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1st Sunday of Advent Christmas Carol History: "O Little Town of Bethlehem"


This Advent season we are exploring traditional hymns that have verses we are do not have in our hymnal and therefore do not sing. Information from Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church shares that "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was written by Phillip Brooks, rector of a church in Philadelphia, who lived from 1835-1893. He is an American musician who wrote the hymn for Sunday school children following a trip to Bethlehem in 1865. According to the story told, Brooks traveled on horse back between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve where he also participated in the Christmas Eve service conducted in Constantine's ancient basilica built over the tradition site of the Nativity, a cave. The verse that has been omitted was originally the fourth verse of the words written for the children.


Where children pure and happy

pray to the blessed Child,

Where misery cries out to thee,

Son of the underfiled;

Where charity stands watching

And faith holds wide the door,

The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,

And Christmas comes once more.


The music we are familiar with was written by Louis H. Redner, who was a member of the Philadelphia church after the death of Brooks. It was he who suggested that the fourth line of the words above be changed to 'Son of the Mother mild' but who also later omitted the verse from the carol altogether.


The carol is found in The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 230 and is still a much loved carol of the season.


Many thanks to Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church for providing the source of this material prepared by Dr. Hawn, professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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