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The Hopes & Fears of All the Years

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie;

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

~ lyrics written by The Right Reverend Phillips Brooks

Failure & More Failure

After graduating from Harvard in 1855, twenty-year-old Phillips Brooks began his teaching career. He struggled to manage and inspire the 35 boys in his care (as did two of his predecessors), and after only five months was released from his duties under the direction of a callous headmaster. [1]

Of this humiliating and demoralizing ordeal, Brooks wrote, "I do not know what will become of me and I do not care much.… I wish I were fifteen years old again. I believe I might become a stunning man [if I had another chance at life], but somehow or other I do not seem in the way to come to much now." [2]

This failure brought about a major course-correction, and he moved south to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary with the goal of being ordained to the Episcopalian ministry. Unfortunately, he had zero natural talent at public speaking: he talked too fast, flubbed his words, was stiff and awkward, and often stared straight up at the ceiling as he delivered his sermons.

But he was passionate about his faith, and he didn't give up. Over the years, this shy, lonely bachelor improved his skills so much that he became what one biographer called "by far the most attractive and widely loved preacher of his day" [3]. His vibrant teaching style won him an invitation in 1880 to preach at Westminster Abbey before Queen Victoria [4]. He served as a longtime rector (a priest who oversees a self-sustaining parish, similar to a pastor) in Boston, and his career culminated with the ordination as Bishop of Massachusetts.

Penning the Carol

In 1865, while a rector in Philadelphia, Brooks travelled on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was particularly moved by his stop in Bethlehem, later writing of his experience:

“I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when 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 knew well, telling each other of the ‘wonderful night’ of the Savior’s birth.” [5]

At that moment, a poem began forming in the back of his mind [6]; three years later he put pen to paper and wrote it down [7].

The week before Christmas in 1868, he shared the poem with church organist Lewis Redner, who'd requested a new Christmas text to compose music for. They decided it would be sung on Christmas during Sunday school.

But Redner struggled to create a tune for this poem, feeling completely uninspired. On Christmas Eve he was "roused from sleep" with the sound of "an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony." [8] Just in the nick of time!

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" was published just after the turn of the century--a decade after Brooks' death--and has become a beloved carol in both the US and England (though the latter uses the old familiar tune "Forest Green" instead of Redner's music).

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years Are Met In Thee Tonight

In a inconsequential town, on a insignificant day, two unimportant individuals took part in an incomparable event that went largely unrecognized. Other than her pregnancy being pre-marriage, Mary's birth story likely wouldn't have drawn a moment's notice.

Yet Phillips Brooks knew better. He understood what really happened in Bethlehem: it was the birth of hope, coming in direct answer to pain points and fears. "The hopes and fears of all the years" collided in that quiet little town in numerous ways.

The Hopes and Fears of MARY and JOSEPH

There were undoubtedly countless fears and hopes held by this young woman in Bethlehem and her new husband--away from home, delivering her first baby (who happened to also be the future Savior of the world). Aside from the already-overwhelming experience of childbirth and new parenthood, what must Mary and Joseph have been thinking and feeling?

QUESTIONS & WORRY: How do we raise the Son of God? What does God expect from us? Will we be good enough? How will we get the word out to the world? What will He do in His life? How will we prepare Him? What will happen to Him?

But also...

JOY & FAITH: Our son--God's Son!--is finally here! God is so close. He won't let us fail at this; He'll be with us every step and provide our path going forward as He has in the past. We get to be part of His glorious life and mission.

The Hopes and Fears of the ISRAELITES

After centuries of waiting and praying, the Israelites' Messiah had finally come to deliver them. They'd faced continual persecution, captivity, and servitude. They needed relief from fear and from pain, and they needed hope. And here in Bethlehem it came, but not in the militaristic way they'd envisioned. Though most of the Jews didn't even know it, the cries of generations were swallowed up in the cries of this newborn baby who would grow up and deliver God's children, just as He'd promised.

The hopes and fears of MANKIND

Even before the earth was formed, all of our hopes were centered on Jesus Christ [9], for without Him there could've been no life or joy beyond the grave.

We trusted that through His perfect atoning sacrifice He would overcome every debilitating, frightening effect of the Fall [10] and ultimately defeat the fearsome, "awful monster, death and hell" (a.k.a. physical and spiritual death) for every child of God who has or will come to the world [11].

"Let the whole wide earth rejoice[!] Death is conquered, man is free; Christ has won the victory[!]" (12)

In Bethlehem, that hope began to become reality.

The Hopes and Fears of PHILLIPS BROOKS

Brooks was no stranger to high hopes and devastating failures; he understood fear and loss. Maybe the line about hopes and fears in the carol reflected his personal experiences with the Savior's ability to silence fears and bolster confidence.

“It does not take great men to do great things," said Brooks. "It only takes consecrated men” (12). This echoes the Apostle Paul's statement, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (13). For Phillips Brooks, this wasn't just a nice belief. It was a truth that seemed to shape his entire life.

The Hopes and Fears of YOU and ME

We hope for joy, peace, comfort, love, family, success, stability, clarity, direction, fulfillment. And we hope for the eternal duration of these things.

We fear failure, the unknown, death, suffering, discomfort, change, loneliness, unmet expectations. And we fear the loss of any of our hopes.

One image that comes to mind as I sing this carol is of my collective hopes and fears gathering together in front of that Bethlehem stable, preparing for a face off--my happiness and success hanging in the balance. But, of course, that battle won't be won for three more decades: first in Gethsemane, then Golgotha, and culminating in an empty tomb.

Elder David A. Bednar explained the power that the Atonement provided Jesus Christ in our behalf:

"The Savior has suffered not just for our sins and iniquities—but also for our physical pains and anguish, our weaknesses and shortcomings, our fears and frustrations, our disappointments and discouragement, our regrets and remorse, our despair and desperation, the injustices and inequities we experience, and the emotional distresses that beset us.

"There is no physical pain, no spiritual wound, no anguish of soul or heartache, no infirmity or weakness you or I ever confront in mortality that the Savior did not experience first. In a moment of weakness we may cry out, 'No one knows what it is like. No one understands.' But the Son of God perfectly knows and understands, for He has felt and borne our individual burdens. And because of His infinite and eternal sacrifice, He has perfect empathy and can extend to us His arm of mercy. He can reach out, touch, succor, heal, and strengthen us to be more than we could ever be and help us to do that which we could never do relying only upon our own power." (14)

Jesus Christ experienced every hope and every and fear I will ever have, and He also experienced yours. He knows perfectly how to calm our fears, solve our problems, and fix our brokenness. He knows perfectly how to lead us to incomparable joy and peace, both today and forever.

The question is, will we let Him?

Reverend Brooks concluded his carol with an oft-overlooked fourth verse, an invitation to the Savior:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today. (15) What is one thing you will do to invite Jesus Christ more fully into your life today?


  1. Unless otherwise noted, the background information in this article is taken from: Roger W. Coon, Ph.D., ""Phillips Brooks, the Man and His Master," Ministry Magazine (International Journal for Pastors), December 2012

  2. as quoted in Clyde E. Fant and William M. Pinson, Jr., Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume 6 (Waco, TX: Word, 1971), p. 114

  3. Ibid., 115, 122

  4. "Brooks defined preaching as 'the bringing of truth through personality,' by which he meant a kind of radiant optimism" (from an address delivered at Yale University in 1887, as found in Lectures on Preaching). See also "Phillips Brooks," The New Encyclopedia Britannica (1988), 2:552.

  5. quoted in Dan Graves, "Phillips Brooks Introduced His Most Famous Christmas Carol," Christian History Institute,

  6. Wayne Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventut Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md. Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1988), 188, 189.

  7. He drew on the biblical prophecy about Bethlehem found in the biblical book of Micah: "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf" [Micah 5:2 (NLT)]. Ephrathah (or Ephrath) is an ancient name for Bethlehem [see Genesis 35:19]. Alternatively, it is elsewhere referred to as Bethlehem Judah [see 1 Samuel 17:12]. Matthew's version is based on the scripture in Micah: "Bethlehem in the land of Judea, you are very important among the towns of Judea. From your town will come a leader, who will be like a shepherd for my people Israel" [Matthew 2:6].

  8. Lewis Redner, qtd. in Louis F. Benson, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," Studies Of Familiar Hymns, First Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1924), 11. FULL QUOTE: "As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, "Redner, have you ground out that music yet to 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'?" I replied, "No", but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868."

  9. Revelation 12:11, KJV

  10. John 16:33, KJV

  11. 2 Nephi 9:10, 19, 26

  12. "He is Risen," Hymns, no. 199

  13. Qtd. in The Living Church (Vol. 56, no. 1, 4 November 1916), 490

  14. Philippians 4:13, KJV

  15. Bednar, "Bear Up Their Burdens With Ease," April 2014

  16. "O Little Town of Bethlehem," verse 4


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