A Christmas carol from the Civil War era: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (Video)

The story behind the beloved hymn that caroled for peace on Earth. Photo: Church of Nativity, Bethlehem today Photo: Antoine Taveneaux

VIENNA, Va., December 5, 2012One of the Christmas carol staples is the beautiful hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”  written by Phillips Brooks, a priest at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pa.

Brooks came from a well known family, yet when asked what his goal in life was, he first said just to be a simple parish priest, later adding that if that weren’t possible, he’d like to be the president of a college.

After his studies at Harvard, he attended a small Virginia Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, where he was ordained, and for a while preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Sharon Chapel, in the Franconia area of Alexandria. It is said that he was so dismayed over his first sermon there that he walked around behind the altar at the end and escaped out of a window. When the new chapel was constructed, a “Brooks’ Window” was placed in the wall behind the altar.

Phillips Brooks

Brooks had made a trip to the Holy Land during the course of the Civil War, and many feel that his carol written several years later was, in reality, an homage to the beautiful little town he had seen over there. 

Others think that it was written because with a large number of young men from Philadelphia having been killed in the War, the entire city seemed silent to him. 

Some say it was written in 1865, while he was over in Palestine, yet others think it was 1866, when he had returned, and still others date it to 1868.

In any event it was not until three years later that the song, originally written for his church organist to be used at a Christmas program, was united with the beautiful melody composed by the organist, Lewis Redner.

For those of you musically inclined are aware that in liturgical music, the lyrics are frequently joined into a hymn by the actual music, and almost every hymn in every hymnal lists the names of both composers, music and words.

The hymn’s tune to the “Bethlehem” carol was originally known as “St. Louis.” In other transliterations it carried the title of “Forest Green,” which came from an English tune called “The Ploughboy’s Dream” which Redner had collected from a man named Garman who lived in Forest Green in Surrey. Normally it’s performed in the Key of F, good for most voices and instruments alike.

Lewis Redner

In any event, it would be difficult to think of the glorious Christmas season without the words we have grown to love so well, thanks to Brooks, and the tune that perfects it, from Redner:

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 tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, And gather’d all above,

While mortals sleep, the angels keep Their watch of wond’ring love.

O morning stars together Proclaim the holy birth,

And praises sing to God the King  And peace to men on earth.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born to us today.

We hear the Christmas angels, The great glad tidings tell;

O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.

It was Bishop Brooks who had written about his long horseback trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he was asked to assist with the midnight service on Christmas Eve. He said, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid

Bethlehem today

Hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”

Brooks never married and had no children, dying in 1893.

This year, he might find armed guards at the church he remembered so well and armed forces from all sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict choosing up sides to begin another foray against each other.  The concept of a “silent night” might not exist in the year of the Lord, 2012.

Yet always we have these beautiful pieces of music to cling to, and to hope that another year finds peace on earth and good will to men.

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s MBoltz2846@aol.com Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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