As you know, there are many beautiful Christmas carols. Silent Night will always be a favorite. Hark the Herald Angels Sing and O Holy Night are classics. But one of the most charming, to us, is O Little Town of Bethlehem.
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.
As with many carols, there is an interesting story behind this one that we thought might interest you as we prepare to celebrate another Christmas.
The year was 1865 when a man named Phillips Brooks needed a break.
A rector for a church in Philadelphia, Brooks was one of the country’s foremost abolitionists. For years, he had preached tirelessly against slavery. During the four long years of the Civil War, he had traveled around the country, advocating for the rights of freed slaves, ministering to soldiers, and paying tribute to those who had fallen serving their country – including his own brother, George, who died of typhoid while fighting for the Union.
Brooks was probably most famous, however, for his legendary eulogy of Abraham Lincoln. A great admirer of the president, Brooks penned one of the most moving tributes anyone would ever write, delivering it to his congregation just a week after Lincoln’s death.
Soon after, exhausted from years of war and work, Brooks decided it was time to get away for awhile. So, he decided to visit one of the places he most wanted to see: Bethlehem.
After a long voyage across the sea, Brooks traveled on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. As chance would have it, he arrived at the little town on Christmas Eve. This is how he described it:
“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 sheep. Somewhere [long ago] in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks’ or leading them home to fold.”1
That night, Brooks participated in a Christmas Eve service in an ancient basilica built during Constantine’s time all the way back in the 300s. The service lasted from 10 PM to 3 AM.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above
While mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wondering love
Oh morning stars together, proclaim thy holy birth,
And praises sing to God the king, and peace to men on earth.
Moved by everything he saw, Brooks decided to write about it when he returned home – in the form of a poem meant for children. In it, he tried to describe the peace and comfort he felt in that holy place, on that holy night, so that those who would never have a chance to go there could still see it and feel it in their own hearts on Christmas.
Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the Mother mild
Where charity stands watching, and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.1
A few years later, Brooks decided the poem might make for a good song for his congregation to sing on Christmas. So, he asked his organist, Lewis Redner, to compose a melody for it.
At first, Redner could not think of any music to go with the words. According to him:
As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, “Redner, have you ground out that music yet to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’?” I replied, “No”, but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.2
As we know, both the words and music are still sung to this day – and hopefully, will continue to be sung centuries from now. It’s a beautiful tune and a beautiful poem, full of quiet peace for a quiet, peaceful night. The night Christ was born.
We hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about the story behind this song. And we hope you have a wonderful, peaceful Christmas!
1 “History of Hymns: O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Discipleship Ministries, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-little-town-of-bethlehem
2 “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Little_Town_of_Bethlehem