Keith Getty on the Christmas Hymn ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’

The very first talk I gave in the U.S. was at Harvard University — I had been asked to give a talk on hymns at Phillips Brooks House, a rather stately-looking building on the campus named after an influential mid-19th century preacher and overseer of Harvard.

Brooks was also a hymn writer and the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which he was inspired to write after a visit to Bethlehem in 1865. He wrote it three years later for a Sunday school class, and neither he nor Lewis Redner, the composer of the original melody, thought it would last beyond Christmas 1868. But the powerful simplicity of the carol’s lyrics has ensured its longevity.

There are now two main melodies — the original U.S. version by Redner and a British version by Vaughn Williams. At our Christmas concerts we alternate the melodies; we do two verses of each in our arrangement.

This carol takes us on a wonderful journey from the past to the present. We start by looking down on the town where Jesus’ birth takes place, with the line, “How still we see thee lie.” It reminds us that Bethlehem barely stirs as the most significant event in the history of the world unfolds beneath its starry sky. It emphasizes the almost stealth-like appearance of Jesus as a baby, born in humble circumstances, born ‘while mortals sleep,’ with only the angels and a group of unsuspecting shepherds as witnesses to this momentous occasion.

And then we are reminded that this event is about so much more than the birth of a baby in a small, seemingly insignificant town in a Middle Eastern country; it’s about the Light of the World overcoming the darkness.

Yet in the dark street shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight

The last two verses move us on from that historic moment and lead us to the present. Now we consider how this baby, this gift of God has changed history and how His birth and ultimately His death and resurrection have enabled us to be reconciled to God.

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Source: Baptist Press