Article: THE STORY BEHIND THE HYMN: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” | Mini Tharian, USA

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a favourite Christmas season hymn penned by Phillips Brooks in 1868 after visiting the town of Bethlehem on his trip to the Holy Land two years earlier.

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was born in Boston in 1835 and was educated at Harvard. He became a beloved and respected evangelist and ministered in several Episcopal churches in Philadelphia and Boston. He had a heart for children. He died unexpectedly in 1893 at the age of 58.

While he was the minister of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, he visited Bethlehem and the Holy Land in December 1865. He had a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. By nightfall, he was in the field where, according to tradition, the shepherds heard the angelic announcement. Later, he attended the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity – Constantine’s ancient basilica (326 A.D.) in Bethlehem. The beauty and simplicity of that visit stayed with Phillips Brooks when he returned to America. A few years later, he wrote to the children of his congregation, “I remember especially on Christmas Eve when I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born when the whole church was 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 knew well, telling each other of the “wonderful night” of the Savior’s birth as I had heard the year before; and I assure you I was glad to shut my ears for a while and listen to the more familiar strains that came wandering to me halfway round the world.”

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His church organist Lewis Redner could not compose the right tune to carry the descriptive words at that time. But on the night before the Christmas Eve service, during his restless sleep, it seemed that Mr. Redner heard music. Immediately he got up and wrote down the melody as we sing it today. “O Little of Bethlehem” quickly became a favourite after it was published in 1874. We are blessed to continue singing it over one hundred years later.

Within the beauty of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of God’s promises from the prophet Micah: “Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are one of the little towns of Judah, but from you, I will bring a ruler for Israel, whose family line goes back to ancient times.” (Micah 5:2).
The last verse is a prayer.
“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 Emmanuel!”
Dr. Watson commented: “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.”

My favourite lines are:
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.

Mini Thomas

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