O Little Town of Bethlehem: The Story Behind the Song


Theology has consequences, and often quite visible ones. To any of our readers that have been awed by the grandeur of Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston, you will find here some of the reasons why the edifice came to be such an arresting sensory experience. The prime motivator behind its construction was a 19th Century Episcopalian pastor by the name of Phillips Brooks who eschewed doctrine for experience. Although this early exponent of liberal Protestantism consciously avoided conflict in his day (the sort of thing early exponents can get away with), once the walls of orthodoxy were breeched his naïve liberalism was finished as a worldview. Those who picked up the fallen banner were by no means as winsome. Brooks did make one contribution that crossed denominational, as well as international boundaries, and it is that story which we bring you today.

On January 24, 1893 the day following Phillips Brooks’s death, a mother broke the news to her little girl saying: “Bishop Brooks has gone to heaven.” With wisdom beyond her years, the girl replied: “O Mother, how happy the angels will be.” The man who wrote one of the world’s best known Christmas carols—”O Little Town of Bethlehem”—was much loved by children. Though a famous man in his day, and one who entertained prominent visitors who came from around the world to meet and hear him, Phillips Brooks always had a supply of gifts for visiting children who came by. The children, in turn, responded with great love and affection for the Boston minister.
Born in South Boston on December 13, 1835, Brooks was the second of six sons, four of whom entered the ministry. His parents, William Gray Brooks and Mary Ann Phillips, were prominent Boston citizens. Brooks was baptized and raised in the Episcopal Church. At age 16 he entered Harvard where he excelled in languages. Upon graduation, he accepted a position in the Boston Latin School, an institution he himself had attended. However, unable to manage a class of unruly teenagers, he resigned after a mere six months.
Frustrated by that experience, Brooks began earnestly thinking about his life work applying for studies at the Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia to prepare for the ministry. Ordained a deacon in 1859, his first assignment was to Church of the Advent in Philadelphia. There, he was an immediate success as a preacher, attracting large crowds. Three years later, in 1862, he was invited to be the minister of Holy Trinity Church in his hometown of Boston. There, the 6’4” tall Brooks was a powerful, eloquent preacher who connected with his audiences heart-to-heart. Brooks was also a staunch defender of the Union during the civil war. When President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, it was Brooks who was invited to deliver a eulogy at Lincoln’s Philadelphia funeral service. Before a stunned audience, he reminded them that Lincoln “vindicated the greatness of real goodness, and the goodness of real greatness.”
A great disaster struck his congregation in 1872 when their church burned down. However, Brooks used it as the catalyst to reach even more people and build an even more impressive sanctuary. Church officials rented Huntington Hall where Brooks preached to two packed audiences every Sunday. Five years later he and his flock were in a newer, larger Trinity Church on Copley Square. Though he was highly regarded as a pastor and preacher, critics were vocal in charging him with preaching “easy religion” to comfortable, affluent Boston residents. In spite of their criticisms, Brooks carried on connecting with his listeners by avoiding the dry, cerebral intellectualism of Unitarians and the perceived dogmatism of the Congregationalists. His preaching was vibrant and heart-felt, reflecting his own conviction that faith ought to be a natural part of human experience. Brooks was widely referred to as “Prince of the Pulpit.”
Not only was Brooks effective from the pulpit, but he maintained a productive literary influence. He published a number of books: Yale Lectures on Preaching (1877); Sermons (1878); The Influence of Jesus (1879); The Candle of the Lord (1881); Sermons Preached in English Churches (1883); Twenty Sermons (1886); The Light of the World (1890). In 1880 he became the first American invited to preach before the Queen of England at the Royal Chapel in Windsor. His first volume of sermons sold more than two hundred thousand copies when released in 1878, making him possibly the first best-selling author of sermons.
While at Holy Trinity, and even as his fame was spreading, Brooks was being depleted physically, emotionally and spiritually. By 1863 the nation was in the midst of the Civil War. Citizen morale was low and everyone knew someone who had been killed in battle. On Sundays, scores of women – dressed in mourning black – could be seen scattered throughout the sanctuary because they grieved the death of a husband or son. Week after week, Brooks climb-ed into the pulpit trying to offer words of comfort, hope, inspiration. When the war finally ended, Brooks’ energies were completely diminished.
In December 1865, exhausted physically, spiritually and emotionally, Brooks made a pilgrimage to Palestine where he hoped to renew his spirit. On Christmas Eve, he distanced himself from the thousands of other pilgrims who had arrived in the Holy Land for Christmas. Un-accompanied, Brooks borrowed a horse and set out across the desolate desert exploring the land of Jesus’ birth on his own and with his own eyes. As the sun faded and the stars began to emerge, he rode into the small village of Bethlehem. There he recalled the Gospel stories of Christ’s birth and powerfully encountering the true meaning of Christmas. Upon re-turning home, he would tell family and friends that his experience that evening was so overpowering it would permanently be “singing in my soul.” In his journal he recorded his Bethlehem experience this way:

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 . . . somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks.
Leaving the field, Brooks went directly into the village of Bethlehem and recalled:

I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus     was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the 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 Savior’s birth.
Although his Holy Land experience was powerful and formative, Brooks did not have the words to fully frame his experience. That came nearly three years later, in 1868. Anticipating Christmas, Brooks wanted a new carol for his church children to sing in their annual Sunday School Christmas program. As he once again reflected on the ride into Bethlehem fields and standing at the church in the village, words came effortlessly into his mind and he quickly began to jot them down: “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.”
Upon completion of the song, Brooks gave a copy to his organist and church Sunday School Superinten-dent, Lewis H. Redner, asking him to compose a simple melody especially for children. Redner, a gifted church musician and devoted religious educator, struggled with developing just the right melody. There were several stops and starts. Finally, on the evening before the Christmas program was to be presented, Redner abruptly awakened from sleep, grabbed pen and paper, composing the present melody. It was an immediate hit with children and adults. Other churches be-gan using it, delighting worshippers who were enamored with the words and tune. Over the following six years, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was the most popular Christmas carol in Philadelphia. Inexpensively printed as a leaflet, the song was used in almost every church during their annual Christmas services. Lewis Redner always insisted the song came to him as a gift from God.
Throughout his life, Brooks maintained distance from church hierarchy, even ex-pressing some disdain for the dryness of church ad-ministration and diocesan activities. Nevertheless, he was elected Bishop of Boston in 1891. He accepted, but his term as Bishop was short. Two years after his election, he became ill and died on January 23, 1893. Phillips Brooks was only 57 years of age. Though Phillips Brooks wrote several other Christmas and Easter hymns, only O Little Town of Bethlehem survived the test of time and continues to be sung in churches all over the world.