O Little Town of Bethlehem
DESCRIPTION: The quiet little town of Bethlehem is described, with the note that "the everlasting light" shines in its streets. The song describes the reactions of those who know of the event, and prays for the help of the holy child
AUTHOR: Words: Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)
EARLIEST DATE: 1874 ("The Church Porch")
KEYWORDS: Christmas religious nonballad Jesus
FOUND IN: US Britain
REFERENCES (7 citations):
OBC 138, "O Little Town" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fireside, p. 236, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 378, "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" (1 text)
Fuld-WFM, p. 402, "O Little Town of Bethlehem!"
ADDITIONAL: Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns (Hallberg, 1982), p. 132-133, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #55, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (1 text)
NOTES [325 words]: This poem is sung to different tunes in Britain and America.The American tune is by Lewis H. Redner (c. 1830-1908), who Reynolds, p. 161, had been asked to provide a melody. This tune is sometimes known as "St. Louis." In Britain, however, the text it is usually sung to "The Ploughboy's Dream" ("Forest Green"). McKim, p. 48, says that it was Ralph Vaughn Williams who fitted the tune to the words by Brooks. There is a third tune by Walford Davies, rarely sung in Britain and hardly at all in America.
Philiips Brooks was most noted as a preacher; he had several volumes of sermons published. Of his poems, only four are mentioned in Granger's Index to Poetry, and this is the only one to be widely reprinted. Reynolds, p. 274, says that he was born in Boston and studied at Virginia Theological Seminary; he was ordained in 1859 and took up a job as a minister in Philadelphia, then went back to Boston. In 1891 he became the (Episcopal) Bishop of Massachussetts.
Rudin, pp. 64-65, describes a visit Brooks made to the Holy Land (he was one of the few hymnwriters to actually go there); he visited Bethlehem for Christmas 1865, and watched the children there prepare for the holiday. On his way there for the service, he looked down on the small town at night, and saw its dark streets; hence this poem.
Redner, according to Reynolds, p. 407, was born and educated in Philadelphia, and did well as a real estate broker there, but still managed to have a strong interest in church music, serving several congregations as an organist, including Brooks's (which is why he was called upon to supply a tune; McKim, pp. 48-49). He never married, and died in New Jersey in 1908 after a brief illness.
Rudin, p. 65, says Brooks brought his text to Redner, his organist, who struggled to fit a tune, then has it come to him in a flash of inspiration in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve/Day, 1868. That story truly sounds too good to be true. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.0
- McKim: LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
- Rudin: Cecilia Margaret Rudin, Stories of Hymns We Love, John Rudin & Company, 1934 (I use the fourteenth printing of 1951)
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