Thursday, December 13, 2012

Blog Caroling ~ "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and Phillips Brooks

Phillips Brooks is a distant cousin, but we don’t just share one common ancestor.  We share so many common ancestors I can’t keep track.  Our common surnames are Gorham, Call, Cotton, Gardner, Phillips, Kettell, Coffin, Howland,  Tilley, Emerson, Simonds, etc.  the list goes on and on.   Reverend Phillips Brooks (1835 – 1893) was an Episcopal pastor who was once the Bishop of Massachusetts.   He was the rector of Trinity Church and an impressive statue of Brooks by Augustus Saint- Gaudens stands outside. 

Trinity Church itself is an impressive building, often described as one of the gems of American architecture.  The church, the fancy statue and the story of Phillips Brooks impressive career don’t match what he is most famous for – the gentle, lullaby-like Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.  I often wondered about this when I passed by Copley Square, where Brooks’s statue stares down at the traffic.

After some research, I found that Brooks wrote this carol after a visit to the Holy Land in 1865.  He wrote the poem three years later, and his church organist arranged the music.  Perhaps these simple lyrics are more reflective of Phillips Brooks than his famous sermons and career.  The peaceful spirit of the song seems to express a longing for a simple return to faith in days long gone by. 

Phillips Brooks manuscript of his famous Christmas hymn
from Wikipedia Commons
Benson, Louis F. Studies of Familiar Hymns.
Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1903. Page 3.

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

Reverend Phillips Brooks was born 13 December 1835 in Boston, and died unmarried in Boston on 23 January 1893.  In the Episcopal calendar, his day is remembered as 23 January.  

He was the son of William Gray Brooks (1805 - 1879) and Mary Ann Phillips.   

He was a descendant of Reverend John Cotton, and of Samuel Phillips, Jr., the founder of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He was also a descendant of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley, Mayflower passengers.  Through his Cotton and Saltonstall ancestors, he is also a descendant of Richard III of England. 

The annual "Blog Caroling" event is hosted by the Footnote Maven at her blog   Check the roll up list for links to all the participants.

Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Christmas caroling wouldn't be the same without this song.

  2. He is also a distant relation to me. Would be interesting to compare geneologies.