“Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” new behind the scenes story!

I love Christmas Carol’s. I’ve done some research on some of the most beloved songs. I hope you enjoy these behind the scene stories on how these songs came to be the most loved songs in the world.


Phillips Brooks was burned out. He was known as the most dynamic and inspirational preacher of his time, but he had lost his fervor and couldn’t seem to recover.

In his mid 20’s Brooks had become pastor of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He then persuaded a super-salesman named Lewis Redner to be his Sunday School superintendent and organist. The church exploded in growth. They began with 30 children and within a year there were 1000 in Sunday School. The next two years the numbers increased, partly because of Brooks’ dynamic preaching, partly because of Redner’s moving music.

But then came the Civil War and the mood of the church turned somber. Women were wearing black, mourning the loss of sons and husbands. Darkness fell over every facet of the worship services. Brooks tried to be inspirational and encourage his church, but it was draining him.

When the war ended, he thought the vitality and joy would return immediately but it didn’t. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and the pain intensified. Phillips Brooks was not the President’s pastor, but because he was such a great orator he was asked to preach the President’s funeral. He reached down deep and found the appropriate words for the moment, but later he was so burned out that he just couldn’t rekindle his own spiritual flame.

Phillips Brooks asked the church for a Sabbatical and took a trip to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve in Jerusalem, he and several others mounted horses and took off riding. It was a wonderful, life-changing afternoon for him. He prayed, and spent time alone with God. At dusk, when the first stars came out, he rode into the tiny village of Bethlehem. The town had changed little since the birth of Jesus. It lifted Brook’s spirits to be there within a few feet of the very spot where Jesus was born. There was singing in the Church of the Nativity and he felt surrounded by the Spirit of God.

He wrote in his diary, “Again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Savior’s birth….Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the angel. As we passed, shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks. Somewhere in those fields we rode through where the shepherds must have been.”

It grew increasingly dark and Brooks sat up on the hillside, looking back at the flickering lights in the small village of Bethlehem. There was a wonderful stirring within. He later told friends that the experience was so overpowering that there would forever “be singing in my soul.”

A few weeks later when he returned from his Sabbatical, he had a renewed vigor, but when he tried to explain his experience to the congregation he couldn’t express it even though he was a great orator. Three years later, leading up to the holidays, he reflected on that evening outside Bethlehem and decided not to write it in prose but poetry. A simple poem came easily to mind.

After he wrote it down he shared it with Lewis Redner. When the organist read, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,” he somehow realized the power of what Brooks had experienced in the Holy Land. Lewis Redner knew he had to compose a tune to fit that poem. But no matter how hard he tried nothing came that suited him.

Redner went to bed on Christmas Eve feeling he had failed. But that night a simple tune came to him while lying in bed. He got up, wiped the sleep from his eyes and discovered that the words of the poem fit perfectly in the tune.

As if directed by God Himself, on Christmas morning 1868, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” was complete. It became a Christmas favorite in Philadelphia and by the time of Phillips Brooks death in 1893, it had become one of the best-loved Christmas carols in the world. This song of a dedicated Christian in search of spiritual renewal continues to touch lives today:

“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 street shineth The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.”Chuck life


About cwysongblog

Chuck Wysong is Executive Director at Mission Springs Camps and Conferences. He has served as founding pastor at Life Community Church. He loves church planting and he has served as a youth pastor for 20 plus years in Youth for Christ, Young Life, local churches and Director of Youth Ministry for the Evangelical Covenant Church.
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