NORTH ANDOVER — One of the most famous – and beloved – Christmas carols is blessed with a strong North Andover connection.
Bishop Phillips Brooks, the Episcopal clergyman who wrote the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” had deep roots in this community and used to live here during the summer, according to Kathy Stevens, president of the North Andover Historical Society.
Brooks, longtime rector of Trinity Church in Boston and perhaps the most prominent preacher of his day, penned “O Little Town of Bethlehem” after visiting Jesus’ birthplace in 1866. At that time, Brooks was rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia.
When Brooks wrote those now-famous verses — “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie” — he intended them to be part of a carol for a Christmas Sunday school service at his church in 1868.
He asked the church organist, Lewis Redner, to compose the music. Redner at first had trouble with that assignment, according to a commentary by Louis Benson in “Studies of Familiar Hymns, First Series.”
“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,” Redner told Benson many years later.
While Brooks’ lyrics indeed have lived well beyond that Christmas of 1868, he was much better known as a preacher than as a poet or writer of carols. He became the rector of Trinity Church in Boston in 1869 and held that position until 1891, when he was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.
Karen Kline, poet laureate of North Andover, said that Brooks held the congregation spellbound when he preached. The Harvard-educated minister, she said, had “an amazing command of the English language.”
Although Brooks delivered his sermons more than a century ago, “they still resonate,” Kline said. When the powers-that-were of his era did what he believed was wrong or failed to do what he thought was right, “he would call them on the carpet from the pulpit,” Kline said.
Kline said she could not recall any other poems written by Brooks, but added she is sure he wrote plenty of poetry.
Brooks served only two years as bishop. He died in 1893 at 57.
A large statue of Brooks stands at the eastern end of the North Andover Common. He is identified as a “great preacher, citizen, patriot.” An inscription reads, “To commemorate the nobility of the man, the richness of his intellectual gifts and the complete consecration of his life to the cause of Jesus Christ, this monument is erected by men and women of many creeds.”
Brooks was born in Boston but spent his summers in a large house that still stands on Osgood Street near Academy Road, Stevens said. It is on the other side of Osgood Street from the Parson Barnard House.
His ancestor, Samuel Phillips, built the house in 1752.