This traditional song was designed to be a Christmas carol in Austria. One source said that it was forbidden to perform this turn in Austria before Christmas Eve. The version we know was translated into English by John Freeman Young (1820-1885), but there are other translations with variations too. The arrangement in Church Gospel Songs & Hymns is credited to Lloyd O. Sanderson, but it only has three verses. Some versions, such as in Praise the Lord, has four verses. Interestingly, the original lyrics had six verses. Once source suggests the first time this tune appeared in a hymnal in America was 1873 in Charles L. Hutchin’s Sunday School Hymnal. According to one source, the version recorded by Bing Crosby is the third best-selling single of all time. Some state the song has been translated into approximately 140 languages.
Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), Lyricist
Josephus Fanciscus Mohr was born December 11, 1792 in Salzburg, Austria. His father, Franz Mohr, did not marry his mother, Anna Schoiberin. The father deserted them both as he deserted the army. His first name came from his godfather, Joseph Wohlmuth; but it was custom that he would take his father’s last name. The young boy was guided into music by Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, who was in charge of music at the Salzburg Cathedral. He received a special dispensation due to the circumstances surrounding his birth to attend seminary school. He was trained to become a Roman Catholic Priest and was ordained on August 21, 1815.
In 1815 he led assistance to a village called Ramsau, and also served as assistant priest in Mariapfarr. In 1816, he wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night, Holy Night” which was a poem called Stille Nacht. The times in Austria were very hard following the Napoleonic wars. He became ill and had to return to Salzburg, but this led to him meeting Franz Gruber. He asked Gruber to set his poem to music to make a Christmas carol which was completed in a few hours. The music was actually set to be played by guitar which was Mohr’s preferred instrument, according to some although he knew how to play the violin. Some suggest the church where he served did not have a functioning organ or piano, so they set the music to guitar. He wrote other lyrics; however, this is the only one translated into English and so well known. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve of 1818.
He was known for many humanitarian efforts; especially his work with children. He died December 4, 1848 at the age of 55 of pulmonary heart disease. Admirers named the Joseph Mohr School located near his grave at Wagrain, Austria in his memory.
Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), Composer
Born November 25, 1787 in Hochburg, Austria to Josef and Maria Gruber, he was 5th of their 6 children. His original name was Conrad Xavier Gruber, but it was changed to Franz Xaver Gruber. His parents were linen weavers, which was a trade skill he learned. He was taught music by his school teacher, Andreas Peterlechner. He went onto learn to be a school teacher and church organist for the village of Arnsdorf. He is best known for writing the music to “Silent Night, Holy Night”, but he also wrote other Christmas carols played in Austria.
He married a widow, Maria Elisabeth Fischinger Engelsberger, and they had two children who both died at a young age. After the death of his first wife in 1825, he married Maria Breitfuss. They had ten children with four living to adulthood. Maria died in childbirth, along with their last child, in 1841. He would remarry a third time to widow Katherine Wimmer in 1842 who was a friend to his second wife. Franz Gruber died June 7, 1863 in Hallein, Austria.
Silent Night, Holy Night
There are many prophecies about the Messiah, including ones about His birth. Prophecy and its fulfillment is a powerful apologetic argument for the inspiration (and authority) of the Scriptures. Certainly the birth of Christ is a biblical subject! It is also Christian apologetic subject too! Consider how many prophecies relate to the birth of the Messiah.
The earliest prophetic statement about the coming Messiah is in Gen 3:15 (P.F. Luk 1:35). Some call this verse protoevangelium, meaning “first gospel”. The agency of woman in bringing about the Messiah to the salvation of mankind contrasted with another woman partly responsible for the fall of mankind in Genesis. Another prophecy about the birth of Jesus is the virgin birth prophesied in Isa 7:14 (P.F. Matt 1:23). The place of the Messiah’s birth, in Bethlehem, was prophesied in Mic 5:2 (P.F. Matt 2:1), a prophecy that led to Herod targeting the babes of Bethlehem for slaughter. Remember, Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth at the time, but a census required them to go to Joseph’s ancestral home to be registered in Bethlehem. Incidentally, the prophecy of the slaughter of babes was prophesied in Jer 31:15 and cited in Matt 2:18 (P.F. Matt 2:16). The Messiah’s lineage was prophesied to come through the tribe of Judah in Gen 49:10 (P.F. Matt 1:2-3), of the house of Jesse in Isa 11:1-10 (P.F. Matt 1:5-6), and from the seed of David Jer 23:5 (P.F. Matt 1:1). His flight into Egypt and subsequent return was prophetically alluded to in Hos 11:1 (P.F. Matt 2:15).
As mentioned before, it is shame this wonderful hymn was limited to performances around Christmas time in Austria as a Christmas carol. It is also a shame that some in the world seem to only think about the Savior on Christmas and Easter, if they think even that often of Him. The coming of the Messiah and the events surrounding His miraculous entrance into the world deserves greater attention and devotion than being limited to one time a year. Indeed, angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luk 2:14, NKJV). If angels sang of this wonderful event, can we not do the same? Jesus is our reconciler to God: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:17-19, NKJV.) Have you been reconciled to God by putting on Christ through immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Howard, V. E., Editor, and Smith, Broadus E., Associate Editor. Church Gospel Songs & Hymns. Texarkana, TX: Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.
McCutchan, Robert Guy. Our Hymnody. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1937.
Wiegand, John P., Editor. Praise for the Lord. Nashville, TN: Praise Press, 1997.