Songs of Christmas… O Little Town of Bethlehem


This is part 2 of a Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

It has been said, “The two most important days in your life: The day you were born and the day you discover why.” I’ve been there. I get it. Since I graduated from high school I have been a retail worker, a sailor, a construction lab technician, a hot shot delivery driver, a movie operator, a computer operator, a computer room manager, a computer programmer and a preacher. I have spent the last twenty-five plus years doing that last one. I have come to understand that this is why I was born. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the work in all those other things (some of it, I didn’t enjoy at all). I wasn’t fulfilled. Something was missing.

I’m not exactly sure when I discovered the great “why” of my life. While it may be one of two most important days of my life, I can’t look back and say, “On this date I knew.” I can tell you the first most important date, the day I was born. But, for the second, I just don’t know.

Phillips Brooks, lyricist of one of the great hymns of the Church (to call it a Christmas carol limits it so), “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” had that same kind of discovery, but it wasn’t when he wrote this Christmas carol so many of us love.

Brooks was born December 13, 1835 in Boston. He went to Harvard and after graduating he started teaching school. He quickly became disillusioned when students didn’t seem as motivated as he would have liked. Brooks despair grew. He was never very effective with his students and was soon fired. He say himself as a complete failure.

He was still searching for his “why.” With no better idea, Brooks enrolled in Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria Virginia. Brooks found his “why” as a Priest in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition.

Upon graduation from Virginia Theological Brooks was assigned as the rector of Trinity Church in Philadelphia. People flocked to hear him. Worship attendance grew as did the membership rolls of the congregation.

Though he was headed for hard times, Brooks grew to be the most popular and most effective preacher of his generation, really the entire 19th century.

Then the Civil War broke out. The war took its toll on Trinity Church in many ways. First, there was no one in the church, or elsewhere for that matter, who was not directly impacted by the war. Almost everyone knew, someone, family or friend who died or was severely wounded and disabled because of the war. There were other ways the war effected people, but this was one of the biggest. As the numbers mounted, people wanted the war to end. It impacted Brooks physically, emotionally and spiritually.

When the war did come to an end, Brooks had seemed to have lost his preaching power. Though he was not Lincoln’s pastor, he was asked to speak at the funeral. He dug deep and came out with words fitting for the occasion.

It wasn’t long before Brooks decided to take a sabbatical. He traveled to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, how rode out on a borrowed horse toward Bethlehem. What he saw there, saw of the peaceful little town spoke to him. The trip was powerful to Brooks.

When he returned he still struggled to find the right words to impact his congregation. As the Christmas season of 1868. Brooks sat down to write a new Christmas hymn for the Sunday school at Trinity Church’s children’s Christmas pageant. He wrote the words in short order. Brooks was back.

He carried the quickly written poem to his church organist, Louis H. Redner. Tradition has it that Redner struggled with the music much as Brooks had struggled with words. On Christmas eve Redner gave up and went to bed. It was while lying in bed the tune came to him. The children sang it for the first time the next day.

From there, as it has been said, the rest is history. They hymn spread across Europe and then to North America. We all know it today as one of the great hymns of both Christmas and the Church.

Phillips Brooks became an Episcopal Bishop in 1891 and assigned to Boston. He died 15 months later.

The two great moments of life, when we are born and when we discover why. It is a great quote. But there are many people who never reach that second great moment. It is sad that someone can go through life and never know or understand why they are here. For many of them it is because they never look. They are to busy trying to find happiness to know that real happiness comes from God who put each of us here for a reason. When we find that reason, when we live out the why of God putting us here, when we respond to God’s call on our lives it is only then we will truly be happy.

Phillips Brooks found his “Why.” I believe I have found mine. Have you found yours? What are you waiting for?

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,

Tomorrow, December 3, “There’s a Song in the Air”

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved


Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

One thought on “Songs of Christmas… O Little Town of Bethlehem

  1. Pingback: Songs of Christmas… – Pastor's Ponderings

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