By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
One of the most well-known children’s songs throughout the world is “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Somehow that song, like “Amazing Grace”, forms part of the spiritual memory banks of most adults. The vast majority of baby boomers and builders have gone as children either to Sunday School or Catechism. As a result, most adults, whether or not they currently attend church, have significant core memories connected with those early experiences.
As a teenager, I found church boring and avoided it by golfing and skiing on Sunday mornings. But as a child, I remember enjoying Sunday School and looking forward to going. I’ve always liked to sing, and one of my favorite hymns as a child was “Jesus loves me, this I know”. Even though I did not know Jesus personally, something touched me as I sang that song in Sunday School. Years later, I still feel deeply moved by this simple song.
Dr. Karl Barth was one of the most brilliant and complex intellectuals of the twentieth century. He wrote volume after massive volume on the meaning of life and faith. A reporter once asked Dr. Barth if he could summarize what he had said in all those volumes. Dr. Barth thought for a moment and then said: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
When Mao Tse Tung attempted to crush the church in China, things seemed very bleak. In 1972 however, a message leaked out which simply said: “The this I know people are well”. The Communist authorities did not understand the message. But Christians all around the world knew instantly that this referred to the world’s most famous children’s hymn. Miraculously the Chinese Church, instead of being crushed, has boomed under persecution, growing from 1.5 million believers to over 100 million.
The author of this amazing little children’s song was Anna Bartlett Warner, sister to the famous 19th century writer, Susan B. Warner. Susan’s first novel The Wide Wide World was an instant success, second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most popular 19th century novel written in North America. Anna published her own novel Dollars and Cents under the pseudonym “Amy Lothrop”. Anna and Susan collaborated together on fifteen fiction and children’s books. Neither sister ever married, so they shared a house on Constitution Island right across from the famous West Point Military Academy.
The two sisters took a great interest in the Military Academy in which their uncle Thomas Warner was a chaplain and professor. As a result, they opened their home to the cadets and held Sunday School classes. Anna outlived her sickly sister by thirty years, and continued to run a very large Sunday School throughout her life. It was her invariable custom to write for her students a fresh hymn once a month. “Jesus Loves Me” was one of those monthly West Point hymns. Anna also gave the song to her sister Susan to use in the novel Say and Seal. In Susan’s book, a Sunday School teacher sings ‘Jesus Loves Me’ to a sick pupil.
Great words without a great tune don’t get very far in the musical world. Fortunately William Batchelder Bradbury stumbled across the “Jesus Loves Me” words, and wrote the now unforgettable tune. Thirteen years earlier, Bradbury had written the tune for the “Just as I am” hymn, which everyone nowadays associates with Billy Graham Crusades. In 1862, Bradbury found the “Jesus loves me” words in a best-selling 19th-century book, in which the words were spoken as a comforting poem to a dying child, John Fox. Along with his tune, Bradbury added his own chorus “Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus Loves me…” Within months, this song raced across the hearts of children throughout North America, and eventually all the continents of the world.
Even after almost 150 years, “Jesus Loves Me” is still the No. 1 spiritual song in the hearts of children around the world. Why is this? I believe that it is because all of us deep down need to know that God loves us. When I tell unchurched people that Jesus loves them, many of them genuinely thank me. One lady said: “Great…we can use lots of love”. A man said: “Thanks…I’m going to need Him some day.” Whatever situation we are in, all of us need to know that the Lord really loves and cares for each of us.
I loved my Grandpa deeply, even though sometimes he was distant and abrasive. Grandpa claimed to be an atheist, who had no time for religion. One day I discovered to my surprise that Grandpa used to be active in a church choir, until his first wife died giving birth to her second child. Left with two children under age two, he turned bitter and dropped out of church.
When Grandpa was in his late 80’s, I was speaking with him about that painful time in his life. Initially he said that he didn’t want to talk about it, but then he started talking. First he said that God sure works in mysterious ways. Then my atheist Grandpa began to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” to my three year-old son. My son began to dance in front of Grandpa, and an amazing catharsis happened for my Grandfather. Shortly after, my ‘atheist’ grandfather began listening to hymns again. The next time I visited him, Grandpa spontaneously sang: “Up from the grave He arose!” Within two years, I took my Grandpa’s funeral, confident that Grandpa had rediscovered that Jesus loved him too.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, Rector
BSW, MDiv, DMin
-award-winning author of ‘Battle for the Soul of Canada’