Posted by: rcottrill | October 21, 2013

Away in a Manger

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Words: (author unknown)
Music: (composer unknown)

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: In 1887, hymn writer and music publisher James Ramsey Murray produced a book of children’s music called Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses. Included in the book was Away in a Manger, under this heading:

“Luther’s Cradle Hymn, composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.”

Another author goes even further, saying the hymn:

“Is thought to be written for his [Luther’s] small son Hans (John), for a Christmas Eve festival, perhaps in 1530.” (Stories of Hymns We Love, by Cecilia Margaret Rudin, p. 7).

It is a touching picture. But it never happened. Martin Luther wrote neither the words nor the tune. And the song is much less than four or five centuries old.

To accuse Mr. Murray of lying would be going too far. But wherever he got his information, he was certainly misinformed. Nothing in all of the reformer’s copious writings bears any resemblance to the carol. And the song Luther wrote for his five-year-old son Hans seems rather to be From Heaven Above to Earth I Come, not the much more recent Away in a Manger.

In 1945, an American reference librarian named Richard S. Hill wrote a lengthy article called “Not So Far Away in a Manger.” After meticulous research, his conclusion was that the carol in question was likely written around 1883, by an anonymous Lutheran living in Pennsylvania. (Appropriately, 1883 was the four hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth.) Mr. Hill also identified many different tunes that have been used with the song.

The earliest known printing of the hymn is found in the Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, 1885. The original carol had only two stanzas. It has been claimed that the last was written around 1905 by a Methodist clergyman named John Thomas MacFarland (1851-1913). However, even this is now in some doubt (in spite of the story in the Cyber Hymnal).

The origin of the tune, as well, is something of a mystery. In hymn books it is sometimes called Mueller, having been attributed to someone named Carl Mueller in Worship and Song, published in 1921. However, there are serious doubts as to whether such a person even existed. Some credit James Murray with the melody–the man who popularized the notion that the carol came from Luther. But we’ll likely never know.

We do somewhat better with the tune Afton, which is frequently used with Away in a Manger. Lawyer (and later, Presbyterian clergyman) Jonathan Edwards Spilman (1812-1896) wrote that tune in 1837 to go with Robert Burns poem Flow Gently, Sweet Afton. It fits the carol beautifully,

Sometimes the last line of the second stanza is changed to “And stay by my side until morning is night”–ostensibly to make the song suitable for more than young children. However, it is quite clearly a children’s hymn, and should be treated as such. There is a gentle beauty to the song which makes it worthy of our use at Christmas time.

CH-1 reminds us of the Saviour’s humble birth. As the Bible declares, “[Mary] brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk. 2:7). In this, the Lord Jesus “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8).

CH-1) Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

CH-2 implies, without stating it, the Lord’s later exaltation to the right hand of God the Father, where He “looks down from the sky.” As the Bible tells us, “[He] being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3).

“God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).

CH-2) The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

CH-3 is more of a personal prayer, appealing for the continuing presence of Christ, and for His love and blessing, not only for the singer, but for “all the dear children in Thy tender care.” There is also a desire to be fitted for heaven, that the individual may live eternally with Him. Like Paul, the child of God will surely have “a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:23), and we look forward to Christ’s return to take us there (Jn. 14:2-3).

CH-3) Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.

1) In your experience, how much can little children understand about the true meaning of Christmas, and what it can mean to them spiritually?

2) What other carols do you believe are within the understanding of children?

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal


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