20-1 Little Town of Bethlehem

No attribution required

Story Behind the Hymn

A horseback pilgrimage to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve was the inspiration behind this well-loved Christmas carol. On December 30, 1865, one week later, Phillips Brooks, one of America’s greatest preachers, wrote a letter to his father recounting the event:

Last Sunday . . . after an early dinner [we] took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. 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. . . 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. . . As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks,” or leading them home to fold. We returned to the convent and waited for the service, which began about ten o’clock and lasted until three (Christmas).

Growing up, Brooks and his brothers recited hymns and learned a new hymn every Sunday evening. Alexander Allen, his biographer, writes:

[The hymns] constituted part of his religious furniture. . .  He never forgot them. . . Brooks 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.. . . The language of sacred hymns learned in childhood and forever ringing in his ears.

Three years later, Louis Redner, the church organist, wrote the tune. Redner recalls:

As Christmas of 1868 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. . . 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. . . Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.

This beloved song was written in the aftermath of the Civil War. Nearly 100 years later, at the close of World War II, it was sung on the Battleship Missouri in sub-freezing weather, as 100s prayed as they sang, “O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray.”