Carols of Christmas – “O Little Town of Bethlehem” pt.1

This week we are singing and studying the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem from Alan Vermilye’s book The Carols of Christmas. This email is available online and on Facebook.

Philip Brooks:

For the third week in a row, our carol is written by a Harvard-man. John Sullivan Dwight was a Harvard graduate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow taught at the college, and Philip Brooks was also a graduate. Maybe it is the Charles River that inspires Christmas carols. After graduating from Harvard, Brooks attended Alexandria Seminary in Virginia (VTS?) and, at age 24, was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1859. Upon ordination, Brooks was called to Philadelphia and soon became a renowned preacher, particularly regarding those sermons concerning abolition and the War. His most famous sermon was the Life and Death of Abraham Lincoln preached while the president’s body lay in state in Independence Hall.


After the War, Brooks took a year-long sabbatical. On Christmas Eve in 1865, he had made his way to the village of Bethlehem. Outside of the village, he stood in the fields with the shepherds. Later that night he attended services at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He would write a letter to the children of his parish telling them about the peace and the awe that he experienced of being in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

The Carol:

Two years after returning to Philadelphia and just before Christmas 1868, Brooks wrote this carol about his experience that night in Bethlehem. Brooks intended the carol to be sung by the children’s choir that Christmas. He enlisted the service of his organist, Lewis Redner, to compose a tune for the children to practice on the Sunday before Christmas Eve (which was a Thursday). Redner was a self-taught musician whose day job was in real estate. Redner went to bed that Saturday without a composition, but during the night, he says he was rousted by an angel whispering the tune in his ear. By Sunday school that morning, the tune was complete. The carol was not included in the 1871 Episcopal hymnal but was included in the 1892 hymnal and all hymnals subsequent.

Dinner is at 6. The menu is chicken mole. Singing and Discussion around 6:45. Hope to see you here.

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee 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.

For Christ is born of Mary,
and, gathered all above
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King
and peace to all the earth.

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heav’n.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

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;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel!

1 thought on “Carols of Christmas – “O Little Town of Bethlehem” pt.1”

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