Home History of Hymns: "O Sing a Song of Bethlehem"

History of Hymns: "O Sing a Song of Bethlehem"

“O Sing a Song of Bethlehem”
Louis F. Benson
UM Hymnal, No. 179

O sing a song of Bethlehem,
of shepherds watching there,
and of the news that came to them
from angels in the air.

The light that shone on Bethlehem
fills all the world today;
of Jesus’ birth and peace on earth
the angels sing alway.

Louis Fitzgerald Benson (1855-1930), born in Philadelphia, was a person of varied talents. Trained first in law, Benson also was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and served a congregation in Germantown, Pa. He then worked as an editor for the Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, where he published a series of hymnals. He was known, during his own lifetime and today, as one of the finest American hymnologists.

Louis Fitzgerald Benson

Benson’s hymn, “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem,” was composed in 1899 and included in his collection, The School Hymnal (1899). Though composed to a tune from 1873 by A.P. Howard, “O Sing” is now paired with the English folk tune KINGSFOLD, arranged by the inimitable Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) in 1906 for the English Hymnal. “O Sing” has remained a part of many denominational and interdenominational hymnals to the current time.

“O Sing” tells the story of Jesus’ birth, growth to adulthood, ministry, and death and resurrection in four stanzas. In the words of LindaJo H. McKim, editor of the Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, “This hymn is one of the best poetic portrayals of the life of Christ.” Each stanza presents a scene in the drama of Jesus’ life—Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and Calvary.

Just as the narrative of Jesus’ life was propelled forward by continually increasing tensions, so the text, too, moves toward to a climax, each stanza becoming more intense as the crux of the story—quite literally, Jesus’ death and resurrection—approaches. Benson’s portrayal of Jesus’ life serves much as a Sunday school series would—to make personal those moments in Jesus’ own life that are of greatest value to modern-day believers.

Interestingly, in some British hymnals, the second stanza, set in Nazareth, is omitted because it does not directly reference Scripture. Whereas the first stanza places us with the angels and shepherds, the third narrates Jesus calming the storm and the fourth paints the cross on Calvary, the second stanza instead expounds upon Jesus’ life in romantic images of his day such as depicting his boyhood as “fragrant flowers” that grow in “every heart,” that is, a Word of life and beauty that will shape the lives of believers.

Because the hymn encourages us to “sing a song of Bethlehem,” it might seem reasonable to listen for this hymn in the Advent and Christmas seasons. Indeed, in the UM Hymnal that is where “O Sing” may be found, but the first stanza does not give us the whole picture. The hymn does not stop at the Christmas story, but instead takes us all the way through Jesus’ life, singing not only of the joy of Bethlehem but also of the pain of Calvary and the glory of redemption. What new richness might we, as singing congregations, perceive from this hymn if we were to sing it throughout the church year?

Many hymns, even those just as lovely as “O Sing,” simply do not last past one generation. What has made this hymn, written over 100 years ago, remain in hymnals to this day? Is it the timelessness of the text? The singable melody? The combination of those two? The answer is “yes.”

Benson speaks not to individual times or places, technologies or world events, but instead speaks to commonalities of the human experience—the desire to hear angels, the enjoyment of flower and field, the craving for peace, and the longing for a mighty savior. Through hymns like this one, congregations find lasting ways to reflect on the story of Jesus.

Ms. Garrett, a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.