The backdrop of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” begins actually in Bethlehem in Israel. A young preacher, Phillips Brooks traveled to Europe and Israel in 1865. It was there on a Christmas Eve when he was slated to preach in Bethlehem that he saw a cave and some shepherds. Upon reflection of the passage in Luke that he wrote this poem/hymn for his Sunday School children back in Philadelphia. It appeared in the Sunday School Hymnal in 1871. His diary reflects what he saw and experienced:
“Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.” And a second entry: “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth as I heard them a year before; and I assure you I was glad to shut my ears awhile and listen to the more familiar strains that came wandering to me halfway round the world.”
Christmas is “one of those seasons” in which you either act like Scrooge or you act like the Magi. So in researching this carol it came to mind that even though Rev. John Henry Hopkins never married he always had a joyful spirit. He was also gifted beyond measure with many talents which included music and writing! This Christmas Carol reflects his joy and his love of the scriptures. And now to the backdrop of this beloved Christmas Carol.
Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr. was the General Theological Seminary of New York’s music teacher. In addition, he was an author, book illustrator, stained-glass designer, clergyman, and editor of the New York Church Journal. He wrote this Christmas hymn in 1857 for the Seminary Christmas pageant. He may have been thinking of his nieces and nephews as he looked forward to his time with them at Christmas in Vermont. Each year “Uncle Henry” had a surprise for them and this year would be extra special for as they dramatized the Matthew passage about the Magi he shared his new carol we know as “We Three Kings.” In 1863 his carol was published in his first collection of “Carols, Hymns and Songs” and in 1865 it was illustrated. It was probably in that illustration that only three kings were pictured and why we often think of just that number who came even though the scriptures do not say. What the scriptures do tell us is that they offered three gifts to the young Jesus.
Today may we offer our gifts of whatever talent God has given to us to share with the many we meet.