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Songs of Yesterday: Civil War Series, Part 12 - O Little Town of Bethlehem

The cherished Christmas song "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was born of a time when America was just recovering from four years of war and the loss of a beloved President. Its author, Phillips Brooks, suffering from despondency over all these things, took a break and visited the Holy Land. It was there that he received the inspiration that became the well-known hymn.


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Christmas happens, whether it is a time of war or peace. Such was the situation in 1861 (and 1862, '63, and '64). Families celebrated, as well as they could, while their soldier and sailor sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers were off spending their holidays in whatever accommodations could be found. Some of those serving away from home had some unusual holiday celebrations, which were welcome changes of pace (such as a new taste for the palate) (Forbes, pp. 20-21) while others found their lives on December 25th not much different from any other day of that year, thus far (Humphreys, pp. 30-31).

In 1864, as the last Christmas season of the war was approaching, General Sherman devised a plan to end it. The North's unsuccessful effort in the almost forgotten battle of Honey Hill was followed by an unusual victory in Savannah: the Confederates abandoned the city and it was captured without the shedding of blood or destroying of property (Garrison, pp. 191-192). As Sherman and his troops had been moving deeper into Georgia, news of the accomplishments was slow to reach those who sat waiting. And those in Sherman's army were missing communication from home. But when the troops arrived in Savannah on the night of December 20th, they finally received letters and wishes from those at home. A Treasury agent suggested to Sherman that he take the opportunity to advise Lincoln of the accomplishments to date, and the General sent this telegram to the country's recently re-elected leader: "I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton." The day after Christmas, Lincoln replied with thanks for his unique gift, expression of confidence in his chosen military leaders, and expressions of gratitude to be extended to the armies - officers and enlisted (Minne, p. 40).

Of course, the entire nation (military, civilian, and politician) was profoundly affected by the horrors of war. No matter what side of the conflict one was on, the residual effects lasted for years: the War ended in 1865, but that would never end its being replayed in the minds and hearts of America. Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was also extremely affected by the carnage of the Civil War and even when the next Christmas rolled around, his mind was reeling in all that happened in the nation (Collins, p. 115).

Brooks had been a minister for only about six years, serving in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. His congregation had lived with the War throughout most of his ministry to date and he found himself ministering to them in ways both spiritual and physical. He preached anti-slavery and, while his congregation was mixed in class representation, it was some of the more prominent members who took exception to Brooks's stance and chose to leave the fold. Nevertheless, Brooks continued to preach his beliefs and received great recognition for his powerful sermons (Church of the Holy Trinity). Following the War, Brooks continued with his sermons that focused on the love of life (probably why he was so profoundly touched by the deaths that occurred during the War) and the rights of former slaves (Hall).

But it was just after the War was officially ended that Brooks received probably the greatest honor in his life: he was asked to preach the sermon for the service to honor the assassinated President, lying in State in Philadelphia's Independence Hall (this would be one of many sermons and "funeral" services given by many different preachers, to honor the fallen leader, as his body was taken from one location to another across America, allowing all, who were able and wished to, a chance to mourn their beloved President [Abraham Lincoln Online]). The train had arrived in Philadelphia on 22 April 1865 and the line of mourners is said to have stretched for three miles. As the public waited their turn, not always patiently: some injuries and even one death in the crowd was reported (Sandburg, p. 888), Reverend Brooks was busy penning a sermon that would take its place among the memorable words spoken on auspicious occasions (Allen, p. 182). The next day, Sunday the 23rd, a week after Easter, Brooks took his usual place in the Church of the Holy Trinity and preached a sermon that described the cherished President. Brooks often gave two and even three services on a Sunday morning (Church of the Holy Trinity), but there is no evidence of this particular sermon being issued more than once. How many people were present at the momentous event is also a mystery, but the words that Brooks uttered that day have been recorded for posterity and are accessible online. He admits, in the opening of his sermon, that, while normally he would speak on more spiritual subjects, his words that day would be focused on the character and deeds of that man, whom he so admired (Brooks, p. 3).

Brooks was profoundly affected by the events of the War years and, maybe even more so, of the events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death. On 24 April, when Lincoln's body was removed to its next location, Brooks went to the activities in New York and was moved by the closing down of the city in honor of the martyred President (Allen, p. 184). As many of us do, when we are troubled and seeking words of wisdom, Brooks had communication with his parents, both devout individuals whose influence no doubt guided Brooks to his chosen profession (Wikipedia). But they could offer no solace in their words and, in fact, were despondent over the entire state of affairs (Allen, pp. 184-185). The celebration of the end of the War was brought to an abrupt halt as the nation mourned its leader (p. 185). Successive sermons and speeches that Brooks presented were either repetitions of those given by Lincoln, or colored by the philosophies and experiences of the late President (p. 186). Perhaps it was a combination of all these events that led Brooks to take a year's sabbatical at that particular time (Church of the Holy Trinity). He admitted to being a changed man as a result of all that had happened in the previous years, and some of the changes were no doubt for the good (if not for him, then for his congregation); but such changes come at a psychological cost, and so it was for Phillips Brooks (Allen, p. 188).

This was how Reverend Phillips Brooks found himself finishing out the year 1865 in Europe and other overseas locations. The calmer political climate was a needed panacea, and he wrote extensive journals and detailed letters to his family in America (Allen, p. 190). Peace was again coming to rest on this man who stood six feet, four inches (Larsen).

Brooks's overseas travel was extensive, and he visited cathedrals and small churches, among other things. He made his way from England through Ireland and eventually into the lands along the Rhine River. From there he maneuvered into the Holy Land, arriving shortly before Christmas 1865, the first non-wartime celebration of the holiday since 1860. In Jerusalem, he found himself with much company: even in the 19th Century, many sojourners traveled to the Holy City to be where the Savior had been. On a borrowed horse, Brooks took escape from the crowds to seek some solitude. Watching the night fall in that faraway country, he then experienced the sense of awe of riding into Bethlehem, virtually unchanged from the time when Mary and Joseph had sought shelter (Collins, pp. 116-119). He had ridden through the same fields where the shepherds had watched their flocks and viewed the miracle of the Christmas star. He had felt the sacredness of the area and held onto those feelings, which he would later call upon to fuel one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time (Benson).

The events overseas allowed him to recover from the spiritual wounds of the years now past, but it was also an experience that dwelt in his heart and mind for years before he was able to sit down and, reflecting on the event, write a poem that expressed the impression made on him (Collins, p. 122). It is said that the poem was initially written for the Sunday school children (Church of the Holy Trinity). He obviously recognized its possibilities, and in the Christmas season of 1868 he took the lyrics to the church's organist, Lewis Redner, and the latter went to work trying to write music for the poem. It was Christmas Eve, 1868, but even with the inspiration of the holiday season, Redner was unsuccessful. He gave up and went to bed, but as he attempted to rest after his efforts, a tune came to him and, when he got up to write down the music, he found that it perfectly matched the words of his friend. He attributed it to divine assistance (Collins, pp. 123-124).

That trip to the Holy Land must have worked. Not only did it result in one of the most loved hymns of all time, it rejuvenated its author. Brooks was known as a jovial man, often prone to laughter and tolerance of others' actions that would make other ministers bristle. At the pulpit, he was a no-nonsense preacher, but when interacting with his parishioners, Phillips Brooks was a pleasant and enjoyable person to have in one's company. Perhaps it took the type of person who loved life, as Reverend Brooks did, to see its sacredness; and perhaps that characteristic was needed to get the composer through the horrors of the early- to mid-1860s in America in order to pen a song that would live long beyond his own life.


Abraham Lincoln Online. "Lincoln Assassination and Memorial Links," 2010. Accessed 16 December 2011, from

Allen, Alexander Viets Griswold. Phillips Brooks, 1835 - 1893: Memories of His Life with Extracts from His Letters and Notebooks. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1907. Ebook, accessed 16 December 2011, from Google Books®.

Benson, Louis F. Studies of Familiar Hymns, First Series. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1924. Reprinted on "O Little Town of Bethlehem," A Treasury of Christmas Carols: The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. Accessed 16 December 2011, from

Brooks, Phillips. The Life and Death of Abraham Lincoln.: A Sermon Preached at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, Sunday morning, April 23, 1865. Philadelphia: H. B. Ashmead, printer, 1865. Accessed 16 December 2011, from, Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan University Library, 2005.

Church of the Holy Trinity Rittenhouse Square, The. Website. "A Brief History." Philadelphia, PA, 2009. Accessed 16 December 2011, from

Collins, Ace. Stories behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2001.

Forbes, Edwin. From An Artist's Story of the Great War, New York, 1890. Reprinted in Philip Van Doren Stern (Ed.), The Civil War Christmas Album. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1961, pp. 20-21.

Garrison, Webb, Jr. Strange Battles of the Civil War. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001.

Hall, Kay Peterson. "Vita: Phillips Brooks, Brief Life of a Boston Minister: 1835-1893." Harvard Magazine, Web Edition, 98:5, May 1996, Accessed 16 December 2011, from

Humphreys, Charles A. From Field, Camp, Hospital and Prison in the Civil War, 1863-1865, Boston, 1918. In Philip Van Doren Stern (Ed.), The Civil War Christmas Album. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1961, pp. 29-31.

Larsen, David L. "Phillips Brooks: American Icon." Preaching. Accessed 16 December 2011, from

Minne, Solveig. "Christmas Letters: Abraham Lincoln, 1864," pp. 35- 44. In Randolph E. Haugan (Ed.), Christmas: An American Annual of Christmas Literature and Art, Vol 17, 2nd Ed. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1947.

Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln, Vol. III, The War Years, 1864-1865. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1969.

Wikipedia. "Phillips Brooks." Accessed 16 December 2011, from, 16 November 2011.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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