Dec 24, 2013

The Story Behind "O Little Town of Bethlehem"


It was the sight of Bethlehem itself, one feels very sure, that gave Phillips Brooks the impulse to write this hymn. He was then rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Philadelphia, and had spent a year’s vacation traveling in Europe and the East. “After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem,” so he wrote home in Christmas week of 1865. “It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. . . . 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 (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but 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.” Mr. Brooks returned in September, 1866, and it must have been while meditating at home over what he had seen that the carol took shape in his mind. The late Dr. Arthur Brooks assured the writer that it was not written until 1868.
In the programme of the Christmas service of the Sunday-school of the Church of the Holy Trinity in that year the carol was first printed, and it was sung to the music written for it by Mr. Lewis H. Redner.
Its history as a hymn begins then, and a considerable share of the credit for its popularity must be given to Mr. Redner, at that time organist of the church, superintendent of its mission, and teacher in the church school. The place of the carol in the books is now established, and new tunes have been and will be written for it. But it is safe to say that Mr. Redner’s music was what carried the carol into notice and popularity. If the tune to which it was sung at that service had been unsuccessful, it is unlikely that the carol would have been reprinted or heard again, at least during Bishop Brooks’s life.
With this view of the case it seemed to the present writer well worth while that an account, as circumstantial as possible, of the genesis of hymn and tune should be secured from the one man living who knows it. And standing over Mr. Redner in his Walnut Street office in Philadelphia one winter afternoon, waving aside the modest protests and gently prodding the reluctance of that genial composer, he was happy in obtaining the following written statement of the circumstances: “As Christmas of i868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, ‘Redner, have you ground out that music yet to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?’ I replied, ‘No,’ but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.
My recollection is that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed it on leaflets for sale. Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints’ Church, Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porch, and it was he who christened the music ‘Saint Louis.’”
The date of Dr. Huntington’s book, 1874, does not imply a very prompt recognition of the merits of the carol even as available for use in the Sunday-school. Nor does its appearance in that book imply that the carol passed at that date into general use in Sunday-schools. But gradually it became familiar in those connected with the Protestant Episcopal Church. By the year 1890 it had begun to make its appearance in hymnals intended for use in church worship. In 1892 (some twenty-four years after its first appearance) Bishop Brooks’s carol was given a place as a church hymn in the official hymnal of his own denomination. This occasioned the composition of new tunes to its words for rival musical editions of that book, and also drew attention afresh to the earlier tune of Mr. Redner. It seems, too, to have settled the status of the hymn, recent editors being as reluctant to omit the hymn as their predecessors had been to recognize it.
There is, however, nothing unusual or surprising in this delay in admitting the carol into the church hymnals. Almost all hymns undergo such a period of probation before they attain recognition; and it is for the best interests of hymnody that they should. In this particular case there was an especial reason for delay. There had to be a certain change in the standards by which hymns are judged before a carol such as this could be esteemed suitable for church use. In 1868, it is likely, not even its author would have seriously considered it in such a connection.
Phillips Brooks was born in Boston, December 13th, 1835. He came of a long line of Puritan ancestors, many of whom had been Congregational clergymen. His parents became connected with the Episcopal Church, and he was reared in the strict ways of the Evangelical wing of that Church. He had the typical Boston education, the Latin School and then Harvard, from which he was graduated in 1855. He was then for a few months a teacher in the Latin School, but there he had the humiliating experience of complete failure. He soon decided to enter the ministry, and studied at Alexandria Seminary, in Virginia. In 1859 he became rector of a small church in Philadelphia. Here his sermons attracted much attention, and in 1861 he was called to be rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in the same city.
In that position he remained until 1869, when his own leanings toward his native town and the urgency of repeated calls from there led him to accept the rectorship of Trinity Church, Boston. The congregation built for him the great church in the Back Bay, and there he exercised that wonderful ministry with which we all are familiar. In 1891 he was elected bishop of his Church in Massachusetts, and after some controversy, occasioned by his broad views in church matters, his election was confirmed and he was consecrated. But this position he was not to fill for long. The strain of the great work he had been doing had undermined even his giant strength, and after a short sickness he passed away on January 23rd, 1893.
Bishop Brooks was the most famous preacher and the most widely-loved clergyman of his time. The shock of his death was felt in every branch of the Church throughout the land, for while many disagreed with his opinions, none who knew him in his work could withhold their admiration. The word that seems best to describe him is “great.” - He was great in his physical proportions, great in the endowments of genius, great in the power to work, extraordinarily great in his personal influence over men, greatest of all in the moral elevation of his character and his ever-deepening spirit of consecration to Christ’s service.
The connection of one so great with hymnody as the writer of a few simple carols intended for children seems at first a little incongruous. But after reading his biography, and understanding the man’s nature, one feels rather that nothing he ever did was more characteristic of him. It now appears that verse-writing was even a regular habit with him, probably as a relief to feelings his intensely reserved nature could express in no other way. And he not only loved children dearly, but liked to be their comrade and to get down on the nursery floor and romp with them. His own heart was like a child’s, and he wrote Christmas and Easter carols because he entered into those festivals with a child’s enthusiasm and joy.
But there is another point of connection between Bishop Brooks and hymnody which must not be passed over. Its disclosure was to many one of the surprises of that wonderful biography of his friend by Dr. Allen. And that connection is in the fact that his own mind and heart were stored with hymns, to such an extent and in such a way that they were one of the real influences of his life.
In one of the letters “the father regrets that Phillips “could not have been with the family on the last Sunday evening when the boys recited hymns. This was a beautiful custom, which called from each one of the children the learning of a new hymn every Sunday, and its recital before the assembled family. In a little book, carefully kept by the father, there was a record of the hymns each child had learned, beginning with William, who had the advantage of age, and had learned the greatest number, followed by Phillips, who came next, and the record tapering down until John is reached, with a comparatively small number at his disposal. Most of them were from the old edition of the Prayer Book, then bound up with a metrical selection of Psalms and a collection of two hundred and twelve hymns.” “But there were others. When Phillips went to college there were some two hundred that he could repeat. They constituted part of his religious furniture, or the soil whence grew much that cannot now be traced. He never forgot them.” Again his biographer remarks: “These hymns Phillips carried in his mind as so much mental and spiritual furniture, or as germs of thought; they often reappeared in his sermons, as he became aware of some deeper meaning in the old familiar lines.” Once more the biographer recurs to the subject; this time to speak of “the language of sacred hymns learned in childhood and forever ringing in his ears,” as one of the channels through which “he had felt the touch of Christ.”