Here’s the Incredible True Story of the Priest Who Wrote Silent Night

Sara and Justin Kraft

Here’s the Incredible True Story of the Priest Who Wrote Silent Night

Many have heard of perhaps the most famous singing of “Silent Night” at Christmas in 1914.  Only five months into World War I, over a million soldiers had already died or been wounded.  On December 24, 1914, the trenches went silent as soldiers placed small Christmas trees on the upper edge of their trenches.  On both sides of the trenches, the soldiers put down their rifles and sang Christmas songs in their native languages. “Silent Night” was one of these songs sung in multiple languages. This famous Christmas truce is immortalized in the film Joyeux Noel, a film I recommend this Christmas season (although be prepared for the depictions of war). 

This beloved Christmas song has been traveling the world in 300 languages and dialects for over two hundred years (first performed in 1818).  However, have you heard of the incredible story of Father Joseph Mohr, the priest who wrote “Silent Night?”

Lessons from the life of Father Mohr

We cannot let our past define us: Father Mohr was born in Salzburg in December, 1792. His mother, Anna Schoiber, was not married to his father, Franz Mohr. Children born out of wedlock at this time were considered illegitimate. Although, they could receive their father’s last name (Mohr) they were outcasts. His Godfather was Joseph Wohlmut, Salzburg’s final executioner who performed the duty as an act of charity in an effort to improve his reputation. Even so, it was a substitute that actually performed the duty on the day of baptism. 

As one would expect, his mother Anna had a difficult time providing for the family. Thus Joseph grew up poor. Still, Joseph demonstrated that he was an intelligent and talented young boy, winning the support of choir vicar Johann Nepomuk Hiernle who saw to it that he received an education. 

At 19 years of age, Joseph decided he wanted to become a priest. Again, his past would have to be overcome as children born out of wedlock needed special permission to enter seminary. At 23, again with special permission due to his age being less than 25, he was ordained. 

We should apply our talents to the task in front of us: Father Mohr was faithful to his duties as a priest, but largely unrenowned.  His now famous poem was likely inspired by a painting of the Madonna and Child which resides in church called “Zu unserer Lieben Frau” (To our beloved woman) in Mariapfarr where he was an assistant priest. Due to his health, he was soon moved to a milder climate in Oberndorf. In his new parish, he was well liked, a trait which drew some ire of his superior. Still he did win some recognition and became known for his joyful singing. It was while he was here in Obendorf that Silent Night was first performed. While the performance was well received, Father Mohr continued to serve as an assistant priest in a variety of locations until 1827.  

The culmination of his life work is actually not closely tied to Silent Night. Rather, it is best summed by his success as a social reformer in Wagrain where he led a school reform movement to provide education to poor children. He additionally created a home for the poor elderly. In fact, it seems he identified with the poor. Born poor, he died poor leaving only a guitar as his estate. 

How Silent Night became a Christmas Classic

In 1816, Father Joseph Mohr, living in Austria, composed a poem in German. During this time, Europe was in a state of transitions, including political upheavals, wars, and economic hardships.   Additionally, crop failures led to even more difficulties. Father Mohr grew up in a time where French troops, occupations, and violent crimes were common place. His family struggled to feed him. 

During Christmas of 1818, Father Mohr asked his friend and organist Franz Xaver Gruber for a melody for the poem.  In just a few hours, Gruber wrote the melody for the song. Following Christmas Mass at Father Mohr’s parish, the song “Silent Night” was sung by the two men with accompaniment by Father Mohr on the guitar because the church organ was broken.

When organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived to fix the organ, Gruber tested the instrument by playing “Silent Night.”  Mauracher was impressed by the song and took copies of the music back to his village where two families of singers, the Rainers and Strassers, put the song into their Christmas lineup.  The Strassers sang the song across Europe, including for King Frederick IV of Prussia, who wanted his Cathedral to sing it yearly for Christmas. The Rainers brought the song to the United States.

On December 4, 1848, Father Mohr died of lung problems without ever knowing the success his Christmas song would have throughout the world.

In 1863, the song was translated into English.  


The original poem (translated into English) is:

 “Silent night! Holy night!

 All are sleeping, alone and awake

 Only the intimate holy pair,

 Lovely boy with curly hair,

 Sleep in heavenly peace!

 Sleep in heavenly peace!


Silent night! Holy night!

 Son of God, O how he laughs

 Love from your divine mouth,

 Then it hits us – the hour of salvation.

Jesus at your birth!

Jesus at your birth!

Silent night! Holy night!

 Which brought salvation to the world,

 From Heaven’s golden heights,

 Mercy’s abundance was made visible to us:

 Jesus in human form,

 Jesus in human form.


Silent night! Holy night!

 Where on this day all power

 of fatherly love poured forth

 And like a brother lovingly embraced

 Jesus the peoples of the world,

 Jesus the peoples of the world.


Silent night! Holy night!

 Already long ago planned for us,

 When the Lord frees from wrath

 Since the beginning of ancient times

 A salvation promised for the whole world.

 A salvation promised for the whole world.


Silent night! Holy night!

 To shepherds it was first made known

 By the angel, Alleluia;

 Sounding forth loudly far and near:

 Jesus the Savior is here!

 Jesus the Savior is here!”