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O Little Town of Bethlehem
FOREST GREEN | Hymn History | Same-Tune Hymns | Bible Passage
Phillips Brooks, 1835-1893
Traditional English Melody
Arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958
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 wond'ring love.
O morning stars, together Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises 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.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.
The Reverend Phillips Brooks spent Christmas 1865 in Bethlehem, the town where the baby Jesus was born. The sights and sounds of the ancient city flooded into his keen mind leaving indelible impressions. Three years later these impressions would be enshrined in a hymn he would write specially for the children of his Sunday School.
Phillips Brooks was a big man, physically, mentally and spiritually. He is said to have been one of the biggest preachers of his day, standing six foot six in height with a weight to match. Clint Bonner tells us that 'he sang 200 hymns .from memory and blasted out sermons at a rate of 250 words per minute.'
The story of the hymn he wrote goes back to a December day in 1868 when the massive preacher paced the study of the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where he was the minister.
It was just a few days before Christmas; and Brooks was working on a sermon appropriate to the season. Out in the church the organist and Sunday School superintendent, Lewis Redner, practised carols and special music for the coming Christmas services.
As the preacher walked up and down, his thoughts took him back to Bethlehem and the shepherds watching over their sheep, just as they did when Jesus was born.
Eventually, he laid aside his sermon preparation and took up his pen. The words: "O little town of Bethlehem," how still we see thee lie flowed quickly and in a short time he had completed the four verses.
He then asked Redner to write a tune. The organist made no claim to be a composer but agreed to have a go. The days passed, until it was almost Christmas, but Redner still didn't have any ideas for the music. Then something quite amazing happened!
On the eve of Christmas day, just about midnight, he was awakened, 'as thought by an angel strain. The music seemed to come down from heaven,' he later recorded. Quickly he jotted down the melody , then, just as quickly as he was awakened, he went back to sleep. Next morning he finished the harmonies for the tune and later that same day taught the new carol to the children of the Sunday School.
It must have been a great thrill for those children to sing O Little Town Of Bethlehem, the first time it was ever heard on that Christmas day in 1868.
Phillips Brooks continued his ministry for another 25 years, eventually becoming Bishop of Massachusetts. He remained a bachelor; but never lost his love for, and way with, children. It seems they loved him too, for, when he died, in Boston in 1893, one little 5-year-old girl said, with tears in her eyes, 'How happy the angels will be.'
The angel's gain was the children's loss. But at least Bishop Brooks left something really precious to be remembered by.
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
Tile everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
OTHER HYMNS with the SAME TUNE:
Art Thou Afraid? Scottish Psalter, 1880
Ho! Ye That Thirst Scottish Psalter, 1880
2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.