O Little Town of Bethlehem, the Song and the Story

Composer Phillip Brooks Writes O Little Town of Bethlehem

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Phillip Brooks (1835-1893) was well known as a preacher of excellence within the Episcopal Church, and as an American patriot. During the American Civil War he took a firm public stand against slavery. He held a Doctorate of Divinity from Oxford, and was a teacher at Yale University. Harvard University established the Phillip Brooks House, a social services establishment dedicated to "the ideal of piety, charity, and hospitality."

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Phillip was a published author and was the subject of a biography published by one of his peers. The Episcopal Church held him such high esteem that a statue of him standing near a cross was erected in his honor, near his pastorate.

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In 1865, Brooks traveled to the Holy Lands. On December 24th he made his way on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem where he attended a five-hour Christmas musical praise celebration at the Church of the Nativity -- just a short distance from the hillside where the shepherds heard the very first Christmas song.

At Christmastime three years later, recalling that magical night in Bethlehem, Phillip wrote a song for the children's choir of his church. His organist put melody to his words and on Christmas Eve, 1868, O Little Town of Bethlehem was sung for the very first time.

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O little town of Bethlehem

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 to-night.

O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.

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.

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.

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

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But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2 NIV)

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Written by: Connie Ruth Christiansen