Words by: Phillips Brooks, Music by: Lewis Redner
Micah 5:2 says, “But you, Bethlehem, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.”
Many considered Reverend Phillips Brooks an intimidating man. Not because of his bold preaching style, or that he was a native Bostonian. It wasn't because of his ninth generation Puritan stock or even his Harvard education. It was because he stood nearly six foot six and weighed more than three hundred pounds that made him so daunting.
In fact, his preaching underwent much criticism. People of his day said his doctrine was thin at best. Nonetheless, he is considered one of America’s greatest preachers and went on to introduce the famous deaf, blind, mute, Helen Keller to Christianity.
Reverend Brooks upheld the cause of the North in the American Civil War and adamantly opposed the institution of slavery. On December 24, 1865, toward the end of the War Between the States, Brooks went on a trip to the Holy Land.
“I traveled by horseback from Jerusalem to attend a five-hour Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem. Close to the spot where Jesus was born, the whole church began ringing, hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God. 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!”
Three years later in 1867 as Brooks prepared for the Christmas season he desired to compose an original hymn for the children to sing at their annual program. The words to the song came quickly to Brooks. He gave the hymn to church organist, Lewis Redner and asked him to come up with a tune to go along with the poem.
Lewis wrestled with his assignment claiming the words gave him no inspiration. But on the night before the children’s program, he awoke with the music resounding in his ears! Quickly he wrote down the melody and fell back asleep. The following day, a group of Sunday school teachers and thirty-six children sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
The last stanza…usually omitted from our hymnbooks says:
Where children pure and happy, pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.