The familiar Christmas carol, O, Little Town of Bethlehem, was written by Episcopal bishop and poet Phillips Brooks (1835-1893, whose birthday was this week). In the first verse of this poem, Brooks wrote:
This carol is a familiar one. Phillips Brooks is probably less familiar to most people. He was born to a Boston family in 1835, graduated Harvard twenty years later, attended seminary, received honorary degrees from Harvard, Columbia and Oxford, and eventually became Bishop of Massachusetts. A large man at six-foot-four, he became a large presence in the Episcopal church but he was also highly regarded by the leaders of other denominations. This man of great moral stature delivered an eloquent and memorable sermon following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Even with his impressive resumé, the accomplished Mr. Brooks is still best known as the poet who wrote O, Little Town of Bethlehem. His poem was later set to music and published in 1865 (though some sources note 1868). The poem and its music has a couple different styles, and the way in which you remember it may well relate to the hymnbook with which you’re familiar.
The name Phillips Brooks lives on today. The eminent clergyman’s association with Harvard motivated leaders of the institution to create the Phillips Brooks House after his death, founded on the principles of “piety, charity and hospitality.” Today, Phillips Brooks House Association serves as the location for some 86 student-directed programs focused on community-based, non-profit public-service. The mission statement states the association “strives for social justice.”
In the last years of his life, Brooks became acquainted with a blind girl named Helen Keller. She was a member of his church and as a girl, it has been noted she sat on his knee and learned from Brooks about God’s love.
When I was a little girl, this Christmas carol provided me with vivid images I could readily picture in my mind. My sense was to sing it quietly (for the Babe might be sleeping) and I could envision the sky spread with gleaming stars, all of which were worshipping the King. Through each verse, the words reinforced the hushed way I’d sing it.
The last line of the first verse speaks to what Brooks believed: that the Baby born in the Manger was the culmination of a deep yearning in the hearts of mankind, and all our “hopes and fears” were met (satisfied, answered) on the night Christ was born. This simple Christmas carol encompasses in One figure the beautiful significance of that little town in Bethlehem.
I was struck by something else Brooks wrote (in his latter years) about his personal relationship with Jesus Christ the Savior. Asked about his remarkable life and influence, Brooks offered this explanation: “… it is a deeper knowledge and truer love of Christ…I cannot tell you how personal this grows to me. He is here. He knows me and I know Him. It is no figure of speech. It is the realest thing in the world. And every day makes it realer.“