Walking with Hymn: Silent Night

On December 24, 1818, 201 years ago, the song “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) was sung for the very first time. Today, this treasured Christmas carol has been translated into approximately 300 languages!

In Mariapfarr, Austria, in the year 1816 (the same year that Indiana became the 19th U.S. state), an Austrian by the name of Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to a song he titled, “Stille Nacht.” Two years later, school teacher and church organist Franz Gruber composed the music to Stille Nacht and performed it for the first time on guitar, not organ, during a Christmas midnight mass at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria.

Joseph Mohr, the author, was born in Salzburg on December 11, 1792 to Anna Shoiber and Franz Mohr. Joseph was conceived out of wedlock which was socially unacceptable, making him an outcast. To top it off, his father deserted his mother when she became pregnant. Anna and young Joseph suffered socially and financially. God saw fit to provide a sort of father figure and role model for Joseph though. Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, the church choirmaster, noticed Joseph’s musical abilities and made sure Joseph received an education including learning organ, guitar and violin. These opportunities led to Joseph choosing a future in the ministry, entering the seminary in Salzburg at age 19. He was ordained in 1815 at 23 years of age.

Health issues brought on by the harsh climate in Mariapfarr forced Mohr to return to Salzburg in 1817. After he recovered, he moved to Oberndorf, there befriending church organist Franz Xaver Gruber who was five years Mohr’s senior. Gruber was a schoolteacher in the neighboring town of Arnsdorf. It was Gruber who composed the music to Mohr’s Christmas poem.

The carol soon after became a traditional part of Christmas in German-speaking countries. Amazingly, “Stille Nacht” became Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s favorite Christmas carol!

It was a rough beginning for Joseph Mohr: a fatherless childhood, an impoverished upbringing, and yet, thanks to his relationship with God, a loving mother, and talented, caring friends, Joseph was used by God to pen words that still challenge, move, and inspire us to this day.

The German version of the song became popular in the United States two decades before it was translated into English. (German speakers were immigrating to America at this point in history by the millions.) “Stille Nacht” was performed for the first time in America in Central Park, Manhattan, at the Alexander Hamilton Monument by the Rainer family, another group of singing sisters, in 1839. It was ultimately translated into English by John Freeman Young in 1863. The English lyrics to “Silent Night” are below:

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia!
hrist the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light

Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
esus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Silent night, holy night!
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia to our King;
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

“One of the most famous stories about this carol was from the Christmas Eve Truce in WW1. On Christmas Eve 1914 the Germans began singing, ‘Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht’ and so began the Christmas Truce,” says Christmas Carols.us.

William Davis | YP

Clays Mill Road Baptist Church