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.