“Song of Peace” in “The Year Without Summer”

“Song of Peace” in “The Year Without Summer”

Pastor Josef Mohr (1792-1848) was a December babe, born in Salzburg, Austria, where he was reared to love Christ and his Church. As a young man, he entered the seminary, where he was ordained in 1815. He then began to minister to the villagers in several hamlets nearby. His work was intense, for there was unending misery in those days.

A string of volcanoes had been erupting in Asia for many years with catastrophic results; however, the horrific explosion of the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815 was the most powerful in history, resulting in global disaster. Europe was directly affected, especially Germany. The ash fell for months, blotting out the sun, with reports of brown snow falling in Hungary and red snow in northern Italy. Cold temperatures and the heavy flooding of all of Europe’s rivers, including the Rhine, caused failed harvests. When the frosts came early in August, food shortages and malnutrition laid waste once-thriving towns.

Thousands of families wandered, begging for food, still reeling from the deprivations of the Napoleonic Wars. Not fully understanding the cause of their plight, the hungry demonstrated and rioted in cities and towns, looting and burning, breaking into bakeries, and carrying flags reading, “Bread or Blood.” The food riots of 1816 and 1817 marked the highest levels of violence since the French Revolution.

As if that were not enough, between 1816-1819, typhus epidemics swept across parts of Europe. More than 65,000 victims died. The people began to call 1816 “The Year Without Summer.” Its effects were deep and dark, and lasted beyond the winter.

That same December, Pastor Josef sat down at his study desk to write his Christmas sermon. As he did so, he penned a little poem of three stanzas, pouring out his prayer to God in the form of a lullaby. He longed for his people to know peace in the midst of their suffering. In German, the poem is called “Stille Nacht,” or “Silent Night.” He anguished over their plight, but his strong faith in God was encouraging, permeating each line.

He kept his little poem in his desk and, when he followed his call to Oberndorf two years later, in 1818, the world was still recovering. He and his organist friend at the parish church, Franz Gruber (1787-1863), decided to put Josef’s lullaby to music. Franz took Josef’s words and put them to the guitar strains that we all now know by heart. Its powerful message, sung in simple common German, brought peace to the small gathering who worshiped on Christmas Eve in that tiny chapel.

Its refrain has gone on to encircle the globe, bringing people together across borders, language barriers, and religious beliefs, every year since.

This year, we too sing the Song of Peace: “Silent night, Holy night. All is calm, All is bright.” Christ the Savior is born . . . the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus, Lord at Thy birth. Sleep in heavenly peace. God dwells with us. He is our Peace.

May our lives bring glory to the Prince of Peace in the coming year.
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
Click here to hear a German version of Silent Night sung in the Chapel in Oberndorf.
Click here to listen to an Indonesian children's choir sing the Song of Peace to the world.
Posted in