This week, the Episcopal Church remembered Bishop Phillips Brooks (1835-1893). A Harvard alum, Brooks began his ministry soon after his graduation from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1859. He was known for his kindness and humility, and in a time of social and economic uncertainty, he bravely spoke against slavery and encouraged his parishioners to conduct themselves with grace and compassion. Believing that parishioners prefer to be spoken to rather than preached at, he developed an open, conversational style of preaching. In 1891, he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts and passed away in 1893 due to complications from a cold. His funeral service included the hymns “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” and “For All the Saints.”
In addition to his role as well-loved pastor, he also is known as the lyricist of one of our best-known Christmas carols–“O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He spent most of 1865 traveling through the Middle East. He treasured his time there and seemed to have truly felt God’s presence during his travels. He wrote, “Christ is not merely the greatest, but the only presence that fills the landscape in Palestine.” On Christmas of 1865, he rode on horseback into Bethlehem. This experience inspired him to later write the poem “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and Lewis Redner, the organist at Holy Trinity, set it to music in 1868. We know the words well, but there is one verse that has been omitted from our hymnals. It reads,
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child.
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the mother mild.
Where Charity stands watching,
And Faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
In addition to this carol, Brooks wrote the text for four others–“Everywhere, Everywhere, Christmas Tonight,” “The Sky Can Still Remember,” “The Voice of the Christ Child,” and “Christmas Once is Christmas Still.”
None of these is as known and loved as “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” In fact, I was unable to even find recordings of them. (If you find one, would you share it with us in the comments?) However, even without music, the texts are lovely to read and ponder.
Had you heard of Bishop Brooks before this week? I’d love to learn more about him, so if you have any more resources, please share in the comments!