The Story Behind the Christmas Carol… “Away in a Manger”

The Story Behind the Christmas Carol… “Away in a Manger”

The Story Behind the Christmas Carol… “Away in a Manger”

Written by: Prophecy in the News

  • away-in-a-manger-photo

One of the most loved children’s Christmas songs is “Away in A Manger.” The song is easily learned and the note range is quite within the vocal ability of all children. The lyrics are musical life lessons. They give a brief and simplistic summary of the Christmas birth of Jesus and go on to express a childlike love for the Savior with a desire and assurance that He is always near.


There is much speculation as to the origin of the simple hymn. Richard S. Hill, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, is considered the authority on the song, having done extensive research on the subject. His findings were published in the Music Library Association’s journal, Notes, December of 1945, in his article “Not So Far Away In A Manger: Forty-one settings of an American Carol.”

According to Hill, the song first appeared in a Lutheran publication Little children’s book: for schools and families. By Authority of the general council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. The song is listed as a nursery hymn with the book dated “Christmas 1884” and the copyright being June of 1885. In this printing, the tune for the poem is called St. Kilda and was written by J.E. Clark. Only two verses were included with this publication, and those used are without the listing of an author or source, a characteristic unlike other included hymns.


There is speculation that the two verses were from an anonymous play or story written within the German Lutheran sect found in Pennsylvania. In 1883, Lutherans as well as many Protestant groups were celebrating the 400th birthday of German Reformer, Martin Luther. The poem could have been written as part of a local presentation of this event, which possible could have led to the gross misinformation that was printed in a later publication.

It is also been commonly known as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” Hill concluded: “Although Luther himself had nothing to do with the carol, the colonies of German Lutherans in Pennsylvania almost certainly did.”

In 1887, the poem with a new melody was published in Dainty songs for little lads and lasses, for use in the kindergarten, school and home by James R. Murray. Mr. Murray, editor with the John Church Company, titled the piece “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” Beneath the title was the note “Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” The composer indication was marked only with the initials J.R. M. Because of the recent celebrations of Luther’s birth, this may have been an act of giving credence to Luther for the sole purpose of affording the piece notoriety. It was well received, and as its popularity grew, Murray re-published the song the following year (1888) in the publication Royal Praise for the Sunday School. A collection of new and selected gospel songs… by J. R. Murray. He slightly changed the song from the original by changing the key and repeating the last phrase – enough to claim a copyright to the song and stated it at the bottom of the page. In 1892, the carol was again re-published by the John Church Company in a compilation of songs entitled Little sacred songs for little singers of the primary department of the Sunday school and for kindergartens and the home. Murray again edited the collection but this time changing the song back to its original key and adding his initials. It is interesting to note that Murray is not given credit for the piece in subsequent collections by other publishers. This is probably due to his initial indication that the piece belonged to Luther. Fear of copyright infringement probably drove others away from Murray’s claim of copyright.

Originally, the poem had only two verses, which, due to lack of any significant documentation, are considered anonymous, though the German Lutheran congregation of Pennsylvania probably gave birth to the poem. The third verse was added something in the 1890’s. It first appeared in Charles H. Gabriel’s collection Gabriel’s vineyard songs.

Bishop William F. Anderson attributed the third verse to Dr. John T. McFarland. He claimed that McFarland wrote the verse in response to his request for a third verse to be performed at a Children’s Day program. Although Anderson had requested McFarland write a third verse, it is unclear whether he actually wrote the verse or just provided a verse. Dates seem to indicate that McFarland may have supplied Anderson with a copy of Gabriel’s 1892 edition and Anderson may have assumed that McFarland wrote the verse. According to Anderson, McFarland wrote the verse sometime between 1904 and 1908, eliminating McFarland as a viable source of the verse.


The early 1920s saw a new name on Murray’s carol. It was Carl Mueller who was given compositional credit. According to Hill, Mueller may have been a fictional name given by some editors who were still unsure of Murray as the composer. Rather than no indication of composer, a common German name may have been printed so as to dilute the trail of information. It would be comparable to using John Smith if an American name were used. Hill and his colleagues could find no credence to Mueller as the composer or even to the existence to Mueller. Hill gives his allegiance to Murray as composer of the tune, which is traditionally sung in American as “Away in A Manger” although the carol’s tune is officially called “Mueller.”


James R. Murray was born in 1841 in Andover Massachusetts to Walter and Christina Murray. He received his musical training from such hymnology giants as George F. Root, Lowell Mason, William B. Bradbury, George J. Webb, and Whitney Eugene Thayer. After a brief military service during the Civil War, he joined Root assisting in editorial duties. After the Chicago fire, he returned to Andover where he taught public school until 1881. He then joined the John Church Company, where he fulfilled editorial duties. It is supposed that he died in 1904 when his name disappeared from the directory of Cincinnati where he and his wife Isabel resided, although his year of death cannot be substantiated.

Although there are numerous tunes applied to the poem, two melodies are most prevalent in use today. Murray’s tune has become truly an American carol. However, in England and Europe, another tune is more commonly sung. In an ironic sense, another American composer, William J. Kirkpatrick, took the American poem, composed a new tune based on a Scottish song, and introduced it across the seas. In 1895, seven of Kirkpatrick’s compositions were included in a pamphlet published by the Cranston and Curts Company. It included narratives and recitations along with songs, much like today’s sacred musicals or cantatas. The title was Around the world with Christmas. A Christmas exercise. The pamphlet described different settings of Christmas in various countries, including England, Scotland, and Germany. Kirkpatrick’s tune, as arrangement of the song “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton, “was used with the poem “Away in a Manger” and titled “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” It was sung by children or a selected soloist as a tribute to The German Fatherland in the pamphlet. Because of the popularity of the pamphlet overseas, Kirkpatrick’s setting is more commonly sung in England as opposed to Murray’s setting, which is traditionally sung in America.


Recent collections, which include the carol, still give credit to Luther and the mythical Carl Mueller. Regardless of who wrote what version or verse, the indication is that “Away in A Manger” is truly an American carol loved by many, especially children. This musical portrait of an innocent sleeping king in the humblest of settings is truly a landscape of peace on earth.

Luke 2:7 (KJV)
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”


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

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.

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.

Source: Song of Christmas and the stories behind them by Tommy and Renee Pierce
Then Sings My Soul by Robert J. Morgan

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