O Little Town of Bethlehem-12/21

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O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,

Above they deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.

Yet in they dark street shineth, the everlasting light,

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Phillips Brooks, 1868


Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote home during the week of Christmas in 1865 because he felt compelled to share with his loved ones what he had witnessed:

“… After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine… Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been… As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks, or leading them home to fold.” (Benson)

Mr. Brooks had been on holy ground, visiting sites in Israel where the story of our redemption unfolded. Tradition has marked the very field he rode through as the place where shepherds trembled at the sight of a host of angels. It was there that the glory of God shattered the quiet night and answered Israel’s long, silent wait for the Messiah. In another letter, he recalled gathering with dear saints to praise God in the same place where Christ is believed to have first entered the world as a baby. Years later, a new song began taking shape in this pastor’s heart, a song that would give the children in his church a taste of what Brooks experienced in Bethlehem. Mr Brooks wrote five verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (he decided to omit the original fourth verse) and asked Lewis Henry Redner, the church organist, to compose a suitable tune just a few weeks before it would be introduced to the people of Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. After struggling with it for days, Redner composed the tune on the night before it was to be sung in worship on Sunday morning. He wrote:

“On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.” (Benson)

We can be thankful that Brooks and Redner were wrong. This hymn has remained a Christmas favorite throughout the years. Let us rejoice in how God worked through this little town in his big, beautiful, story of his glorious kingdom!


While some hymnals still include the fourth verse that Brooks omitted from his hymn, it was the author’s idea to withdraw it from the carol. What do you think about it? What is the message of this verse? Do you think the omission was a good decision?

“Where children, pure and happy, Pray to the Blessed Child;

Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;

Where charity stands watching, And faith holds wide the door,

The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”


If you are new to this community, welcome! It is a great time to join in and make family worship a priority if you haven’t already. You may or may not be familiar with this hymn. Either way, we invite you to spend this month meditating on its truths. 

To get you started, we’ve provided free printable lyrics, music and copywork — all found here! 


You can find fresh versions of the hymn on our YouTube channel that you and your family can sing along with. There are loads of fresh versions of our favorite hymns on our hymn of the month playlist. Since it’s Christmas, head to our Christmas carol playlist for beautiful versions of our favorite hymns of the season. (Just scroll down to see me and my daughter Eliora sing this one!)


When we began singing hymns with our littles about 11 years ago, we kept it simple… We prayed and sang one hymn together every night at bedtime for a whole month. Everyone’s family rhythm is different, so we welcome you to gather up your families, for just a few minutes each day, to sing, discuss and memorize this hymn (following your daily time in the Scriptures and in prayer) whether it is first thing in the morning, or around the dinner table or before bedtime – whatever works best for your family. You can let us know how it’s going by posting either a video or a photo on Instagram. Just tag it with #happyhymnody! As always, if you have any questions or if you’d like to share your heart with us, please don’t hesitate to reach out! God bless you all this month as you worship and follow Jesus together as a family!

With so much love,



Hymnal: Hosanna in Excelsis: Hymns and Devotions for the Christmas Season

Scripture Memory Cards: Pip and J Papery

Bibliography/Works Cited:
Benson, L. F. Studies of familiar hymns. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1903.

Brink, E. “Lewis H. Redner.” Hymnary.org. Retrieved October 21, 2021: https://hymnary.org/person/Redner_Lewis

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