Christmas Hymn: Silent Night

Editor’s Note: Modern hymn writer Keith Getty has written a series of essays, each focusing on a Christmas hymn or carol. This is the seventh of an 11-part series in Baptist Press.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Arguably the best-known Christmas carol in the world, “Silent Night” has been translated into 300 languages and dialects, and in 2011 was included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It’s clearly a carol that resonates with people everywhere.

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Silent Night’s lyrics and melody combine to give it a gentle, almost lullaby-like quality. It’s also the most beautiful carol to sing in harmony.

Originally, it was a poem with six verses written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest. On Christmas Eve in 1818, Mohr asked the parish organist, Franz Gruber, to compose a melody for the poem. But, unfortunately, the church organ had broken down, so Silent Night has the distinction of being one of the first hymns ever to be accompanied by the guitar.

Mohr lived through the Napoleonic wars, which ended in 1816, and witnessed the suffering and oppression of his nation. In 1816, he was anxiously awaiting the liberation of his hometown of Salzburg from the Bavarian occupation. It is believed that Mhor wrote Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! as an expression of his longing for peace and freedom.

The repetition in each stanza of the line ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ evokes tranquility, stillness, mystery – a heart’s cry for the kind of peace that only Jesus can bring.

Alongside its origins as a carol born out of a longing for an end to division and turmoil in the 19th century, it’s also historically associated with the Christmas truce of the First World War. Although accounts differ, it is believed to have been the hymn sung on both sides of the trenches, in German and in English, as the soldiers briefly put down their weapons on Christmas Eve 1914.

Most hymnbooks include only three verses of Mohr’s original six: the first, second and last. But, for me, some of the little-known verses are actually the best ones. And I’m hoping to showcase these at our Christmas concerts this year.

The original middle three stanzas of Mohr’s poem focus on God’s love and salvation, His embracing of all people, and the wonder of the incarnation.

[Verse 3]

Silent Night! Holy Night!

Brought the world gracious light

Down from heaven’s golden height

Comes to us the glorious sight:

Jesus, as one of mankind

Jesus, as one of mankind

The fifth verse emphasizes God’s longing to draw all people to Himself. It reminds us that Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection is evidence of God’s love for ALL mankind. No one is excluded. His love breaks down all the man-made barriers, divisions and prejudices that are found at the heart of all conflict. Anyone can receive God’s love and salvation because God’s ultimate purpose is to draw all people to Himself.

[Verse 5]

Silent Night! Holy Night!

Long ago, minding our plight

God the world from misery freed

In the dark age of our fathers decreed:

All the world is redeemed

All the world is redeemed

Today it is still sung, often by candlelight, to close Christmas Eve services around the world. Whether we sing the familiar three-verse carol or sing it in its entirety, Silent Night really is a celebration of the peace and reconciliation we can experience through Christ becoming flesh for us.

About Keith & Kristyn Getty

Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern hymn writers whose compositions are sung the world over. For more information on Getty Music and the Sing! initiative, visit

Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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