The Story Behind “Away In A Manger”

Nativity

“Away In A Manger” is one of the most popular Christmas carols and its history has been obscured behind false information for a long time. Our story begins in the post-Civil War era:

In 1887, American hymn writer James R. Murray entitled the tune to “Away in a Manger” as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” Murray further stated in his popular songbook, Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses, that Martin Luther had not only written “Away in a Manger,” but had sung it to his children each night before bed. As the song spread across a growing America and people began to sing it at home, in churches, and at schools, they often envisioned legions of German mothers rocking their babies to sleep each night with the strains of “Away in a Manger.” As the song became more popular, some news reports even trumpeted the song’s Teutonic heritage and the powerful inspiration that obviously could come from only the great Luther himself.

Ironically, not only did German mothers of this era not sing “Away in a Manger,” they had never heard it until the song arrived in Europe from its country of origin, the United States. Where Murray got his misinformation on Luther remains a mystery, yet because of his outstanding reputation as a writer and publisher, the story stuck.

Collins goes on to write that the song was probably written in the mid-1800s by an anonymous American. The tune was composed by a J. E. Clark. A man named Charles Hutchinson Gabriel, music director for Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, published a new version of the hymn that included the third verse. The legend of the song being written by Luther continued to grow as passing decades brought in the new century.

In 1945, as Americans again battled Germany in a world war, American writer Richard S. Hill sorted through the now seventy-year-old mystery concerning the carol’s origin. He determined that James R. Murray himself probably wrote the music long coupled with “Away in a Manger.” Yet as Murray always took credit when he composed a song, it is doubtful that he would have deflected the credit to Martin Luther. It’s more likely that Murray was given the song and simply adapted the existing German-influenced melody into four-part harmony for his book. It also seems likely that Murray received the story of Martin Luther writing the piece from the person who originally gave him the song.

Although we may never know who wrote the song we can still find inspiration in the story of the song itself. It tells us of the incredible humble birth of the greatest man who ever lived and the more I think of it the deeper in awe I fall. This song for children also reminds me of Jesus’ words teaching us that to such belong the kingdom of heaven. We must learn to become like children in order to commune with God.

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