From now until Christmas I will be featuring some of my favorite carols. Where available, I’ll share the story behind them or will comment on the messages they contain. Today’s story is from the “Dean of Gospel Music” Dr. Alfred B. Smith, a great hymn writer and soloist whom I had the priveledge of getting to know early in my Christian life. The below information in part is excerpted from his book “Hymn Histories”.
The idea for this song had been simmering in the heart of pastor Phillips Brooks since 1865 when, on a trip abroad, he was able to spend Christmas in Bethlehem. It was an experience he would never forget. On Sunday, December 24, he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and as twilight was falling, he went out to the field where tradition says the shepherds saw the glory of the Lord. As he looked toward the little town of Bethlehem, with the moon acting as the illuminator and the stars shining in the sky, he witnessed a scene much the same as the shepherds had witnessed almost 2000 years before. Except for the absence of the great light and the shepherds, nothing had changed very much. Instead of a candle to light their way, some who were traveling through the quiet streets were using lamps. There also were no angels present, yet the aura of the occasion lent a holy hush to the surroundings.
Speaking of this experience in a letter to his Sunday school in Philadelphia, Phillips Brooks wrote, “Again and again it seemed I could hear voices telling each other of the ‘Wonderful Night’ of the Savior’s birth.” All this while the words of a new carol were singing in his heart, but it would not be until he came home to America that and three years later that he would write them down a short while before Christmas 1868. He was preparing for the Christmas service for the Sunday school and as he began to review the music he would use, there again flooded through his soul a re-echo of the Christmas Eve he had spent in the shepherd fields overlooking Bethlehem, and the carol that had been singing in his heart since that time. He could contain it no longer, and as it burst forth, he began to write:
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 gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
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!
Phillips Brooks then hurriedly left his study and walked to the home of Mr. Lewis Redner, who was the organist of the church. Upon showing him his poem, Mr. Redner consented to try his hand at writing an appropriate melody. His effort proved successful, and today in all of hymnology there can be found no tune which so greatly enhances a set of words as does this one.
It took more than twenty years before it would receive general recognition and be sung around the world.