Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Jesus Loves the Little Children'

History of Hymns: 'Jesus Loves the Little Children'

By C. Michael Hawn

Woolston ch
C. Herbert Woolston

"Jesus Loves the Little Children"
by C. Herbert Woolston
Songs of Zion, No. 26

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world;
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

A pastor, gospel songwriter, and sleight-of-hand magician, Clarence Herbert Woolston (1856–1927) claimed that he had “addressed many more than 1,000,000 children” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1927, p. 4). This statement provides a clue to his hymnic legacy.


The son of Isaiah S. and Sarah B. Woolston, Herbert attended public schools in Camden, New Jersey, and the South Jersey Institute at Bridgeton. He entered the ministry under the influence of evangelist H.G. DeWitt in 1873, attending Crozier Theological Seminary (Upland, Pennsylvania) from 1877–79, an institution devoted to training American Baptist ministers. Following his ordination in 1880, Woolston served New Jersey Baptist congregations at South River (1880–85) and Lambertville (1885–87). He concluded his ministry with a forty-year pastorate at East Baptist Church, Philadelphia (1887–1927) (Eskew, 1992, p. 493). Under his leadership, “the congregation grew from 176 members to more than 1,000” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1927, p. 4). At the celebration of fifty years of ministry (March 20, 1923), his congregation gave him $2,000 for a European trip with his friend, Homer A. Rodeheaver. Rodeheaver was also the publisher of his most famous hymn.

Woolston married Agnes Claire Worrall (1859–1941). According to his obituary, he was “stricken with motor aphasia a month after his congregation helped him celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his pastorate at the church on the last Washington’s Birthday [February 11]." He died not long after his seventy-first birthday (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1927, p. 4).

C. Herbert Woolston authored Seeing Truth: A Book of Object Lessons with Magical and Mechanical Effects (Chicago and Philadelphia, 1910). The full citation provides information about the author: “by Rev. C. Herbert Woolston, D.D., The Object Teacher, Pastor of the East Baptist Church, Philadelphia, Pa., Founder of the Penny Concert Movement in America and Gospel Illustrator for the Common People.” The author dedicates the book “To the One Hundred Thousand Little Children who have both heard and seen these Object Lessons” (italics in original). Other books include Penny Object Lessons (with Homer A. Rodeheaver and Frank B. Lane; Chicago and Philadelphia, 1916), and The Bible Object Book: A Book of Object Lessons Which Are Different, Written in Plain English and in Common Words (Philadelphia, 1926).

Woolston’s obituary notes that he was known as “a pastor-magician because of his use of sleight-of-hand to demonstrate features of his sermons with which he wished particularly to impress his congregation” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1927, p. 4).

The Hymn Text

Woolston’s extensive ministry to children as a magician and author undoubtedly led to the composition of this text. Most children connected to Christian churches in the United States between 1930 and 2000 have likely learned the refrain of the original hymn either in Sunday (Church) School, a children’s choir, or a domestic setting:

Woolston’s three-stanza hymn was initially published in The Gospel Message, No. 3 (Philadelphia, 1913). Only the refrain of which remains in common use. Stanza 1 enlarges the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:14, “Let the children come to me”:

Jesus calls the children dear,
‘Come to me and never fear,
For I love the little children of the world.
I will take you by the hand,
Lead you to the better land
For I love the little children of the world.

Stanza two recalls the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd who protects his sheep found in John 10:11, based on Psalm 23:

Jesus is the Shepherd true,
And he'll always stand by you,
For he loves the little children of the world.
He's a Saviour great and strong,
And he'll shield you from the wrong,
For he loves the little children of the world.

The original printing of stanza three included a misprint at the end of the first line (see https://hymnary.org/hymn/GM31913/page/95). The image of a soldier may be a reference to the original Civil War text to this tune by northeastern gospel song composer and publisher George F. Root (1820–1895):

I am coming Lord to the[e],
And thy soldier I will be,
For he loves the little children of the world.
And his cross I'll always bear,
And for him I'll do and dare,
For he loves the little children of the world.

Within a few years of the hymn’s publication, editors retained only the refrain in collections.

The refrain has been subject to numerous formal and informal textual modifications. Sing Joyfully (Carol Stream, Illinois, 1989) added a second stanza to the refrain that is virtually identical to the original except for the substitution of the words “died for all the children” for “loves the little children.” The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, 1991) substitutes the following phrase for the traditional list of skin colors and introduces the theological concept of “grace”: “Ev’ry color, ev’ry race, all are covered by His grace” (© 1991 Broadman Press). Though published primarily in evangelical and African American hymnals in the United States, the song remains a part of children's repertoire even in denominations that do not include it in their collections. Numerous websites offer unofficial modifications and additional stanzas intended to broaden the song's ethnic inclusion, e.g., “Red, brown, yellow, black and white,” or enhance its theological message. Some change the description from skin pigmentation to body type—“Fat and skinny, short and tall, /Jesus loves them one and all”—or substitute a humorous parody: “Pink and purple, green and blue, / Jesus loves the Martians, too.”

The Music

The tune, sometimes called CHILDREN, was the popular Union Civil War song, “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” (Chicago, 1864) by gospel song composer George F. Root. Root’s original refrain follows:

Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! The boys are marching,
Cheer up, comrades they will come,
And beneath the starry flag, we shall breathe the air again,
Of the free land in our own beloved home.

Though Woolston's reason for this choice of tune is not apparent, the Old Main Building of Crozier Theological Seminary, where he attended from 1877–1879, served as a hospital for Union Soldiers during the Civil War. Woolston's presence at Crozier only a little more than a decade after the conclusion of the War would, undoubtedly, would have made him aware of the Seminary's role during that conflict. Root's text and tune were likely a well-known part of his formational years. Another possibility was that this was a tune suggested by his friend Homer A. Rodeheaver (1880–1955), owner of the Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Co. Rodeheaver, purchased the Hall-Mack Company in 1910, three years before The Gospel Message, No. 3 was published, and was known for his promotional skills.


The refrain of Woolston’s original children’s hymn probably holds a place in the United States second only to “Jesus loves me! This I know” (1859) by Anna Bartlett Warner (1827–1915) with music by William Batchelder Bradbury (1816–1868). With its worldwide perspective, Woolston's text is arguably the American counterpoint to Warner's verse written in the first-person singular. Both tunes were composed by prominent nineteenth-century American gospel song composers. Both have been translated numerous times in the languages of the inhabitable continents.


The worldwide perspective of this refrain—“little children of the world”—may be a byproduct of the fervor of the “foreign” missions movement during the turn of the twentieth century by Baptists and other ecclesial bodies. With appreciation for the author’s intent to be inclusive at that time, for many today, viewing the world’s diversity through skin pigmentation raises questions. The church has often focused on the salvation of those overseas while suffering myopia when recognizing the needs and injustice experienced by our neighbors closest to us. At the same time this song about God's love for the world’s children was growing in popularity, black children in the Jim Crow South suffered poverty and discrimination. “Red” Native American children were removed from their families and placed in boarding schools. “Yellow” Asian American children and their families experienced discrimination and, later, were interred and relocated into camps in the western United States. Unmentioned “brown” families from Mexico were often farm laborers in the southwest, though an essential part of the food distribution for a growing country, worked for minimal pay and under inhuman conditions. We always run the danger of reaching out to those far away at the expense of those closest to us. The songs that we teach our children shape their perspective of God, our response to God, and our love of neighbor. Even the simplest of songs may carry a profound message.


Harry Eskew, “Jesus loves the little children,” Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Jere V. Adams (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), pp. 170–171.

______, “Woolston, Clarence Herbert,” Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Jere V. Adams (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), p. 493.

C. Herbert Woolston, Seeing Truth: A Book of Object Lessons with Magical and Mechanical Effects (Philadelphia and Chicago: Praise Publishing Co., 1910): https://www.google.com/books/e... (accessed July 24, 2021).

“Rev. Dr. Woolston Dies,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (21 May 1927), https://www.newspapers.com/clip/8537251/rev-dr-c-herbert-woolston/ (accessed July 24, 2021).

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.

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