Classic Hymns of Christmas | Away In a Manger

Away In a Manger

Hymn Story:

The first two verses of “Away In A Manger” are anonymous. They have been attributed to Martin Luther, but this is not clear. An extensive article, Not So Far Away In A Manger: Forty One Settings of an American Carol, gives reasons that this might not be the case. These verses first appeared in Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, by J. C. File (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, 1885).

In Dainty songs for little lads and lasses, for use in the kindergarten, school and home, by James R. Murray, (Cincinnati, The John Church Co., 1887), “Away in a Manger” is entitled “Luthers’ Cradle Hymn (Composed by Martin Luther for his children and still sung by German mothers to their little ones).” However Luther is not listed as the composer, instead are the initials J.R.M. The hymn in this publication is set to the tune we know as MUELLER. Later publications attribute this hymn tune to Carl Mueller, of which nothing is known.

Stanza 3, not originally part of the hymn, first was included in Gabriel”s Vineyard Songs, (Louisville, 1892) published by Charles H. Gabriel, with no author given. However, Robert Guy McCutchan, in Our Hymnody: a manual of the Methodist hymnal (New York, etc., The Methodist Book Concern, 1937, p. 436) includes this statement from Bishop William F. Anderson of the writing of the third stanza:

When I was Secretary of the Board of Education, 1904-08, I wanted to use “Away in a manger,” which I found with the designation “Martin Luther’s Cradle Song,” in the Children’s Day program one year. It had but two stanzas, 1 and 2. Dr. John T. McFarland, then Secretary of our Board of Sunday Schools, was my near neighbor in his office at 150 Fifth Avenue (New York). I asked him to write a third stanza. He went to his office and within an hour brought me the third stanza beginning, “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay.”

As the stanza had been published in 1892, it seems likely that McFarland copied the stanza from a source known to him but Bishop Anderson, seeing it in McFarland’s hand, assumed it to be written by him.


People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will ever enter it. And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

The following is a first person account told by Chaplain Gerald Oosterveen. The story describes his young son who died at age 9 as a result of cancer.

At times he was rebellious, or cried, “Why do I have to die now?”

I did not know either. But he kept fighting, even though there was always the pain. At times the massive quantities of medicine made him a bit delirious. But most of the time he was alert, thinking about the future. As the illness progressed, he became a philosopher, wise beyond young years. “Dad, when I was a kid, I never realized that kids can die too.”

Drawing on what he had learned in church and Sunday School, he became a theologian: “Isn’t it amazing that Jesus should be preparing a place for me in His Father’s house. He loves me!”

When I wished we had more money to pay his mounting medical bills, he functioned as my teacher and gently rebuked me: “Don’t say we’re poor dad. Christians are never poor. When you have faith, you’re rich!” The words of Jesus came to my mind and somehow they were speaking to me:

Unless you become like one of these little ones, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God.

Some days I reflect that I too must die and will see my little son again. But when my time comes, will I have conquered fear and go out, as he did, in faith? Can I ever hope to become so trusting, believing as this child? My child.

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.


Lyricist: Anonymous
Tune Name: MUELLER
Composer: James R. Murray
Music Date: 1887
Sheet Music
Key: F
Theme: Jesus Christ, His Birth
Lyrics Date: 1885
Composer: William J. Kirkpatrick
Music Date: 1895
Sheet Music
Meter: 8.7.
Scripture: Luke 2:7

Copyright © 2011 Center for Church Music



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