“Away in a Manger”

"And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger…" (Lk. 2:7)

     INTRO.: A familiar song which affirms that the birth of Christ involved His being laid in a manger is "Away in a Manger." The text and the tune (Mueller, Cradle Hymn, or Murray) have both been erroneously attributed to Martin Luther (1483-1546). Stanza 1 and 2 appear to date from around 1883 to 1885, as their earliest appearance seems to have been in the 1885 Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, compiled by J. C. File in Philadelphia, PA, for the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, where it was set to a tune (St. Kilda) by J. E. Clark. Stanza 3 appeared anonymously in the 1892 Vineyard Songs compiled by Charles Hutchinson Gabriel (1856-1932). It is sometimes attributed to John Thomas McFarland (1851-1913). It is alleged that he produced it between 1904 and 1908 at the request of WIlliam F. Anderson, but its appearance in Gabriel’s book makes this unlikely. Either McFarland had written it earlier and just gave it to Anderson after 1904, or else he copied it from another source and Anderson just thought that he had written it.

     The traditional melody has also been attributed to an otherwise unknown and unidentified Carl Mueller. However, it is now believed to have been composed by James Ramsey Murray (1841-1905). It appeared with stanzas 1 and 2 in his 1887 Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses with the notation, "Luther’s Cradle Hymn (composed by Martin Luther for his children and still sung by German mothers to their little ones)." There is no evidence to substantiate this claim. In fact, researchers had known for a long time that the hymn could not be found anywhere in the 57 volumes of Luther’s works or the 24 volumes of supplements. Luther did write a carol, "Vom Himmel hoch" or "From Heaven Above" for his little boy Hans when the latter was five years old. Many editors assumed that Murray had simply arranged the music, so when "Away in a Manger" appeared again in Murray’s Royal Praise for the Sunday School, published in 1888 by by the John Church Company of Cincinnati, OH, it was with the note "Music by J. R. M."

     Another tune for the song was composed in 1895 by William James Kirkpatrick (1838-1921). The words have also been set to the tune written for Robert Burns’s "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton" by James M. Spillman. Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, "Away in a Manger" appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2 (both in a version where the tune is greatly altered by the editor), and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3, all edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; and the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch. All of these have only stanzas 1 and 3. Today, the song may be found in the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise both edited by Alton H. Howard.

     The song is a simple application of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ for children.

I. Stanza 1 points to Jesus’s birth
"Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay."
 A. Some have objected to this song because it states facts which are not actually mentioned in the scripture. However, I think that some poetic license can be allowed. Mary and Joseph were in a strange town: Lk. 2:1-6. That He was laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn is plainly revealed in Luke’s account, so it is quite obvious that He had no regular crib for His bed.
 B. Of course, we do not know precisely what time Jesus was born, but the very next statement is that shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night: Lk. 2:8; therefore, it is at least within the realm of possibility that Jesus was born at night, and even if not, certainly the night following His birth the stars would have looked down on Him (Oh, I know, it might have been cloudy, but let us not get too picky–the stars would still have been above the clouds, looking down anyway)
 C. And no, the scriptures do not specifically mention hay, but that is the normal substance that is put in mangers, so it is again well within the realm of possibility that his first bedding was of hay. What this emphasizes to us is that Jesus did not come to this earth directly from heaven as a king in full pomp and circumstance, but was "born of a woman": Gal. 4:4

II. Stanza 2 goes from Jesus’s birth to us today
"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."
 A. Again, no cattle are mentioned in scripture, but the purpose of a manger is to provide food for domestic animals, so, once more, it is not outside the realm of possibility that cattle or other such animals may have been there. The fact that there was no room for them in the inn so that apparently Christ was born and first housed in a stable, which is where mangers were usually kept, reminds us of the poverty that apparently characterized Joseph and Mary: Lk. 2:22-24
 B. Some have especially objected to this stanza, which is why it may not have been included in many of our books, saying that it is unreasonable to believe that any baby, even Jesus, would never cry. Certainly, Jesus became flesh: Jn. 1:14. It is part of the nature of human babies to cry when they have needs. Through the years, when I have heard this song, I have always assumed that it was simply saying that Jesus was not an especially fussy baby, that He would have been as good an infant as possible, and I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with that.
 C. The point of the stanza is that Jesus partook of flesh and blood and was made like us in all things in order to aid us: Heb. 2:14-18.  Therefore, since He Himself has been a baby born into this world, children of all times can call upon Him to look down upon them and be with them

III. Stanza 3 asks Jesus to be with us 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 fit us for heaven to live with Thee there."
 A. Jesus has promised to be near all His people, and we should certainly strive to draw near to Him that He might remain near us: Matt. 28:20, Jas. 4:8
 B. Innocent children can especially call upon Jesus to bless them because the scriptures indicate that He is concerned about children: Matt. 19:13-14
 C. But what Jesus is most interested in, for both children and adults, is fitting us for heaven to live with Him there: Jn. 14:1-3, 1 Pet. 1:3-5

     CONCL.: Some brethren oppose the use of any songs about the birth of Christ, likely to avoid any association of them with the celebration of Christmas as the birth of Christ. While it is obvious that we should be careful in this matter, children’s Bible class teachers for years have found it very effective, when discussing the birth of Christ in their classes, to help their students focus on the events related to His birth by singing such songs. Yes, we serve a risen Lord, but every aspect of His earthly life recorded in scripture, including His birth, is part of who and what He is, so there should be anything wrong with singing about the time of His birth when He was "Away in a Manger."


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