Songs of Christmas…Away in a Manger


This is part 15 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

Much as we saw yesterday with “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” there is controversy surrounding the authorship of this beloved carol. In the end, the words are from an anonymous source. Some believe the song originated in Philadelphia around 1883.

There is no question about who discovered the hymn. In 1887 James R. Murray, a well recognized publisher and musician published the carol in his songbook Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses.

When Murray published “Away in a Manger,” he credited the 15th century theologian, reformer, and pastor/priest Martin Luther. Murray claimed that Luther not only wrote the hymn but that he sang it to his children when they were small. In theory that sounds wonderful but in truth, we already have a song Luther both wrote and sang to his children, “Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her.”

Some music scholars believe it is obvious Luther did not write the hymn and that it is an American creation. To support such a belief the scholars point to the work of Rev. Carlton Young, an editor on the United Methodist Hymnal. Young says when one looks at the German it is an obvious translation from English. Not being an authority on German in any way, I will have to take his word for it.

In the original version published by James Murray there were only two verse to the carol, both are considered anonymously written. Verse 3 is also unattributed. It first appeared in a songbook by gospel composer Charles H. Gabriel.

There are three primary tunes used with “Away in a Manger.” Two have used the title, “Luther’s Cradle Song.” Most popular in the United States was the tune Murray published in 1887. Much like the carol itself being mis-attributed to Martin Luther, credit for this version wrongly given to Carl Mueller. While the name of the “American” tune is “Luther’s Cradle Song,” the tune carry’s the more common name “Mueller” as well.

In England, “Luther’s Cradle Song,” more commonly just called, “Cradle Song” is the preferred tune. My wife Cindy and I have worked out an arrangement of both “Cradle Song” versions for flute and guitar.

A third tune often associated with “Away in a Manger” is “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.” This tune was used by many Americans during World War I as a negative response that seemed to follow all things German. When the war ended, Mueller became the most accepted tune once again.

The country-western singer Anne Murray has done an arrangement of the carol that actually uses all three tunes. She sings verse one to the tune of “Mueller.” Verse two using “Cradle Song.” And, for verse three she sings to the tune of “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.” It is a beautiful arrangement that I have admired for several years now.

With the exception of “Jesus Loves Me,” “Away in a Manger” may be the first Christian song children learn in Sunday school, church or at home. It is quite common for many children, particularly in Christian households to know this carol by memory and be able to sing it before they are ever able to read.

The simple tune and verses make this holiday standard a favorite. Because Christmas, even in the secular world, is so much about children, “Away in a Manger” will continue as a beloved hymn of the Church for generations to come.

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved


Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.


Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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