The story of this delightful children’s carol is a tangled web of attributions and additions. This is, unfortunately, common for hymn stories. They can become larger than life. This story even includes a couple of magnificent lies in its history, seemingly intended to build notoriety for the song. Despite the folklore associated with this song, it has become one of the most recognizable Christmas carols for more than a century. While no fewer than four names have become associated with its composition, no one knows who actually wrote the words.
This anonymous hymn was believed to have been written in 1883, apparently in recognition of the 400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth (1483–1546). It first appeared in a newspaper in Boston, MA, under the title “Luther’s Cradle Song.” It included the inscription “Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” (If this sounds like a sales pitch, it was.) Neither of these things was true, as no one appears to have heard the hymn before 1883, including Martin Luther, who had been dead for over 300 years at this point. It has not even been found in the German language from this time, so it is unlikely that Martin Luther or German mothers had been singing it to their children.
The song first appeared in a hymnal in 1885 in Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families. In this publication, the reference to Luther was removed, and it was published under the title of its first line, “Away in a Manger.” The tune was composed by James R. Murray (1841–1905) of Cincinnati and paired with the text in Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses in 1887. Murray reattributed the carol to Martin Luther in this collection and once again included the original inscription regarding German mothers singing it to their children. Some believe he is the original source of this tall tale, but no one seems to know why. Murray knew the pain of losing children, as he had lost two of his three children in infancy. Perhaps this inspired his attachment to the words.
The original version of the song only had two stanzas, and the second stanza ended with the line, “And stay by my cradle, to watch lullaby.”
Away in a manger no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head;
The stars in the sky look down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, The poor baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, No crying he makes;
I love thee, Lord Jesus, Look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle, To watch lullaby.
Charles H. Gabriel (1856 – 1932), a famous American hymn tune and gospel song composer from Iowa, known for songs such as “I Stand Amazed in the Presence,” “Higher Ground,” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” added the third verse that is sung today.
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 take us to heaven, To live with thee there.
William Kirkpatrick (1838–1921), a composer, organist, and choirmaster in Philadelphia, changed the end of the second verse to the words most familiar today, “And stay by my cradle, till morning is nigh.”
While this hymn has an infamous history, all accounts indicate it is an American carol, not German. It was first published in a newspaper in Boston. The composer of the tune is from Cincinnati. The other contributors to the carol are from Philadelphia and Iowa. None of them are from Germany, and it is not clear that any of them even visited Luther’s homeland. Luther had nothing to do with the carol, but his name probably contributed to its early popularity.
The song is famously a children’s bedtime song. It draws the connection between children today and the Christ child who was also born as a helpless baby. While the lyrics paint an idyllic scene on that Bethlehem morning in which the baby Jesus doesn’t even cry, it reminds the singer of this remarkable baby’s humble beginnings. Not only was the immortal King of the Universe clothed with mortal flesh, which would be subject to hunger and weakness, but he was also introduced to the world in a stable surrounded by animals. He needed sleep and the help of his mother. He knows the frailty of children because he was one. He is the perfect one to call upon while going to sleep.
To quote a rather recent Contemporary Christian Song, “This is such a strange way to save the world.” A strange and wonderful way!
Clark, David Allen, Donald A. Koch, and Mark R. Harris. “A Strange Way to Save the World.” As performed by 4Him. Capital CMG Publishing/Universal Music Publishing Group. 1993.
Fenner, Chris. “Away in a Manger.” Hymnology Archive. December 5, 2018. Last Updated June 23, 2021. https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/away-in-a-manger.