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The History of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

| December 20, 2021
Category: Featured

The author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” knew what it felt like to be stressed, exhausted, and heartbroken…but he also knew what it felt like to be restored. As you learn the history of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” below, I hope you can feel the same restoration singing in your soul! 

Difficult Beginnings…

Phillips Brooks grew up in England. At the young age of 22, he found himself a graduate of Harvard and teaching at Boston’s Latin school. He found his job unfulfilling as the student’s lack of discipline to study frustrated him. Shortly after he began his teaching career, he quit. He turned to his faith and enrolled at the Episcopal Theological Seminary. He graduated in 1850 and began his ministry in Philadelphia. He had no idea what God had in store for him!

Phillips was a powerful preacher. Many came to hear his dramatic and compelling sermons. In 1861 he was called to preach at the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. Soon after, he met a well-known real estate agent named Lewis Redner. Phillips asked Lewis to serve as the superintendent of Sunday school and the organist at the church. Together, they became a powerhouse team. Phillips’ preaching combined with Lewis’ magnetic personality attracted families from all over Philadelphia. Within a year the classes and pews were filled to capacity and standing room only. Over 1000 children were attending Sunday school each week! What a glorious problem to have! The numbers continued to grow over the years. 

As Phillips led and served his ever-growing church, he began to grow weary. Add to that the stresses and heartbreak of the Civil War and he had to fight even harder. Every family he looked upon from the pulpit had either lost a husband or son or were praying fervently for their healing or safety. It was a dark time for everyone. The weight of the burdens began to show physically in Phillips. The church needed peace as much as the nation did. As hard as he tried, Phillips was unable to bring it to them. 

The war ended and for a moment Phillips caught a glimmer of hope only to be quickly destroyed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The senseless murder of the beloved president hurt him deeply. President Lincoln did not attend Phillips’ church but because word had spread of his great speaking abilities, Phillips was asked to preside over the President’s funeral. Pouring all his efforts into his eulogy, Phillips preached the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. The act seemed to take whatever little energy he had left and Phillips’ left for a much-needed sabbatical. 

A Renewed Passion & Faith in Bethlehem 

Phillips journeyed to the Middle East Holy Lands for his sabbatical. He arrived just in time for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, he found himself in Jerusalem. Ignoring the advice to stay with his group, he left on his own to explore the town of Bethlehem. He rode a horse through the town where his beloved Jesus was born and prayed for peace and a renewed spirit. 

As he rode slowly through the town, dusk fell. Phillips saw the stars begin to twinkle and the great orator suddenly found himself speechless as he rode where Mary and Joseph rode on the donkey. He was suddenly overcome with emotion and could only describe it as “singing in my soul.” 

His journal recounts the following from his trip:

Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which strangely enough, they put the shepherds…somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks…

I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, How again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Saviour’s birth. 

This sabbatical changed everything for Phillips but he could never adequately convey the powerful experience he had to anyone. It wasn’t until 1868 that he found the right words. 

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is Born

In 1868, Phillips held strong to the thoughts and emotions he felt during his visit to Bethlehem but still could not find the right words. This time instead of working as hard as possible to put the words together, he just peacefully let the words flow. When he stopped trying so hard, the words flowed and they turned into a poem. He had finally found the right words to explain the “singing in his soul!” He quickly shared the words with his friend Lewis. As Lewis read the words, he finally understood the magnitude of Phillips’ experience and sought to put the “singing in his soul” to music. 

Lewis worked for hours unable to find the right melody to fit the words. Exhausted and frustrated on Christmas Eve, he finally gave up and went to bed. He felt like a failure. Later that night, while lying in bed, the accomplished organist had a sweet and simple tune come to mind. Long after he had stopped trying through his own power and talents, the musical notes for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were born. It was truly a Christmas gift from God!

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” was sung in churches all over Philadelphia! A few years later in 1847, it was published, and by the time of Phillips Brooks’ death in 1893, it had become one of the world’s favorite Christmas Hymns. As you sing the words to his powerful song, take a moment to let them “sing in your soul” and may the peace of God restore you! 

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also enjoy reading The History of “Joy to the World” and The History of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

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