Revd Phillips Brooks was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1835 and was ordained in 1859. He was consecrated as Bishop of Massachusetts in 1891, but died at Boston in January 1893.
In 1865 – the year that the American Civil War ended and President Lincoln was assassinated – Revd Brooks went on a trip to Israel and saw Bethlehem and its surrounding fields on Christmas Eve. Back in the USA he wrote a poem in 1868 emphasising the quietness around Christ’s birth.
The organist at his church, Lewis Redner (1831-1908) was an estate agent when not being at the keyboard. He set the Vicar’s poem to music. His tune St Louis is the tune associated with the hymn in most of the world outside the British Commonwealth.
In February-March 1868 there was an (unsuccessful) attempt to impeach President Andrew Johnson. Johnson had been Abraham Lincoln’s Vice-President and so had been sworn in as President when Lincoln was assassinated. He was, to say the least, a controversial figure (especially at that very difficult time in US history) and was not selected by his party as a presidential candidate in the election of November 1868.
Perhaps Revd. Brooks longed for the peace and quiet of Bethlehem?
On Christmas Day 1868, in one of his last acts before leaving office, President Andrew Johnson granted unconditional pardon to all those Civil War rebels who had not already been pardoned.
Ralph Vaughan-Williams had an objective of saving English folk-songs and realised that in Edwardian times, there was a danger of these traditional tunes being lost. As a way of preserving them, he adapted several of them for use as hymn tunes, including a tune associated with the ballad The Ploughboy’s Dream, recited by a Mr Garman of Forest Green, Surrey. So Forest Green is the tune most British people associate with this hymn.
But here is an opportunity to learn the original tune…
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.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to men on earth.
For Christ is born of Mary;
and, gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings 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.
O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
Sir Henry Walford Davies (who wrote the tune “Oswald’s Tree” – in this collection coupled with Great Shepherd of Thy people) also wrote a tune for this hymn, simply called Christmas Carol. Here is a quick burst…