What are the lyrics to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ – and why are there two versions?

13 December 2018, 16:58

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

There’s something wonderfully reassuring about this carol – from its peaceful lyrics to its soaring descant. Here’s the story behind the hymn.

‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ is one of the most popular Christmas carols – and it was the sight of Bethlehem itself that inspired Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest, to write it.

On Christmas Eve in 1865, Brooks travelled on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and visited, according to the story, the spot where Jesus was born. Three years later, he wrote the poem for a Christmas Sunday-school service and asked his organist, Lewis Redner, to set it to music.

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In Louis F. Benson’s Studies Of Familiar Hymns, he quotes Redner saying: “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. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”

The treble line he wrote was this one:

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Rednel)
O Little Town of Bethlehem (Rednel). Picture: IMSLP/Redner

Why are there two different melodies?

You might have noticed that carol services in England use a different melody to the version you hear in American pop covers. While Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra sing Lewis Redner’s melody, most English carol books use this:

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Vaughan Williams)
O Little Town of Bethlehem (Vaughan Williams). Picture: IMSLP/Vaughan Williams

This version takes its melody from the English tune ‘Forest Green’, which was adapted by Vaughan Williams from a folk ballad called ‘The Ploughboy’s Dream’.

Vaughan Williams’ version was first published in the English Hymnal of 1906.

What are the lyrics to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’?

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel