Hymn Story: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Learn the story behind this beloved Christmas hymn

The lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were written by Phillips Brooks in 1868 after visiting the town of Bethlehem on his trip to the Holy Land two years earlier. Since that time, this song has become a favorite for many people as they celebrate the Christmas season.

Read a story from Carl Price’s One Hundred and One Hymn Stories about the origin of this beloved Christmas song.

When Phillips Brooks was rector of Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, his parishioners in August 1865, sent him abroad for a year. His travels took him through Europe, and in December to the Holy Land. Here with reverent feet he traced the footsteps of his Lord and Master from Nazareth southward and visited the scenes of the Bible narrative.

After two weeks spent in Jerusalem, Christmas Eve found him in “the little town of Bethlehem” at the birthplace of Jesus. Of his stirring emotions on that “Holy Night” he later wrote to his Sunday school back in Philadelphia:

“I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices that I knew well, telling each other of the ‘Wonderful Night’ of the Savior’s birth, as I had heard the year before; and I assure you I was glad to shut my ears for a while and listen to the more familiar strains that came wandering to me halfway round the world.”

Two years after his return to America, still full of the thrilling memories of Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks wrote for his Sunday school the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which for a long time had been singing in his soul. In this he has embodied, as in the prose descriptions of places visited in the Holy Land, the spiritual meaning of what he there saw.

Listen to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

The lyrics to O Little Town of Bethlehem:

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

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

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 to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

Hymn Story taken from One Hundred and One Hymn Stories by Carl F. Price; Hymn 10, page 16.

  1. A lot of the song is also about the Civil War-damaged United States. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” is about the republic. The silence is about the hundreds and hundreds of thousands dead and how little towns all over America were silent because of their loss.

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