Great stories behind hymns

Published 12:45 am Saturday, December 22, 2012

“Have you ever thought about how it would be if we didn’t have music?” the Rev. Tim Trent asked recently when someone commented on the wonderful Christmas cantata the church choir performed last Sunday. I had not. I cannot not begin to imagine Christmas without music and the beautiful hymns. I love the “holly, jolly” songs too, but my heart swells as the congregation lifts as one voice the familiar hymns I have enjoyed for so many years.

One of the most popular of those hymns is “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” written by Episcopal Bishop Phillips Brooks. The much-revered and highly successful minister was but a young rector in Philadelphia in the 1860s when he embarked upon a year of travel. It included a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. He traveled by horseback from Jerusalem to visit the place of Christ’s birth. In his account of that visit, he wrote of continuing on eastward to the Field of the Shepherds where he saw a fenced area with a cave in it. He was told that it was in that field where the shepherds saw the star. He attended a service in a basilica built over the site of the Nativity, a cave. It was an unusually long service, beginning at 10 p.m. and concluding at 3 a.m.

Apparently much moved by what he had seen on this pilgrimage to Bethlehem by horseback, he returned to Philadelphia to write lyrics for a Sunday school Christmas celebration at his church. His organist and superintendent of Sunday school, Lewis H. Redner, set Brooks’s poem of his recollection of the Bethlehem pilgrimage to music on Christmas Eve, 1868. The carol was sung for the first time the next day.

Concentrate on the words of the hymn and you can almost picture the scene that was before the pastor all those years ago. The streets were dark because in those days there were no streetlights. People probably retired as darkness fell and arose from their beds at sunrise to begin their daily work. The hymn has been described “a perfect combination of the Bethlehem background, the gospel story, the spiritual message for children, and poetic beauty of expression.”

Another of my favorites is “There’s a Song in the Air.” Josiah Gilbert Holland, a journalist, an author, and a poet who lived in the 1800s wrote the lyrics. The music was composed by a Latin professor, Karl P. Harrington.

The origin of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” or “Adeste Fidelis,” was discovered in 1946 by an English vicar who found it among a manuscript of musical selections for Catholic chapel use. John Francis Wade, an Englishman who was believed to copy music for Catholic institutions for a living, wrote the hymn in 1744. He also set it to music. This is another of those hymns that gives us such vivid word pictures. I especially love the sixth stanza that begins, “Yea Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning…”

Blessings to you this coming Christmas morning.