Phillips Brooks grew up memorizing hymns. By the time he got to college, he had around 200 that he could recite on the spot.
Phillips went into the ministry and one of his hobbies was writing children’s poems. In fact, even though he was a huge man, his favorite part of the worship service was getting down on the floor with the kids.
Before serving a church in Boston, Rev. Brooks was in Philadelphia. While there, one Advent he needed a song for the children to sing on the Sunday before Christmas so he decided to write a poem. He scribbled it down the week of the service and then gave it to the music director to compose the music.
The problem was that the music director, Lewis Redner, didn’t get around to writing the music. However, as he slept on the Saturday night before the service, Redner claims that he heard “angel strains ringing in his ears”. He got up and found a pencil and paper and wrote the music down. The next morning, he wrote the harmony and dashed off to church.
During that worship service, in December 1868, O Little Town of Bethlehem was sung by Sunday School children for the first time. Later, a local bookstore owner got a copy of the music and published it in a small leaflet of Sunday School hymns called “The Church Porch”. That leaflet found its way to a hymn publisher and, well, the rest is history.
Two things stand out for me in this great story. One is that we never know the reverberations of the seemly small things we do. Rev. Brooks never imagined that his little poem would last beyond that Sunday morning. Today it is one of the most beloved hymns at Christmas time.
Secondly, we would not have this Christmas carol if the music director hadn’t gotten up that night to write down the music he was hearing as he slept. He was attentive to the mystical side of his spirituality and acted on it.
In this way, the story of O Little Town of Bethlehem is a wonderful intersection of the ordinary and the divine. Consequently, it is a song of awe, devotion, hope, and peace.
The fourth verse is not often sung but speaks to Brook’s hopes in the aftermath of the Civil War. May these words also provide us with hope and a greater awareness of the power of Christmas today:
“Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee,
Son of the mother mild;
Where Charity stands watching,
And Faith holds wide the Door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
and Christmas comes once more.”
See you in church,