Midweek Dec 13 2017 “Thank Luther for Away in the Manger?”
“Away In A Manger” is one of the most popular Christmas carols and at one time was attributed to Martin Luther himself. I say at one time because “Away in the Manger” did not arrive on the scene until 1887, some 400 years after Luther’s birth in foreign country. So how did Luther get associated with this Christmas classic?
The first printing of “Away in a Manger” was in 1887 by American hymn writer James R. Murray who entitled the tune to “Away in a Manger” as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” Murray further stated in his popular Sunday School 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.
Why would he do such a thing? The 1880’s were a volatile age for America. The industrial revolution was roaring on the east coast while the wild west was beckoning young lads to “go west young man.” American protestants started a Social Gospel Movement in response to the evils experienced because of the industrial revolution: people working 80 hours a week, in unsafe work conditions, which included child labor. The social gospel movement was also a response to the wild west’s immorality and lack of community: it tried to bring people together for the common good of the sick, the orphaned and the widowed.
They wanted to bring back the sanctity of the family unit that was crumbling under the weight of industrial greed and the immorality of the wild west. They established Sunday schools which were literally schools. This was one place, once a week where children had a once a week opportunity to learn how to read. The initial motivation was so children would be able to read the best text book ever- the bible. It’s secondary purpose was so that they’d not be destined to a life of poverty simply because of their illiteracy. Protestant churches not only founded Sunday Schools but also banded together to found Christian schools, universities, orphanages, hospitals, old folks homes. If you look at many of our existing hospitals and many of our private universities they are founded in this era. Unfortunately, today, most have lost their Christian roots and labels. Nevertheless, their existence is owed to faithful people trying to live out their faith in everyday life.
Here is the tie in with Martin Luther. It was his reform movement that said everyone has a calling to serve God, not just bishops and popes. There is a priesthood of all believers and we make a difference for God’s kingdom in how we live our everyday life. This emphasis on living out our faith in our everyday life also led Martin Luther to emphasize the cradle of faith is really in the home not the church. In the marital relationship of a man and woman God’s love is attested to. In the nurturing of children and the encouraging of their education and faith life the Kingdom of God is grown.
Christian artists of that era idyllically painted Luther at home with his family; teaching them to read and write, or playing on the lute, or singing around the Christmas tree (more about that next week). These paintings sold well because Luther was back in the newspaper. In 1871 the unification of Germany as a nation had used Martin Luther as a major rally point because of his German Bible translation codifying the German language. This historic “Luther occasion” was closely followed by another; the celebration of Luther’s 400th birthday (1883).
So as the song spread across a growing America with its “Luther’s Cradle Song” label 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. It’s surmised that James R. Murray was given the song by a Pennsylvanian Lutheran, adapted the existing German-influenced melody into four-part harmony for his book. Since Mr. Murray was somewhat vain and always took credit when he composed a song it is doubtful that he would have deflected the credit to Martin Luther. However, the thought is the story of Martin Luther writing the piece came from the person who originally gave him the song. Murray simply thought it was worth repeating. Murray’s outstanding reputation as a writer and publisher, allowed the story stick. And probably backed by the label of “approved by Martin Luther himself” the carol caught on to the hearts and minds of the American public.
It was only later during WWII, as Americans again battled Germany did the now seventy-year-old mystery concerning the carol’s origin get sorted out. 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. It truly captures the amazing infancy of God almighty, asleep on the hay. This song focus of being for children is appropriate to Luther who would remind us that Jesus taught that it is to those with a childlike faith that the kingdom of heaven belongs. We must learn to become like trusting children in order to commune with God.
Its final verse was an add on that another anonymous author who thought Luther would want to close with a prayer. And it has become a common night time prayer for children around the world- be near me Lord Jesus I ask you to stay close by me forever and love me I pray, bless all the dear children in your tender care and fit us for heaven to live with you there.
Imagine if Luther’s label hadn’t helped make this a beloved carol- the message and the music we’d be missing. I imagine this carol starting to be sung in 1880’s just across the border to the east of us in Pennsylvania. You remember our sanctuary had to be rebuilt in 1882 because of a fire. Our records show shortly after rebuilding hymnal racks were approved to hold new hymnals being published with popular new Christmas carols like "Silent Night" (1818-63), "Joy to the World" (1839),"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (1840),"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" (1850),"O Holy Night" (1855),"Angels We Have Heard in High" (1855),"We Three Kings of Orient Are" (1857),"What Child is This?" (1865),"O Little Town of Bethlehem" (1868), and yes "Away in a Manger: (1887)
I invite you to sing this beloved carol as we take our evening offering. Amen.