On Writing Hymns: Stakes, continued: Martin Luther vs. Fake Martin Luther

‘Tis the season.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head
The stars in the Heavens looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay

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 until morning is nigh.

Martin Luther did not write “Away in a Manger.” It first appeared in 1885, in an English-language hymnal published in Philadelphia, Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families.

But suppose you didn’t know this was written over 300 years after Luther’s death. You would still know it wasn’t his if you knew a few of his other lyrics:

A mighty fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing
Our helper he, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great
And armed with cruel hate
On earth is not his equal.

That’s tame compared to verse three:

And though this world, with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us
We will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us
The prince of darkness grim
We tremble not for him
His rage we can endure
For lo! his doom is sure
One little word shall fell him.

Consider one of his lesser-known lyrics, “Flung To the Heedless Winds”:

Flung to the heedless winds
Or on the waters cast
The martyrs’ ashes, watched
Shall gathered be at last
And from that scattered dust
Around us and abroad
Shall spring a plenteous seed
Of witnesses for God.

The Father hath received
Their latest living breath,
And vain is Satan’s boast
Of vict’ry in their death
Still, still, though dead, they speak
And, trumpet-tongued, proclaim
To many a wakening land
The one availing name

He also wrote gentler songs. But even they had stakes:

Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word
Curb those who fain by craft and sword
Would wrest the kingdom from thy Son
And bring to naught all he has done

Luther understood conflict better than most. He lived a life of conflict. It showed in his songs. It’s said that he felt the presence of Satan so strongly that he threw an inkwell at him.

Whether or not that actually happened, here’s what does matter: He understood stakes. He knew what he was fighting for. And he communicated that effectively in his lyrics.

We might not all go as far as he did. We might not always write

Lord Sabaoth His name
From age to age the same
And He must win the battle

But surely we can do better than “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.”

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