The words to this familiar Christmas hymn were written by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an Episcopal priest who served as rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. Inspired by his recent visit on horseback from Jerusalem to the village of Bethlehem, he presented his poem as a Christmas gift to the children of the parish’s Sunday school.
At Brooks’ invitation, the parish organist, Lewis Redner, composed a simple abba tune and the children sang the hymn as a part of their Christmas program. The Dictionary of American Hymnology cites the hymn’s first appearance in C. L. Hutchins, The Sunday School Hymnal, 1871. In 1924, Redner gave his personal account of the story of his composition:
As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas 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. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.
My recollection was that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed in on leaflets for sale. Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints Church, Worchester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porch, and it was he who christened the music ‘Saint Louis.’”
Louis Henry Redner (1830-1908) was a wealthy real estate broker who was very active in church work and in Sunday School. In addition to serving as organist for four different Philadelphia churches, he saw the Sunday School attendance of Holy Trinity Episcopal, where Phillips Brooks was rector from 1862-1868, grow from 36 to over one thousand during his 19 years as superintendent.
Today Brooks and Redner are represented in practically every American hymnal as the author and composer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
by Dr. Harry Eskew, Retired Professor of Church Music and Hymnology
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary