December 4. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)
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 bon of Mary, And, gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep Their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together Proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the king, And peace to all the 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.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!
In 1859, Phillips Brooks graduated from Episcopal Theological Seminary and began his ministry as a pastor. He was a Harvard graduate as well, who had tried his hand at teaching Latin but had given up and turned to prayer and Bible study to find his way. In 1861, Brooks became pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He was a master orator and his special love of children drew literally thousands to his congregation.
But by 1863, the country was in the middle of the Civil War and his fervor was beginning to wane. Every Sunday, he looked down at the widows and mournful faces and became weary of trying to find a message of joy or peace. Then, president Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Phillips Brooks was asked to preside over the funeral ceremony. He was not Lincoln's pastor, but was asked because of his fame as an inspirational speaker.
By 1865, poor Brooks needed a break so that he could regain his faith and renew his spirit. He left America for an extended visit to the Middle East. While there, he toured the spots of Biblical importance. On Christmas Eve in Jerusalem that year, Brooks felt the need to get away from the masses of people who crowded the village streets. He borrowed a horse and spent time wandering, lost in thought. Just as the sun was setting, he rode into the tiny town of Bethlehem and the clear sky became full of stars. Awed by the wonder of the scene and how our Savior came from such humble beginnings, his faith was inspired!
He returned to his congregation with high hopes that his experience would inspire his flock. But the words failed him and he grew desperate for a way to share how he felt. In December of 1868, he recalled his time in the Holy Land again. This time, the words flowed and soon formed a poem.
Brooks enthusiastically took his poem to good friend and church organist Lewis Redner so that the words could be set to music. Redner struggled at first and on Christmas Eve went to bed in discouragement--with nothing on the page. As he lied there, a melody finally came to him and just in time for the Christmas day service!
The song "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was presented at church and soon became extremely popular in Philadelphia and around the world. Phillips Brooks is known as one of the greatest preachers of the 19th century, but his inspired song is a large part of what makes him so well-loved.