Behind the Christmas Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem
Imagine traveling to the Holy Land and being inspired by the places where Jesus was born, walked, died and rose from the grave. To ride by horseback out to the fields where the shepherds attended their sheep and the angels appeared to them.
That’s exactly how the lyrics for O Little Town of Bethlehem were inspired.
Later the author wrote of his Christmas Eve pilgrimage: “I remember 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 splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth as I heard them a year before; and I assure you, I was glad to shut my ears a while and listen to the more familiar strains that cam wandering to me halfway round the world.”
Episcopalian priest, Phillips Brooks, visited the Holy lands and village of Bethlehem in Jerusalem in 1865. Reportedly, “On December 24th he made his way on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem where he attended a five-hour Christmas musical praise celebration at the Church of the Nativity — just a short distance from the hillside where the shepherds heard the very first Christmas song.”
One biography I read stated “Bishop Brooks was the most famous preacher and the most widely-loved clergyman of his time.”
Three years later he wrote a poem, inspired by his visit, for Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia where he was rector.
Bishop Brooks was an American patriot, finding for the union in the Civil War and standing against slavery. He held a Doctorate of Divinity from Oxford and taught at Yale University. Standing at 6 feet, 8 inches he was loved by young and old alike. He is reported to often be seen sitting on the floor playing with children that visited his office and keeping toys in his office for his young visitors.
Harvard University honored him by establishing the Phillip Brooks House. “The Episcopal Church held him such high esteem that a statue of him standing near a cross was erected in his honor, near his pastorate. “
His church organist, Lewis Redner, composed the melody and titled it “St. Louis.” This is the tune usually sung in the United States.
“As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school 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.
“My recollection is that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed it on leaflets for sale. Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints’ Church, Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porch, and it was he who christened the music ‘Saint Louis.’”
The song was performed by the children’s choir in his church for the first time on Christmas Eve 1868. There was a fourth verse omitted after the initial premiere performance in 1868.
The hymn was published in Dr. Huntington’s 1874 hymnal. By 1890 the hymn was being published in more and more hymnals.
In the British Commonwealth and sometimes in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. a tune titled “Forest Green” is sung. This song was adapted from the English folk ballad “The Ploughboy’s Dream” by Ralph Vaughn Williams. This version was first published in the 1906 English Hymnal.
Bishop Brooks died in January 1893 at the age of 58.
The visit to Bethlehem reminds us of the promise God made to the prophet Micah. “Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are one of the little towns of Judah, but from you I will bring a ruler for Israel, whose family line goes back to ancient times.” (Micah 5:2, GNB).
So a visit to the town of Bethlehem inspired a song to tell the story of Jesus birth.