Two Massachusetts natives wrote Christmas carols that are beloved now, but were once thought to be unsuitable for hymnals. In this post, I’ll explain why and reveal stanzas that were expunged from them. To read my earlier post about the unusual history of three Advent hymns, click here.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” is the only Christmas carol that does not mention the Christ child. It was written by a Unitarian minister named Edmund Sears, who was based in Wayland, Mass.
It was 1849, a time of the California gold rush and revolutions in Europe, just after the Mexican war and during the political conflict over the expansion of slavery. Sears was an abolitionist and spoke up against war and for gender equality. He was also subject to depression, and may have written this hymn as a desperate plea for peace and justice.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” has been recorded by Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby and Eric Burdon and the Animals, who sang it to the tune of their hit song, “House of the Rising Sun.” The melody was written by a Massachusetts man named Richard Willis who was a close friend of composer Felix Mendelssohn.
As one of the first social gospel hymns, it faced opposition from people who thought it was too political. They didn’t think phrases like “prophet bards” and “age of gold” belonged in hymns. And as recently as 1938, the Pilgrim Hymnal didn’t allow these words. The hymn censors did succeed in removing a strongly antiwar verse, which goes: “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.”
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is my favorite Christmas hymn. The words were written in 1868 by a Boston native named Phillips Brooks, in remembrance of his Christmas Eve pilgrimage to the Holy Land three years earlier. As a young Episcopal priest, he traveled on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and worshiped at the ancient Church of the Nativity.
Brooks wrote the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for children to sing at a church service, and in fond remembrance of his trip to Bethlehem. Brooks loved children so much that he often got down on the nursery floor to play with them. He later became the most famous preacher of his time.
Brooks was pastor of a church in Philadelphia, and he asked the organist, Lewis Redner, to write some music to accompany “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
But Redner, who was a wealthy real estate broker, procrastinated. The night before it was to be performed for the first time, he still hadn’t come up with a melody. But he awoke from his sleep with the melody in his head, reached for some paper, scribbled it down, and went back to sleep. He arranged the harmony just before the service started. It was sung for the first time by 36 children and six Sunday school teachers.
Redner claimed an angel whispered the melody in his ear. He wrote later, “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas.” Some experts questioned the suitability of singing a children’s hymn at a church service, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” appeared in only a few hymnals published before 1925. Today, it’s very popular, and has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Mariah Carey and Barbra Streisand. The British sing it to a different tune.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” emphasizes not a glorious chorus of angels but a quiet town the world isn’t paying much attention to, and doesn’t offer praise or prayer to God until the last verse. I especially like how the hymn asks that Jesus be born not just in a manger but in our hearts.
It also has a verse that is omitted in hymnals and shows how it was written for children: “Here children pure and happy/Pray to the blessed Child,/Where misery cries out to thee,/Son of the undefiled;/Where charity stands watching/And faith holds wide the door,/The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,/And Christmas comes once more.”
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