Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith: Hymns of the Faith: Away in a Manger

by Bill Wymond, Derek Thomas, J. Ligon Duncan on December 16, 2007

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Hymns of the Faith

“Away in a

A Presentation of
First Presbyterian Church



Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill

Dr. Wymond: Good morning! This is “Hymns of the
Faith” brought to you by First Presbyterian Church. The minister of the First
Presbyterian Church is Dr. Ligon Duncan. Here with “Hymns of the Faith” is Dr.
Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: Thank you, Bill Wymond, and Merry
Christmas to Bill and to Derek as we continue our discussions of great hymns of
the faith on “Hymns of the Faith.” In fact we’ve been looking the last couple of
weeks at Christmas carols, and having already looked at Hark! The Herald
Angels Sing
, we come to one of the simplest and favorite, certainly here in
America, Christmas carols, Away in a Manger. I don’t think there can be
many people in the listening audience this morning who haven’t heard a child at
school or a children’s choir at church or perhaps a children’s choir gathered in
a mall somewhere singing Away in a Manger, or perhaps have had carolers
show up at their door to sing this very beautiful simple hymn and tune. There
are actually two well-known tunes associated with this Christmas carol, and
we’re going to listen to both of them this morning and talk about them just a
little bit and about the varying strengths and weaknesses of them.

But I want to start off with a little bit of
background about this hymn. I can remember (and I think I’m not making this up!)
that in the old Southern Presbyterian hymnal, which was simply called The
, this hymn was labeled as to its tune title “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.”
And for a number of years, I think mostly in the middle of the twentieth
century, there were people who actually attempted to ascribe it to Martin
Luther. Now the tune comes out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in
the late nineteenth century, and then (as we were talking off air just before we
came on this morning) a Methodist bishop actually commissioned the writing of
the third stanza of it in the early 1900’s. But the Lutherans themselves never
ever misunderstood this as being a product of the pen of Martin Luther. I think
that was somebody else that got that idea, Derek!

Dr. Thomas: Well, yes, and we should just inform
folks that the book that James Murray wrote, in which he ascribed it as
“Luther’s Cradle Song” was called — the classic title of it was called Dainty
Songs for Little Lads and Lasses

Dr. Duncan: You’re not thinking that’s going to be a
big seller today, Derek?

Dr. Thomas: I don’t think so today! [Laughter]
Published in 1887….

Dr. Duncan: But he ascribes that sort of title to
the tune, but never meaning to associate it with Martin Luther. And many
people…I mean, this happens in hymnody from time to time. People will
misunderstand certain things and they ascribe it. But the song comes out…it’s
anonymous. We don’t know exactly who wrote it, but it does show up in 1885 in
the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America hymnal.

And we will listen to tunes to it.
MUELLER is one tune — good Lutheran name
for a tune; and then CRADLE SONG
is another tune. And, Bill Wymond, you were telling me that both of these
tunes are American. One is by Kirkpatrick, and then Mueller is by this James
Murray fellow. You want to tell us about these gentlemen?

Dr. Wymond: Well, let me tell you about this tune
first, by Mueller. Away in a Manger… I will make a confession here before
the world and all the world to hear, that I have never liked this tune! Even as
a child (and I was certainly not sophisticated), I just didn’t think it had
anything to it. I didn’t like to sing it then. And actually that may be
indicative of the simplicity of it, which is not a bad thing. Children have no
trouble learning this tune.

Dr. Duncan: Well, and people that aren’t musical. I
mean, I think people that are more interested in being challenged or stimulated
by a tune would be bored to tears by the tune. For those ordinary mortals out
there that don’t have yours and Derek’s gifting, they appreciate a simple tune,
Bill! [Laughter]

Dr. Wymond: And it has a kind of innocence about it
as it goes down the scale… [demonstrates].. and just playing that must evoke
emotions in people…

Dr. Wymond: …because we have such…Derek, we will
get to your tune in just a minute!

Dr. Duncan: We’ll get to you in a minute, man!

Dr. Wymond: …but it is an emotional….

Dr. Duncan: …lullabye…

Dr. Thomas: Is there a strange chord there in the
second line? The second note? That’s an odd…

Dr. Wymond: You mean where it goes… [plays “…Lord
Jesus, laid down…”] No, The Beatles used it all the time!

Dr. Duncan: I should know it well, then! You missed
it Derek — you were listening to Wagner!

Dr. Wymond: It’s just the 5 of I…a V7, actually. It
may have just struck you at some moment like that. But anyway, it is
lullaby-like. It is in ѕ time, which is what comforting music often is.
[Plays more…] and so this tune just does a lot of the same thing, just coming
down the scale. It repeats that again,
and it goes… [plays “…the little Lord
Jesus, asleep on the hay.”] But again, as I was saying, all of us have emotions
and memories tied up with that tune, and so it’s comforting in itself.

But the second tune that I would like to get
to, also by an American, whose name was William James Kirkpatrick, is to me a
much better tune. And I must tell you that I first heard this tune in England.
Once again we sent over some help to them in the form of this fine tune, which
they adopted. And it is also in ѕ time, as it probably needs to be
because of the text, but it has much more worth to it, I think. [Plays
CRADLE SONG] That is what I think of
as a “narrative tune.”
It is a tune that is built to tell a story.
And it is childlike in a sense; it’s not difficult for children to sing, but it
has much greater possibilities for good harmonization. And some fine composers —
including that fine Englishman, John Rutter — has made some good settings of

Dr. Duncan: Well, it sounds English. It really does.
It does sound like an English folk…play it one more time, Bill. I want to draw
your attention to something. [Dr. Wymond plays the first phrase.] Now
listen to the melody, and then the rhythm of it gives it that sort of staid
English, stately sort of manner of an English folk song. But if you’ll listen to
it, Kirkpatrick also gave us the tune — and I’ve forgotten…we sing two different
hymns to it — it’s very much gospel song-y in its rhythm and its mode. If you
listen to the tune of it…[hums Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah

Dr. Wymond: As I look through his corpus of hymns,
I’m sort of surprised that this particular tune sounds as it does. He wrote two
or three hymns that we love, such as ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.
There’s a real simplicity to that hymn. He only uses about three chords.

Dr. Duncan: Yes, Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah
is the one that I think we sing it to… “Hallelujah, praise Jehovah, from the
heavens praise His name…” or something like that.

Dr. Wymond: Another one he wrote is He Hideth My
[plays tune]. Another is Lead Me to Calvary — many would know
that particular one. So he was writing right in the midst…in the middle
nineteenth century, in the midst of gospel hymn production. And most of his
hymns are in the gospel vein.

Dr. Duncan: But this is just a beautiful, beautiful
tune, and it is substantive and it’s interesting. And like you, I think…I may
have sung this tune as a boy, but I think it was probably listening to the
King’s College Choir sing at Christmastime when I first heard Away in a
sung to this tune, and I’ve been hooked on this tune that you just
played for a long time. I love the melody and the harmony to it, and it carries
the song along in a way that…I mean, the other tune does bring up sentimental
memories and associations, but isn’t as interesting, I think, as this particular

There’s a lot to say actually about the text of this
song, as simple as it is, and so I want to explore some of those theological
themes with you for a minute, Derek. The setting again is someone observing the
manger scene. And you know, in our mind, I think — with our sort of Hallmark™
card Christmas pictures, you know — it’s very romantic, this manger. But in
Jesus’ and Mary and Joseph’s experience there would have been nothing romantic
at all about a child being born in a manger. We wouldn’t wish that on our worst
enemy today, to have to have a child laid in a manger. So talk us through the
first stanza a little bit, Derek. What’s the imagery of the hymn drawing our
attention to?

Dr. Thomas: Yes…I…I’ve never been drawn very much to
this particular carol. Because I think as soon as you begin to sing these words
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…” you have to almost tangibly remove those
Hallmark™ pictures of cows that are
half-fozzled, and sort of grins on their faces as they’re looking at the

Dr. Duncan: …and the light shining from the
blissful babe, yes…

Dr. Thomas: …yes, and then the baby in the manger
with a sort of halo around the baby’s head, and so on. And all those are very
distracting thoughts.

Dr. Duncan: …although that’s something we really
have to fight with against most Christmas carols, because they have so many
layers of our own traditional experiences during Christmastime that we’re
removed from the stark, hard realities of the first Christmas.

Dr. Thomas: You know, theologically there are some
important things going on. First of all, that Jesus is born in a manger. “The
foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man
has nowhere to lay His head.” He’s not born in Jerusalem; He’s not born in New
York or Chicago or a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, but He’s born
…it’s…Bethlehem at that point was just a nowhere place outside Jerusalem
somewhere. But also of course theologically, the…you know, why do the Gospel
writers mention the manger and the sheep and the cattle and so on? Because
there’s a restoration of creation involved in the work of redemption, and it’s
not just the saving of sinners but the restoration of the totality of what the
fall had brought about upon creation.

Dr. Duncan: All of those details are designed in the
biblical narrative to shock, to assault our sensibilities by the … amazing
announcement that the God of gods, the Light of light, has been brought into
this world in this unbelievable state of degradation from the very beginning.
And so you have hymnody that tries to draw this to our attention, like “Who
is He in Yonder Stall
at whose feet the shepherds fall?” and the whole
design of that language is to shock you with the reality that this child who is
lying in low estate is in fact the Lord of glory.

Dr. Thomas: That’s why
when we sing hymns, and especially carols, we have to sing them with our minds
attached, not detached; otherwise we’re overwhelmed by the sentimentality of the
picture. But here it’s the “little Lord Jesus” and that’s mind-boggling,
that He is Lord, He is God, with all the prerogatives of deity, and yet He’s a
little child asleep. There’s no way to explain that…He’s both God and man. But
He’s not just man here; He’s an infant who is utterly and completely dependent
upon others for life itself, for food and shelter.

Dr. Duncan: It may be, too, that some of the
language of this hymn is so typical of late Victorian sentimentality. You’ve
already brought the attention of the listening audience to that phrase “the
little Lord Jesus”, but it’s followed up by “laid down His sweet head.” I mean,
that is so late Victorian in the kind of sentiment that it conveys
. “The
stars in the bright sky…the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” It’s
possible that the very sentiment of the language of the poetry could remove you
from the stark reality of which the Gospel narrative wants you to be aware. So
that’s something as you sing the hymn to be up on.

But then when you get to the second stanza, here we
come with one of your favorite theological problems in familiar hymnody, Derek!
We’re singing along, and the cattle are lowing, and the baby wakes up, but He
doesn’t cry.

Dr. Thomas: “…the little Lord Jesus no crying He
makes.” I’ve always found that difficult to sing, and often don’t sing it. I
don’t think it’s right. I believe it could be descriptive of an event, that
Jesus could wake up and not cry, but that’s not the point. The reality of the
incarnation means that He took our frame. He was made like us in every way
except for sin; and crying, for an infant, because it hears sounds that it’s
unfamiliar with, is not necessarily an indication of sin. And so I think that
Jesus as an infant could well have cried and probably did. Now, there’s a crying
and there’s a crying…a sinful crying. I mean, even little babies…

Dr. Duncan: …throw yourself down on the floor and
have a temper tantrum, yes…

Dr. Thomas: …temper tantrum, even as a very little
child…and so that, for sure, but…

Dr. Duncan: Derek, you have often said that you
think that evangelicals in general are tempted to think of Jesus in (to use the
old language)… in docetic terms. In the early days of the church there
were certain people that denied the full humanity of Christ. And evangelicals,
because we have a high view of Christ, are not so tempted to deny His deity, but
sometimes His humanity. And you’ve talked about that before in your preaching
and teaching here.

Dr. Thomas: Well, you know this hymn is written in
the late nineteenth century, and where Kenoticism, to use a very
technical word now, was right out of Germany and the seminaries in Europe
generally — and not to say in the United States here, too — there was a
wholesale attempt to deny the deity of Christ in various shades and forms. So in
the simplicity of this hymn I think there’s an attempt here to assert His deity,
perhaps at the expense of affirming the fullness of His humanity. And I’ve been
turned to that in my own ministry, that every time I’ve pressed home the
humanity of Jesus, that He had a human mind as well as a divine mind…that there
were things in His human mind He did not know…that He had a human will, that He
had a human psychology, that He had a human emotional state, that He could cry,
that He could be angry — without sinning — I think evangelicals, particularly
those who have come out of liberal denominations where they’ve heard chipping
away at the deity of Jesus, they are on the defensive to defend Jesus’ deity,
and I understand that. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful instinct to have, to
defend the deity of Jesus. But I’m not sure what’s going on here. If I sing this
line, as I occasionally have done, I’ve interpreted it in my head differently,
because I do think it’s vitally important that Jesus became a fully human

Dr. Duncan: Well, the Apostle John thought that was
pretty important! And goes out of his way to press this home, and in fact will
say that those who deny that Jesus has come in the flesh have denied what is
absolutely essential for salvation. And he’ll say it not only in his Gospel, but
he’ll say it in his letters to the people. So this was something that the early
Christians took very seriously.

Probably one reason that all of those lines are
included in The Apostles’ Creed that affirm aspects of the true humanity
of Christ — that He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, buried,
descended into hell. All of those lines are actually in some way in The
Apostles’ Creed
meant to affirm to us the reality of the humanity of Christ,

and so it is very important to early Christians, as it is to all Christians who
know their Bibles and who know what God is doing in the incarnation and in our

But then towards the end of that stanza…and here is
where you see the sort of, you know, bedtime lullaby child’s song that you can
see a mother singing to her child, because now the child is bid to…

“I love thee, Lord Jesus! Look
down from the sky,

and stay by my cradle till
morning is nigh.”

And so it’s almost like…

Dr. Thomas:The New England Primer… I will
both “lay me down to sleep…”

Dr. Duncan: (joins Dr. Thomas)

… “I lay me down to sleep;

I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to

If I should die before I wake,

I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to

And so it is in that mode of a child’s petition to the Lord
to be near to him. And then the final stanza carries that idea out:

“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.”

It’s theologically…I mean, in comparison with
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
….Bill Wymond was commenting, you know: Wesley
is loading theological textbooks full of theology into every phrase! This one is
not so. It’s very, very spare in that regard.

Dr. Thomas: I put this one in the genre of
children’s hymns, and I like the idea of children’s hymns, and I think it’s
right to teach children children’s hymns…hymns that are suitable for children to
sing. I think this is that. I would sing the second line, and in my mind I have
“no sinful crying He makes” and that justifies that in my head. But I think it’s
a wonderful hymn for a mother to sing to a little child at bedtime, especially
around Christmastime, because the aspirations, like The New England Primer
— “I lay me down to sleep” and so on — those aspirations are exactly the kinds
of things that you want a child to be thinking of as they go off to sleep.

Dr. Wymond: I would tell you that as
a child, when I prayed that prayer and I asked the Lord “my soul to keep, and if
I should die before I wake,” I always wondered, “Wow! I didn’t know I was in
such peril!” You know I really did think that: “Am I about to die?” This hymn
makes a reference to that partly in “…and fit us for heaven, to live with Thee
there.” Talking about going from the beginning to the end of life, I think maybe
these that were written in the era of great infant mortality probably brought
some of that to bear. But I would like to think there’s a lot of sanctification
in that “and fit us for heaven”; you know, make us to grow up to love Christ.

Dr. Duncan: And you know, it is a good prayer. As I
think back on my first singing of this hymn, as best as I can remember it, I do
think that those two lines stood out to me as meaningful as a young boy singing
the song:

“I love Thee, Lord Jesus…” [a
profession of love for Christ];

“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.”

And then it turns outwardly: “Lord, bless all the children
in Your care.”

And I do think that those lines stood out to me as
important for me to personally affirm in my relationship with Christ. But, Bill,
this morning you’re going to let us listen to both of these versions?

Dr. Wymond: Let’s do. We will play the first and
common version, and then we’ll play the second tune as well.

Dr. Duncan: MUELLER
is that first and common version, and Kirkpatrick’s is called
CRADLE SONG. Let’s listen to these hymns.

Dr. Wymond: Singing Away in a Manger for us
today is Victor Smith.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a

The little Lord Jesus laid down
His sweet head;

The stars in the bright sky
looked down where He lay,

The little Lord Jesus, asleep on
the hay.

“The cattle are lowing, the baby

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.”

Dr. Wymond: And now singing the second version of
Away in a Manger
is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

[Choir sings…]

You have been listening to “Hymns of the Faith” brought to
you by Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church. The First Presbyterian Church is
located on North State Street, just a block north of the Mississippi Baptist
Medical Center, and our worship services are at 8:30, 11:00 and 6:00. We invite
you to come and worship with us today.

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