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Phillips Brooks was a great man. Not only was he a giant in stature, but he possessed a great mind and a great heart. Also, he was a great preacher—one of America’s greatest—and he just missed being a great poet. Indeed, the flashes of poetic genius revealed in the few verses he wrote indicate that he might have become famous as a hymn-writer had he chosen such a career.

His poetic gift had its roots in childhood. Phillips was brought up in a pious New England home. Every Sunday the children of the Brooks household were required to memorize a hymn, and, when the father conducted the evening devotion on the Lord’s day, the children recited their hymns. When Phillips was ready to go to college, he could repeat no less than two hundred hymns from memory. In his later ministry this knowledge proved to be of inestimable value, and he frequently made effective use of hymn quotations in his preaching. But, more than that, the childhood training unconsciously had made of him a poet!

“O little town of Bethlehem,” his most famous Christmas carol, was written for a Sunday school Christmas festival in 1868, when Brooks was rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He was only thirty-two years old at the time. Three years earlier he had visited the Holy Land, and on Christmas eve he had stood on the star-lit hills where the shepherds had watched their flocks. Below the hills he had seen the “little town of Bethlehem,” slumbering 428 in the darkness just as it had done in the night when Jesus was born. Later he had attended midnight services in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

He could never entirely forget the impressions of that sublime night, and, when he was asked in 1868 to write a Christmas hymn for his Sunday school, he put down on paper the song that long had been ringing in his mind.

The beautiful tune “St. Louis,” to which the hymn is usually sung, also has an interesting story. It was composed by Lewis H. Redner, who was organist and Sunday school superintendent of Dr. Brooks’ church. When Brooks asked Redner to write a suitable tune for the words, the latter waited for the inspiration that never seemed to come. Christmas eve arrived and Redner went to sleep without having written the tune. In the middle of the night, however, he dreamed that he heard angels singing. He awoke with the melody still sounding in his ears. Quickly he seized a piece of paper, and jotted it down, and next morning he filled in the harmony.

Redner always insisted that the hymn tune was “a gift from heaven,” and those who have learned to love its exquisite strains are more than willing to believe it!

Phillips Brooks, though he never had a family of his own, possessed a boundless love for children. That, perhaps, is one reason why the Christmas season so fascinated him, and why he wrote so many Christmas carols for children. One of these is famous for its striking refrain, “Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight.” “The voice of the Christ-child” is the title of another Christmas carol. He also wrote a number of Easter carols, among them, “God hath sent His angels.”

But Phillips Brooks not only made a strong appeal to children; 429 it was not long before the great and learned men of America began to realize that a great preacher and prophet had risen among them. There was need of such a spiritual leader, for Unitarianism had threatened to engulf all New England.

In its beginnings this movement was merely a protest against the stern and forbidding aspects of the Christian religion as it had been exemplified in New England Puritanism. It grew more and more radical, however, until the deity of Christ was denied.

The old-fashioned religion of “Christ and Him crucified” was all but forgotten in the intellectual circles of New England when a young man thirty-four years of age began preaching in Trinity church, Boston. He was preaching Jesus Christ, but he was presenting Him in a new and wonderful light. Crowds began to fill the church. Even sedate old Harvard was stirred.

That was the beginning of the ministry of Phillips Brooks in Boston, a ministry that made him famous throughout the land. It marked the turning point in religious tendencies in New England, and perhaps was the most potent factor in checking the spread of the Unitarian doctrine. Brooks was later elevated to a bishopric in his Church. He died in 1893.

It is said that when a little girl of five years was told by her mother that “Bishop Brooks has gone to heaven,” the child exclaimed, “Oh, mamma, how happy the angels will be!”

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