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Every hymn has a story. Ofttimes, however, the origin is obscure, and it is difficult to trace its birth out of the misty past. Again there are so many legends that have gathered around the great lyrics of the ages, many of them generally accepted, that it becomes a painful process to get rid of these excrescences. Two beautiful German hymns, “Schönster Herr Jesu” and “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” may serve to illustrate these difficulties.

In innumerable hymn-books the former hymn, sometimes translated “Beautiful Saviour” and sometimes “Fairest Lord Jesus,” is designated as “The Crusaders’ Hymn.” The hymn was first introduced to American worshipers by Richard Storrs Willis, who included it in his “Church Chorals and Choir Studies,” published in 1850. It was accompanied with this explanation: “This hymn, to which the harmony has been added, was lately (1850) discovered in Westphalia. According to the traditionary text by which it is accompanied, it was wont to be sung by the German knights on their way to Jerusalem. The only hymn of the same century which in point of style resembles this is one quoted by Burney from the Chatelaine de Coucy, set about the year 1190, very far inferior, however, to this.”

In a London hymn-book, “Heart Melodies” by Morgan and Chase, the same error is repeated. There it is referred to as “Crusader’s Hymn of the Twelfth Century. This air 132 and hymn used to be sung by the German pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.”

“For these statements,” writes James Mearns, “there does not seem to be the shadow of foundation, for the air referred to has not been traced earlier than 1842, nor the words than 1677.”

The hymn appeared anonymously in the “Münster Gesangbuch” of 1677, where it was published as the first of “Three beautiful selected new hymns.” In a book of Silesian folk songs, published in Leipzig in 1842, the text is found in altered form and the beautiful melody to which it is now sung is given for the first time. Both text and melody, it is explained in this book, were taken down from oral recitation in the district of Glaz, in lower Silesia. From these facts we are compelled to draw the conclusion that this glorious hymn of adoration to the Saviour probably dates back to the seventeenth century, while the melody is undoubtedly a Silesian folk song of much later origin.

The English translation, “Beautiful Saviour,” has come to us from the pen of Joseph A. Seiss, the noted Lutheran preacher of Philadelphia.

“Silent night, holy night” also is a hymn around which numerous legends have clustered. The most unfortunate of these deals with its origin. According to this story, the hymn was written on a Christmas Eve by a “Mr. Mohr,” whose wife that very day had gone to celebrate Christmas in heaven. In an adjoining room the grief-stricken husband and father could see his little motherless children sleeping. Outside the house of mourning the stillness of the night was broken suddenly by the singing of Christmas carolers. They were singing the very songs his wife and children used to sing. Now, he thought, she is blending her voice with the angels. 133 Then came the inspiration for the hymn, and in a few moments he had penned the now famous “Stille Nacht.”

This is a very touching story, but its fatal defect lies in the fact that “Mr. Mohr” was a Roman Catholic priest.

The true story of the origin of the hymn has much less of the emotional appeal. The author, Joseph Mohr, was born at Salzburg, Austria, December 11, 1792. He was ordained as a priest at the age of twenty-three, becoming assistant at Laufen, near his native city. It was here, three years later, that the beautiful Christmas carol was written.

It seems that a shipowner at Oberndorf named Maier and his wife had invited the young priest to be their guest at a pre-Christmas party. As a special surprise for the priest, Maier had invited some wandering minstrels to stage a crude representation of the Christmas story as recounted in the Bible. The thoughtful hospitality of the Maier couple and the touching simplicity of the festival play so stirred the heart of Mohr that, instead of going straightway home, he climbed the so-called “Totenberg,” (mountain of the dead) overlooking Oberndorf, and stood in silent meditation.

The silence of the night, the starry splendor of the winter sky, the murmur of the Salzach river thrilled his soul. Quickly he descended to his parish house, and late that night wrote the words of “Stille Nacht.” The next day he hurried to his friend and co-worker, Franz Gruber, organist and school teacher, and asked him to write music for his lines. The latter eagerly embraced the opportunity, and thus was given to the world one of the most exquisite of Christmas carols.

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