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.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
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!
Scripture references Job 38:7, Micah 5:2, Matt 2:1, Matt 2:6.
Rector Phillips Brooks (1835-1903) wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem in 1868, three years after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine especially at night time hence the lyrics of O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Brooks was a native of Boston and Harvard educated, and was to become one of America’s greatest preachers, yet his early life was a failure as a Latin teacher in his home city. He joined the Christian ministry and it was while he was Rector of Holy Trinity, Philadelphia that he wrote the hymn. He was later elevated to the (Anglican) Bishopric of Boston. If you visit Copley Square in Boston you will see, reflected in the mirror glass of the John Hancock building, Trinity Church, completed in 1877, and designed by H. H. Richardson in the Romanesque Revival style. It is located on the eastern side of the square. Considered Richardson's tour de force, the 1893 Baedeker's United States pronounced it "deservedly regarded as one of the finest buildings in America." On this church you will see a plaque commemorating Brook’s ministry and his writing of this carol.
He was a giant of a man, who stood 6 feet 8 inches, also had a big heart that endeared him to old and young alike. It was said that his personality radiated tenderness, sweetness and a passionate sincerity. There were toys in his office for the many children who visited him. It was a familiar sight to see the beloved bishop sitting on the floor playing a game with a group of children.
He never married but other people's children became like a family to him. When he died unexpectedly in 1893, at the age of 58, everyone was overwhelmed with grief. It was a child who put his death in a beautiful light. When told by her mother that Bishop Brooks had gone to heaven, she simply said, "Oh Mama, how happy the angels will be to see him in heaven”
His church organist in Philadelphia, who was also the Sunday School Superintendent, Lewis Redner (1831-1908), wrote the melody to O Little Town of Bethlehem for the Sunday school children's choir. Mr. Redner sat down at the piano to find just the right tune to carry the descriptive words. But nothing he wrote seemed to fit. On the night before the Christmas Eve service he felt defeated, so he went to bed. During his fretful sleep it seemed that he heard music. Immediately, he got up and wrote down the melody just as it is sung today in America. When he joyfully presented it to Rev. Brooks he said: "I think it was a gift from heaven." The children sounded like a choir of angels as they sang the new carol written just for them. Brooks wanted to call the tune “Lewis” after Redner, but he demurred and as a compromise the tune became known as “St Louis”.
Despite its popularity in America it was hardly known in England until it appeared in the English Hymnal of 1906 with a different tune. Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote “Forest Green” based on a traditional English folk song, “The Ploughman’s Dream” which comes from Forest Green, Near Ockley in Surrey and this is the tune usually sung, but another beautiful melody is used in the Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings. Christmas Carol by Sir Henry Walford Davies. Sir Henry was born in Oswestry and educated at the Royal College of Music, having been a choir boy for the Queen at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. He was Master of the King’s Music from 1934-41. Illustrious indeed, but less famous than Vaughan Williams, perhaps the greatest English composer of the 20th Century who was awarded the Order of Merit, the highest civilian award available in Britain and restricted to only 24 members at any one time.
One remarkable setting, seldom heard in churches, marries the words with the music of “House of the Rising Sun”, the Eric Burden hit of the sixties.