History of Hymns: “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 230
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we se the 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.
Many hymns that were written originally for children have captured the imagination of everyone. Such is the case with “O little town of Bethlehem.”
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote this beloved Christmas hymn for the Sunday school children at his Philadelphia parish, Holy Trinity Church, following a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865, according to British hymnologist J. R. Watson. The hymn was printed on an informal leaflet in December 1868 and then appeared in The Sunday School Hymnal in 1871.
In the United States, the hymn is generally sung to its original tune, ST. LOUIS by Louis H. Redner (1931-1908), a wealthy real estate broker who served as a church organist for his avocation. UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes that Redner “increased Sunday school attendance at Holy Trinity Episcopal, where Phillips Brooks was rector, from thirty-six to over one thousand during his nineteen years as superintendent.”
According to the story, Brooks traveled on horseback between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.
“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,’ or leading them home to fold.”
Brooks participated in the Christmas Eve service, writes hymnologist Albert Bailey, “conducted in . . . Constantine’s ancient basilica (326 A.D.) built over the traditional site of the Nativity, a cave. The service lasted from 10 P.M. to 3 A.M.!” This sequence of events provided the backdrop for Brooks’ children’s hymn.
The now omitted original fourth stanza seems directed to children:
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the undefiled;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
The composer Redner felt that a line from this stanza—“Son of the undefiled”—led to some amusing criticism lest it should smack of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Brooks then changed that line to ‘Son of the Mother mild,’ but he afterward decided to omit the third verse altogether from the carol.”
Redner noted that the “simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure almost on the Eve of Christmas. It was after midnight that a little angel whispered the strain in my ears and I roused myself and jotted it down as you have it.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) paired this text with the British folk tune FOREST GREEN for The English Hymnal (1906), a marriage that Australian hymnologist Wesley Milgate called “one of the many happy inspirations of the music editor, Vaughan Williams.” This tune is the dominant in Great Britain, and the American tune ST. LOUIS has been derided by British hymnologist Erik Routley as “broken-backed and paralytic.” Such is the difference in musical tastes of two countries an ocean apart.
Regardless of the feelings about the tune, hymnologists on both sides of the Atlantic agree on the poignancy of the text. Dr. Watson sums it up well: “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.”
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.