for his lack of depth in doctrine. However, he is recognized as one of America’s greatest preachers.

He had only been in the ministry six years when he was asked to preach the final rites over President Abraham Lincoln.

His ministry was also characterized by his love for children. Brooks’ study was filled with many scholarly books, papers, and journals, but it also held toys and dolls for his little friends, whom he always gave time for play.

In 1862, Brooks went to Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He enlisted Lewis Redner to be the Sunday School Superintendent as well as the organist. They began their ministry together with thirty-six children enrolled in Sunday School. Within a year’s time, over one thousand children were enrolled.

In 1865, after pasturing this great church during the ravages of the Civil War, Brooks, age thirty, found himself totally exhausted. He planned a trip to the Holy Land. His congregation didn’t want to be without his leadership even for such a very special sabbatical. However, they all urged him to go. One of the church papers declared, “He will go accompanied with the prayers of thousands for his happy journeying and his safe return,”

His trip was everything he had hoped it would be. During the week of Christmas, he and his fellow travelers found themselves in Jerusalem. On December 24 he traveled by horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. This is the entry to his diary about this experience, “Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds.”

In Bethlehem, he attended a five-hour worship service from 10:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m. at the Church of the Nativity. He said of the event, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”

Brooks returned to Philadelphia and found his experience in Palestine difficult to forget. However, the song about his Bethlehem encounter was still three years away. In December of 1868, as Phillip Brooks arranged sermons and programs for the Christmas season, the special moment came. As he prepared, his thoughts again turned to his travels in the Holy Land. He wanted a Christmas song for his “Little Ones.” With his heart full of memories of that special night in Bethlehem, he wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

He took the words to the church organist, Lewis Redner, and asked him to write a tune for his simple carol. Brooks wanted the children to sing the carol. Brooks wanted the children to sing the carol the next Sunday, which was Christmas Day. Brooks told Redner if he would compose a good melody he would name it after him. Redner gave much thought to the carol and tune all week long but the inspiration would not come. On Christmas Eve, he went to bed without a melody. Very late in the night, he was awakened by what he called an “angel strain” singing the melody he was to put with the carol. Early on Christmas morning, he found himself filling out the harmony for the carol. Lewis Redner said many times that the melody was a “gift from heaven.” Thirty-six children and six Sunday School teachers sang the carol for the first time on that Christmas morning in 1868, proving once again God never comes too late with too little; Brooks named the tune after his organist. To keep from embarrassing Redner, he changed his first name “Lewis” to “Louis” and called it “St. Louis.” The carol was printed in leaflets and was used locally. Then in 1874, William R. Huntington first published it in Church Porch. It has become one of the best-loved Christmas hymns in the English language.

Phillip Brooks was made Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts in 1891. Two years later, he died in Boston at the age of fifty-seven. Brooks has been called a great preacher. He has been referred to as having a “princely form towering… as a giant.” Probably the best description of Brooks’ was given by one of his five-year-old “little friends.” When told that her big friend had gone to heaven, she replied, “How happy the angels will be.”

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together,
Proclaim the holy birth,
And praised sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
Be born in us today,
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Source: “Song of Christmas” and the stories behind them – by Tommy and Renee Pierce (Copyright 2008)