You might recognize the name “Phillips Brooks.” He was one of the most famous preachers in the history of our nation, greatly respected by common people and leaders alike. His was one of the first mega-churches, over 1000 children attended Sunday School at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, and back in Civil War times, that was saying a lot.
But in the months before Christmas of 1865, Dr. Brooks was becoming discouraged and tired. He was a preacher who sincerely loved his people. He wanted to give them good news, something that would lift their hearts. But it was a discouraging time for our country. Because of the war, every Sunday more women came to church wearing black because of the loss of a husband or a son. Each Sunday he came to the pulpit and he could feel their need for encouragement, but each Sunday brought more news of death and destruction and pain.
Finally, the war was over and Brooks thought maybe life could return to normal. He began to feel hope again and he saw hope in the eyes of his people. But then came that awful day when President Abraham Lincoln was killed. Hearts sank again as everyone understood that the war might be ended but the hatred remained.
But the burden was even greater for Phillips Brooks. Even though Lincoln did not attend his church, Brooks was asked to preside over the funeral for the President. He felt ill-equipped to lead such a service and it cost him a great deal to find the words and courage to share a message of appreciation and love. Afterward, he was left almost empty.
But Brooks didn’t want to be empty. He knew that there was hope and peace and joy in Christ. So he traveled to the Holy Land seeking the touch of the Lord. Israel of 1865 was much like it must have been during the time of Jesus. Brooks walked the streets of Jerusalem and the darkness began to leave his soul.
At one point, he left Jerusalem and rented a horse to ride to Bethlehem. There his heart was touched in a special way. He wrote:
Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds… somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still keeping watch over their flocks.
Then he added,
I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Saviour’s birth.
Even though he returned home inspired and encouraged, it took some time before he could put into words the thoughts that touched his heart that day. In 1868, Brooks gave his organist, a famous musician named Lewis Redner, a poem. Redner struggled to write music to fit the poem and finally, on Christmas Eve, he simply gave up. He just couldn’t compose something that fit the words he had been given. But that night, the Lord seemed to give him what was needed. He woke up and realized that a tune was already running through his head, the tune we now enjoy.
The song was sung on Christmas morning, 1868, for the first time. Then it was printed and circulated around the city of Philadelphia. The words and music touched many hearts and it quickly became one of the most popular Christmas carols of our time.
(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here. These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend. Some of the stories are from my research. The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)