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HISTORY OF HYMNS: ‘Jesus Loves Me’ written for passage in 1860 novel C. Michael Hawn, Feb 22, 2012
IMAGE COURTESY BACKTOCLASSICS.COM
“Christ Blessing the Children,” a 1652 painting by Dutch artist Nicolaes Maes.
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“Jesus Loves Me” Anna B. Warner UM Hymnal, No. 191
Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; They are weak, but he is strong.
This may be the first hymn learned by many Christians. For sure, this is a hymn that most Christians learned as a child.
Hymnologist William J. Reynolds (1920-2009) recounted the story of “Jesus Loves Me”: “Anna B. Warner’s hymn was included in her sister’s novel, Say and Seal, 1860. At one point in the story a sick little boy, Johnny Fax, is comforted by his Sunday school teacher, John Linden. He rocks the child in his arms, and when Johnny asks him to sing, he begins a new song, and Anna B. Warner provides the four stanzas of this hymn. It first appeared in Golden Shower, 1862.”
In addition to the first stanza above, the remaining original stanzas are as follows:
Jesus loves me! He who died Heaven’s gates to open wide. He will wash away my sin, Let his little child come in.
Jesus loves me! Loves me still, Though I’m very weak and ill; From his shining throne on high Comes to watch me where I lie.
Jesus loves me! He will stay Close beside me all the way. Then his little child will take Up to heaven for his dear sake.
Anna Bartlett Warner (1820-1915) was the younger sister of the author of Say and Seal, Susan Bogert Warner (1819-1885). Both were well-educated women who lived in New York along the Hudson River in a secluded area near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. For some years they taught Sunday school classes for the cadets.
According to hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck, “Their home, Good Crag, was willed to the Academy and made into a national shrine. Both sisters were buried with military honors in recognition of their spiritual contributions to the lives of the young military officers.”
Anna also wrote novels under the pseudonym Amy Lothrop and authored two collections of hymns, Hymns of the Church Militant (1858) and Wayfaring Hymns, Original and Translated (1869). Though Susan was the more famous literary personality during her lifetime, it is Anna’s hymn that has become the most famous work written by one of the two sisters.
Though the text makes sense in the context of the original story, many have found it necessary to add stanzas that they felt were more suitable for wider use. The hymn has been adapted and translated probably more than any other hymn in the English language. For example, one can find the text adapted by Japanese Buddhists: “Buddha loves me, this I know, for Amida tells me so. . . . .” Other adaptations are more moralistic, attempting to guide children’s behavior:
Jesus loves me when I’m good, When I do the things I should, Jesus loves me when I’m bad, Though it makes him very sad.
The final two stanzas in the UM Hymnal are by Canadian Anglican priest David Rutherford McGuire (1929-1971).
Perkins School of Theology church music professor, the Rev. Roger Deschner (1927-1991), a member of the Hymnal Revision Committee, was charged with finding additional translations and phonetic transcriptions of the first stanza for the hymnal because, in the words of UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton R. Young, “the . . . Committee determined that since the central theme of this hymn was the love of Jesus transcending boundaries of race, language, and place, the hymn would appear in several languages.”
Of the many famous stories about this hymn, one of the most memorable came from the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth. Popular evangelist, teacher and preacher Tony Campolo cites the context: “. . . Karl Barth delivered one of the closing lectures of his life at the University of Chicago Divinity School. At the end of the lecture, the president of the seminary told the audience that Dr. Barth was not well and was very tired, and though he thought Dr. Barth would like to open for questions, he probably could not handle the strain. Then he said, ‘Therefore, I'll ask just one question on behalf of all of us.’ He turned to Barth and asked, ‘Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?’
“This was a remarkable question to ask a man who had written tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put on paper. The students sat with pads and pencils ready. They wanted to jot down the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time.
“Karl Barth closed his eyes and thought for a while. Then he smiled, opened his eyes, and said to the young seminarians, ‘The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!’”
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.