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  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

The History Behind the Christmas Carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

The History Behind the Christmas Carol

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Please enjoy The Gospel as found in the story behind the Christmas Carol “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” This is a service of the A ministry of The Duke Consulting Group

Generally, when one thinks of the Rev. Dr. Phillips Brooks, it is because of his reputation as a Minister of the Gospel, as the Rector of the Trinity (Episcopal) Church Boston, or as one who delivered the Lyman Beecher “Lectures on Preaching” at Yale University in 1877. [1] He is not remembered necessary as the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

There are many hymns that have been written that were composed for children. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of those and was destined to become a most popular Christmas carol. [2]

Brooks, who lived from 1835 to 1893, wrote this carol for the Sunday School of his parish of Holy Trinity Church. It was while the thoughts of his recent trip to Bethlehem was still fresh in his mind. Hymnologist J. R. Watson writes, “The hymn was printed on an informal leaflet in December 1868” then it “appeared in The Sunday School Hymnal in 1871.” [3]

Hawn relates, “According to . . . [his] story, Brooks traveled on horseback between Jerusalem on Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.” [4] Before dark Brooks and his companions traveled out to the fields where it is believed the shepherds saw the Holy Star. There, in the field they observed a cave that was surrounded by a fence. Brooks felt that, “Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.” [5]

Noted hymnologist Albert Bailey tells how Brooks also participated in the Christmas Eve service “conducted in . . . Constantine’s ancient basilica (326 A.D.).” [6] This edifice is traditionally thought to be built over the historical site of the Nativity cave. The service Brooks attended lasted from 10 P.M. unto 3 A.M. [7] These two events, taken together, became the impetus for Brooks to compose this much-loved Christmas Carol. It has been said of this most lovely hymn that heralds the Gospel (especially the fourth verse), “Not only does the hymn beautifully describe the little town asleep in the December night; it also gracefully modulates from a description of Christmas into an examination of the meaning of Christmas: first in its encouragement of charity and faith, and then into the coming of Christ into the human heart.” [8]

The Lyrics: “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Verse 1

O little town of Bethlehem How still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by Yet in the dark street shineth The everlasting Light The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight

Verse 2

For Christ is born of Mary And gathered all above While mortals sleep, the angels keep Their watch of wondering love O morning stars, together Proclaim the holy birth And praises sing to God, the King And peace to men on earth

Verse 3

How silently, how silently The wondrous Gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven No ear may hear His coming But in this world of sin Where meek souls will receive Him still The dear Christ enters in Verse 4

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!

Lyrics taken from:

[1] Phillips Brooks, Phillips Brooks on Preaching, with an introduction by Theodore P. Ferris (New York: The Seabury Press, 1964), iii-vi. [2] Hawn, Discipleship Ministries: The United Methodist Church, “History of Hymns: ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’” accessed December 28, 2020, [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid.

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