O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by a parish priest considered to be the greatest preacher of his day. His name was Phillips Brooks, and a visit to the Church of the Nativity in 1865 inspired him to write the beloved Christmas hymn.
Though best known for O Little Town of Bethlehem, another of his creations enjoys worldwide fame—Trinity Church in Boston.
Brooks especially loved Christmas. “The earth has grown old with its burden of care, but at Christmas it always is young, the heart of the jewel burns lustrous and fair, and its soul full of music breaks the air, when the song of angels is sung,” he wrote.
And he believed that Jesus Christ was the son of God, which is why a five-hour Christmas Eve Mass in the Church of the Nativity inspired him to write O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Phillips Brooks, Author of O Little Town of Bethlehem
He was born Dec. 13, 1835 in Boston to a prosperous Brahmin family. His ancestors included the Rev. John Cotton on his father’s side and Samuel Phillips, the founder of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., on his mother’s. His great-uncle, Peter Chardon Brooks, had more wealth than anyone else in Boston. Brooks also had a famous son-in-law: Charles Francis Adams.
His parents sent him to Boston Latin School to prepare for Harvard. He graduated from college with class members who would achieve distinction. Alexander Agassiz, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, his second cousin Henry Adams and H.H Richardson, who would later design Trinity Church.
Brooks then got a job as a school teacher at Boston Latin, but failed miserably. He got fired. So he decided to enter what became the family business: the Episcopal clergy.
The Episcopal Church
He went south, to the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va., in 1856. Three of his brothers followed him into the Episcopalian priesthood—Arthur, Frederic and John Cotton.
New England had not embraced the Episcopal religion anywhere near as much as the South (or even New York) had. But after the War of 1812 it started gaining in popularity. Eventually it became the preferred religion of upper-class Boston ladies, according to Cleveland Amory. “This much I know,” Amory once said. “God is an Episcopalian. From Boston.”
“Although Episcopalians constitute less than 2 percent of the country’s population,” reported the New York Times in 1981, “their social and economic impact is rivaled by few other groups, if any.”
Phillips Brooks was ordained as a priest in 1860, just in time for the Civil War. “He was very tall and well proportioned, with a full, round face beaming with health and good nature, a broad forehead, and an erect carriage of the body, with the head thrown slightly backward,” wrote the Times in his obituary. “He had the appearance of a giant, and wherever he went the people were sure to stop in the street and look after him. At 6 feet, 4 inches, he urged his parishioners to pray big. “Pray the largest prayers,” he liked to say. “You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger.”
In 1862 he began seven years of service as rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. He preached against slavery, delivered a eulogy for Abraham Lincoln and exhorted his parishioners to do charitable works.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
After the end of the Civil War, Brooks took a vacation he’d long dreamed about. He traveled across the Atlantic to Europe and then made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem.
He believed that Christianity was supernatural or it was nothing, wrote his biographer, Giles J. Harp. “For Brooks, the final, non-negotiable bedrock doctrine was the Incarnation. God the Father sending his eternal Son, the Logos, to be born a man in first-century Palestine was the heart and soul of the Christian message; without the Incarnation, there really was no gospel to preach.”
Brooks described his trip to Bethlehem in a letter home:
“After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem,” he wrote. “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…As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold”.”
Then on Christmas Eve, he assisted at a service in the Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. The ancient basilica dated to 326 A.D.; the service lasted from 10 PM to 3 AM, wrote hymnologist Albert Bailey.
Brooks returned to Philadelphia in September. It wasn’t until three years later that he wrote O Little Town of Bethlehem, no doubt remembering what he had seen and felt in the Holy Land.
He asked his organist, Lewis Redner, put the words to music. Brooks told Redner that he had written a simple little carol for the Sunday school service at Christmas and wanted him to write a tune for it.
“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.”
By Saturday night he hadn’t come up with the tune. “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 he nor Brooks had any idea of the popularity the song would achieve.
O Little Town of Bethlehem turned out to be a popular hit and Brooks’ farewell gift to his Philadelphia parish. Trinity Church in Boston named him pastor in 1869 at the relatively young age of 33. He became such a popular idol in that city his photograph was sold in stores. He worked hard, answered every one of his many letters and gave money to just about any poor person who asked, according to his obituary.
Known the world over, he grew into one of the most popular preachers in America. He built the Trinity Church building, considered an architectural masterpiece, in Copley Square.
In 1891, he was consecrated Bishop of Massachusetts. He only held that position for a short time, as in 1891 he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 57. Brooks never married.
You can hear O Little Town of Bethlehem here.
In the United Kingdom, people sing O Little Town of Bethlehem to a different tune—Forest Green. You can hear it here
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Images: 233 Clarendon St. By Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20434478.
With thanks to Giles J Harp, Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks and the Path of Liberal Protestantism. This story updated in 2022.