Most of the hymns for carol that have been written over times has a story behind it with some more intriguing than others but here we will look at the “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. The hymn may be your favourite for the carol or Christmas festive or just one of them. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of the famous Christmas hymns for carol and the text of the hymn was written by Phillip Brooks (1835-1893) in the 19th Century.
The Hymn Writer
Brooks was born on 13th December, 1835, in Boston. He was a reserved and quiet man who stood 6 feet 4 inches tall. He did graduated from Harvard at the age of 19 years. Rev. Phillips was a beloved and respected evangelist. After he had served different Episcopal churches around Philadelphia and Boston, Rev. Brook was appointed the Bishop of that area.
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Brook was a bachelor and had no children of his own. However, he was so much and dearly loved the little ones of his congregations. Brooks’ love to children is mutual because they returned the affection. He died unexpectedly in 1893, at the age of 58, all his people was devastated with grief. However, when one woman told her daughter about his death, the girl was said to reply with: “O how happy the angels will be.” That was hearth touching.
Story Behind The Hymn
Rev. Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was the one that wrote this beloved Christmas hymn for the Sunday school children at his Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia. In year 1868, on Christmas Day in 1868, Brooks, for his love of children, predetermined to do something amazing for the children’s Christmas program at his church. He then wrote the text of the hymn “O little town of Bethlehem”. This was three years after his pilgrimage to Bethlehem and the text of the hymn was based on his memories of the Bethlehem town, as a poem. The texts of the hymn refer to the town of Bethlehem where Jesus was born by Mary.
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“The O Little Town of Bethlehem” hymn he wrote portrays the context of Christ’s birth and the wondrous gift that would be his life, teachings, and sacrifice. On finishing the poem, Brooks asked Lewis Redner (1931-1908), his organist then, to put the poem into music with a simple melody so that the children could sing it on Christmas eve at the Christmas festive for Sunday-school service.
Tune of The Hymn
Lewis Redner on his side try as much as possible to put the texts into music but all in avail. He tried till the night that precedes the Christmas Eve service of that year, 1868, and all the music he wrote for the texts seemed not to fit the text. He later felt defeated and went to bed to have his night rest. Lewis revealed that during his fretful sleep, at that night glorious night, he heard an angel-strain whispering the tune in his ear. He said that he grabbed a piece of music paper and pen down the melody of the tune (St. Louis) as we have it today.
He later harmonized the tune on Sunday morning before going to church. Lewis taught the children of Holy Trinity Church the song that particular morning. The beautiful carol was song for the first time at the Christmas festive for Sunday-school service of Brooks’ church. Lewis never thought the carol, both music and text, would go around the world and live beyond that the Christmas of 1868 as it did today.
Richard McCauley, the bookstore owner on Chestnut Street west of 13th Street, was the firstly person that printed the hymn “O little town of Bethlehem” on leaflets for sale. Later, the rector of All Saints’ Church, Worcester, Mass, Rev. Dr. Huntington, asked for a permission and printed it in The Church Porch, his Sunday-School hymn and tune book. Rev. Dr. Huntington was the one who named the music to the text “Saint Louis”.
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The original tune of the hymn wrote by Lewis is called St. Louis as named by Rev. Dr. Huntington and it was an immediate success in the USA. However, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) later paired the text of the hymn with the British folk tune Forest Green. Ralph Vaughan Williams collected the tune from Ralph Vaughan Williams in Surrey in year 1903, and adapted and harmonized the tune into hymn for The English Hymnal (1906). The merging of the text with Forest Green tune was described by Wesley Milgate, Australian hymnologist as “one of the many happy inspirations of the music editor, Vaughan Williams.” Both tunes for the text are popular today.
“O little town of Bethlehem.” falls into the categories of hymns that were written basically for children and captured the imagination both old and young.