Lewis Henry Redner
"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."
It was an angel who delivered the inspiration that composer Lewis Henry Redner needed to write the music for 'O Little Town of Bethlehem.' Read the song's history below for Redner's account of the angel's visit.
'O Little Town of Bethlehem' describes angels as "morning stars" (just as the Bible sometimes refers to them, because of their light) keeping a "watch of wondering love" over Bethlehem, and proclaiming "the holy birth" and "peace to men on earth" while singing praises to "God the king."
The part of the song about the angels is based on the Bible's account of the first Christmas, and especially Luke 2:13-14, which says: "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'"
When 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' was first performed at a Sunday school Christmas program in 1868, just 36 children and six teachers sang the song. Its composer, Lewis Henry Redner, said in an interview that he and the lyricist (Phillips Brooks) didn't think the song would ever be performed beyond that one event. But since then, it has become one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time, sung by many of people around the world during each Christmas season.
Phillips Brooks, who was rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, visited the town of Bethlehem on vacation in the 1860s and told people that he was deeply moved by the sight of it as he imagined what had happened there on the first Christmas. Brooks was so inspired that he returned to Bethlehem a second time.
Several years after returning from his travels to Bethlehem, Brooks wrote a poem called 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' and, just before Christmas in 1868, he asked his church organist, Lewis Henry Redner, to compose simple music to accompany the words so children could perform the resulting song during their church's Christmas Sunday school program.
In the 1903 book Studies of Familiar Hymns by by Louis F. Benson, Redner recalled how he tried to be creative but worried that he wouldn't have a tune ready on such short notice until an angel woke him up to deliver some divine inspiration: "As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, 'Redner, have you ground out that music yet to 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'?
I replied, 'No,' but that he should have it by Sunday. 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.
'O Little Town of Bethlehem' was published in 1874 in the Sunday school hymn book The Church Porch and became popular after that.