Pastor Phillips Brooks was a staunch abolitionist, which was probably why he was asked to speak at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. However, he is most remembered for writing the lyrics for the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem.
Shortly after the American Civil War, Brooks took a sabbatical to the Holy Land which extended through the Christmas holidays. On Christmas Eve, Brooks traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback so he could attend a service in Constantine’s ancient basilica, built over the potential site of the Nativity. Of his journey, Brooks reported: “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, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds…Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been.”
It was here, in the fields outside Bethlehem that Brooks first conceived the line: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.” Several years later, Brooks finally completed the song and asked Lewis Redner, his organist, to write the music. The song was first performed by the children’s choir of their church. It wasn’t long before the song was included in hymnals worldwide.
Even though Phillips Brooks and his wife never had children of their own, they had a great love for children. Later in life, they met and ministered to young Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf. Brooks explained the gospel of Jesus to Keller for the first time. Keller, through her teacher and translator Anne Sullivan, said, “I’ve always known there was a God, but until now I’ve never known His name.”
Even though the third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem was written long before Helen Keller met Phillips Brooks, it shares what the joy of salvation might have felt like to her:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
Click here to hear O Little Town of Bethlehem performed by Chris Tomlin.
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