The Story Behind “Away In A Manger”


“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.


Are You Thinking About Your Family Legacy?

duggar family altar

We live in a relatively affluent time compared to prior generations. One of the consequences of growing affluence, it seems, is the decline in birthrates and the size of a typical family. The industrialized countries of the West tend to have birthrates at or below replacement level, which is two children per mother. When we look at Third-World countries the birthrates are higher and the families are bigger.

For this reason economists think of children as an inferior good. There are normal and inferior goods. Normal goods are those things we buy more of as our income increases and inferior goods are those things we consume less of as our income rises.

There are various reasons why people have fewer children as they make more but one of the consequences of this trend is that people tend to think of children as a burden more than a blessing. Small families have become normative and big families are often seen as odd, if not disturbing.

I think there is an underlying set of expectations about maintaining a certain standard of living which is difficult to do when you have many children. The problem with this is that it encourages us to be selfish and short-sighted.

Over the last few months I have asked myself what it is in life that is worth my highest commitment and I keep coming back to the kingdom of heaven and family. I think of these because they are the only things I can invest in whose return will pay off for time and for eternity. I think that if the main reward is in this life then it will ultimately disappoint.

I find confirmation of this in the stories of people who have accomplished great things only to be left empty inside. George Foreman tells of the disappointment that overwhelmed him the night he won the heavyweight title. He worked so hard to climb that mountain only to be left wondering if there is anything more to life.

The biblical alternative is a multi-generational vision in which you are part of a continuum that traverses the generations. It is a vision in which your family is your kingdom and you are aware of the impact of your decisions in this life on your descendants several generations into the future. It is based on an understanding that your children are the only record that this world will have of your existence.

In his book, What He Must Be: …In Order To Marry My Daughter, Voddie Baucham shares a fascinating anecdote about Jonathan Edwards and his descendants:

Jonathan Edwards is perhaps the most influential American theologian of all times. Born in 1703, his books are still a mainstay in Christian colleges and seminaries. More importantly, his collected works are featured prominently in many pastors’ libraries. However, far too few people know the other side of Edwards’s story. Edwards was not only a remarkable preacher, professor, pastor, and prolific author. He was also a loving family man. He was devoted to his wife, Sarah, for thirty-one years until his death in 1758. He led in regular family worship and oversaw the education of his eleven children. Moreover, his was a multigenerational legacy seldom seen before or since.

‘In 1900, A. E. Winship studied what happened to 1,400 descendants of Jonathan and Sarah by the year 1900. He found they included 13 college presidents, 65 professors, 100 lawyers and a dean of a law school, 30 judges, 66 physicians and a dean of a medical school, and 80 holders of public office, including three US Senators, mayors of three large cities, governors of three states, a Vice-President of the United States, and a controller of the United States Treasury. They had written over 135 books and edited eighteen journals and periodicals. Many had entered the ministry. Over 100 were missionaries and others were on mission boards.’

Winship also wrote this concerning the legacy of Jonathan Edwards and his impact on America:

Many large banks, banking houses, and insurance companies have been directed by them. They have been owners or superintendents of large coal mines… of large iron plants and vast oil interests… and silver mines…. There is scarcely any great American industry that has not had one of this family among its chief promoters…

When I read this it makes me covet that kind of achievement, and I think it is the kind of thing God wants us to desire. We often appreciate the connection we have with our ancestors but we rarely think about the people who are yet to be born after us, especially after our death.

What if someone told you that 100 years after you die you will have over 1,000 descendants, people who are alive because of you? What if a similar story was told about your descendants being scientists, engineers, and political leaders? Edwards led the Great Awakening but I think he had a much bigger impact on the world after he died through his family.

It takes faith to see the appeal of a blessing that you won’t enjoy because you are not around to enjoy it but there is a joy in the hope that you will be reunited with tens of thousands of brothers and sisters in the Lord who were the fruit of your multiplication.