History of Hymns: 'Jesus Loves Me'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Jesus Loves Me”
by Anna B. Warner
The United Methodist Hymnal, 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 a child in Christian homes. Hymnologist William J. Reynolds recounts its story:
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. (Reynolds, 1976, p. 124)
It first appeared in Golden Shower of S[unday] S[chool] Melodies (1862), edited by Northeastern Baptist church musician William Bradbury (1816–1868). Reynolds claims that the tune name CHINA was the result of reports by missionaries who claimed over time that this was a favorite tune by Chinese children (Reynolds, 1976, p. 124).
Bradbury composed a childlike pentatonic melody and added a refrain with text drawn from the first lines. Without Bradbury’s tune, the text may have remained buried in the novel. A facsimile of the hymn in The New Golden Shower (New York, 1866), published a few years after the first version, follows:
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. (Warner, 1860, pp. 115–116)
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. They willed their home, called Good Crag, to the Academy, and it was made into a national shrine where both sisters were buried with military honors in recognition for the spiritual guidance they offered to young military officers (Osbeck, 1982, p, 136).
Anna also wrote novels under the pseudonym Amy Lothrop, and she 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 substitute 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 African American Church of God in Christ (COGIC) hymnal, Yes, Lord! (Memphis, 1982) substituted the following unattributed stanza of commitment for Warner’s final two, echoing Psalm 51:10 And John 3:16:
Jesus, take this heart of mine,
Make it pure and wholly Thine;
On the cross You died for me,
I will try to live for Thee.
Canadian Anglican priest David Rutherford McGuire (1929–1971) revised the text for The Hymn Book (1971) of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada. Compare McGuire’s three stanzas with stanzas 1, 2, and 4 of the original:
Jesus loves me, this I know,
and the Bible tells me so;
little ones to him belong,
in his love we shall be strong.
Jesus loves me, this I know,
as he loved so long ago,
taking children on his knee,
saying, “Let them come to me.”
Jesus loves me still today,
walking with me on my way,
waiting as a friend to give
light and love to all who live.
In McGuire’s stanza 1, he brings back the theme of “love” in the final line and replaces the Victorian language that pictured children as “weak.” In stanza 2, McGuire alludes to Jesus’ encounter with the children (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17) and his acceptance of them rather than on their sinful nature. In the final stanza, McGuire views Jesus as a companion and friend on the journey in this life rather than focusing on the Victorian concern for the death of children. The United Methodist Hymnal chose to substitute McGuire’s stanzas 2 and 3 for Warner’s original verse. Most recent hymnals take a similar approach in the modification of the stanzas, although some publish Warner’s poem almost verbatim.
Some emphasize the hymn to support biblical authority; that is, “for the Bible tells me so.” Carl Daw, Jr. offers helpful theological commentary on the basic assumptions of the hymn text:
Although the assurance of Christ’s love is indeed appropriate for one of the first songs a child is likely to learn, the second line of the first stanza is somewhat problematic because it syntactically elevates the authority of the Bible over the experience of that love. [As a result, note McGuire’s modification of “for the Bible tells me so” to “and the Bible tells me so.”] The reiteration of biblical authority in the refrain is slightly less troubling because no causal connection is asserted but its terminal placement gives it decided emphasis (Daw, 2016, p. 191).
Lutheran minister Gregory Just Wismar likewise suggests that the focus is on love rather than on biblical authority:
God has shown His love through Jesus Christ, a love that directs and shapes the lives of His people. Jesus says, “As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you,” and then He takes it one step further by directing, “Abide in My love” (John 15:9). “Jesus loves me” assures singers of all ages that the Bible tells us of Jesus’ love, the love that roots and grounds God’s people (Ephesians 3:17) and supports and sustains them in life and in death with childlike faith and abiding hope (Herl, et al, 2019, p. 661).
Several hymnals include the hymn in a second language, especially this anonymous Spanish translation. Note that there is no reference to weakness, but instead to friendship:
Cristo me ama, bien lo sé,
su palabra me hace ver
que los niños son de Aquel
que es nuestro Amigo fiel.
(Jesus loves me, I know it well,
his word makes me see
that children are his [and]
that he is our faithful friend.)
Perkins School of Theology church music professor 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 United Methodist Hymnal editor, 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” (Young, 1993, p. 443). In addition to Spanish, Deschner added Cherokee, German, and transliterated Japanese.
Of the many stories about this hymn, one of the most memorable came from the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). Numerous sources attest that they heard Barth cite the first stanza of the hymn in response to a question posed to him at the close of a series of lectures near the end of his life at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Other accounts say that it took place at Union Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. A weary Barth agreed to respond to questions at the conclusion of the lectures. The story has been retold countless times as a sermon illustration. The seminary president posed one, “Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?” Others recall that the question was, “How would you summarize your theology in a single sentence?” Accounts indicate some quiet drama followed while the great scholar meditated. Whichever question was asked, the answer was “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!” Regardless of the possible apocryphal nature of the facts, the truth of the hymn remains.
Musicians perform the hymn in an incredible range of vocal styles. A sampling follows:
- African American Gospel (Barrett Sisters): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aQQRzN0ft8
- Bluegrass (Joey+Rory): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jABcYKhDrI&t=40s
- Country (Johnny Cash): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JxCgo6iPrg&t=7s
- Pop (Whitney Houston): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEmSjyR4iQo&t=180s
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
Chris Fenner, “Jesus loves me,” Hymnology Archive (July 12, 2018), https://hymnologyarchive.squarespace.com/jesus-loves-me (accessed March 25, 2021).
Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske, and Jon D. Vieker, Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns, Vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019).
Roger E. Olson, “Did Karl Barth Really Say, ‘Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. . . .?’” Patheos (January 24, 2013), https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/01/did-karl-barth-really-say-jesus-loves-me-this-i-know/ (accessed March 25, 2021).
Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1982).
William B. Reynolds, Companion to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976).
Susan Warner, Say and Seal (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1860), https://archive.org/details/sayseal02warn/page/114/mode/2up? (accessed March 25, 2021).
J. Richard Watson, “Jesus loves me! This I know,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jesus-loves-me!-this-i-know. (accessed March 25, 2021).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.