History of Hymns: “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus”
By William H. Parker
“Tell Me the Stories of Jesus,”
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 277
Tell me the stories of Jesus
I love to hear;
Things I would ask him to tell me
If he were here:
Scenes by the wayside,
Tales of the sea,
Stories of Jesus,
Tell them to me.
The Sunday School movement of the 19th and 20th centuries provided the inspiration for many hymns. William Henry Parker (1845-1929) was the head of an insurance company and a devoted member of Chelsea Street Baptist Church, Nottingham, England, where he was active in Sunday School work. United Methodist Hymnal editor, Carlton Young notes that most of Parker’s hymns were written for Sunday School anniversaries. Fifteen of these hymns were published in the Sunday School Hymnary, 1905.
Parker wrote this hymn c. 1885 at the request of the children of his Sunday School class, “Teacher, tell us another story.” The original six stanzas were printed on a hymn sheet.
This hymn first appeared among Methodists in the 1935 Methodist Hymnal under the heading “Hymns for Children.” Perhaps the most endearing stanza is the second recalling the children as they gathered with Jesus:
First let me hear how the children
Stood round his knee,
And I shall fancy his blessing
Resting on me;
Words full of kindness,
Deeds full of grace,
All in the lovelight
Of Jesus' face.
The story is so significant that it appears in all the synoptic gospels: Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16-17. The somewhat sentimental language of this stanza belies an earlier passage in Matthew that sheds a different light on the importance of Jesus’ encounter with the children. In Matthew 18:1-6, a child becomes a metaphor for the quality of the life we need to lead to attain heaven: “Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, the metaphor gathers intensity as the passage continues: “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (KJV) Thus, the encounter of Jesus and the children in the gospel accounts is not intended to be an example Jesus’ passing interest in children, reminiscent of a politician’s obligatory kiss on a child’s forehead. This is a serious encounter that echoes the peaceable kingdom in Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
The original fourth stanza recalling Christ’s miracle of stilling the tempest has been omitted from many hymnals, even though it is alluded to in the opening stanza – “tales of the sea”:
Tell me, in accents of wonder,
How rolled the sea,
Tossing the boat in a tempest
And how the Master,
Ready and kind,
Chided the billows,
And hushed the wind.
Though the biblical truths are quite valid, the original fifth stanza is perhaps the most poetically saccharine of all:
Tell how the sparrow that twitters
On yonder tree,
And the sweet meadow-side lily
May speak to me—
Give me their message,
For I would hear
How Jesus taught us
Our Father’s care.
This stanza alludes in the first line to Matthew 10:29-31, concluding with, “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” The third line draws upon Matthew 6:28-29: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (KJV)
The original final stanza recalling Christ’s passion may have been omitted because the subject was not felt appropriate for a child’s sensibilities:
Show me that scene in the garden,
Of bitter pain;
And of the cross where my Savior
For me was slain:
Sad ones or bright ones,
So that they be
Stories of Jesus,
Tell them to me.
Though published in a more complete form in British hymnals, the final stanza in many hymnals published in the United States focusing on Christ’s triumphal entry, Palm Sunday, is actually the third in the original poem:
Into the city I’d follow
The children’s band,
Waving a branch of the palm tree
High in my hand;
One of his heralds,
Yes, I would sing
“ Jesus is King!”
Since the original poem ends with Christ’s death on the cross, two authors added an alternative closing stanza on Christ’s resurrection: “Tell me with joy of his rising” by Ruth Fagg, author of children’s books, and “Gladly I’d hear of his rising” by Hugh Martin, a Baptist pastor and author.
Rather than following through on the author’s original intent, hymnal editors in the United States have reduced the hymn from one about Christ’s life and ministry to a hymn about how Jesus encounters children – specifically in the synoptic passages cited above and in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Based on the first stanza that includes “tales of the sea,” the hymn lacks poetic integrity when that stanza is excised.
The tune by Frederick A. Challinor (1866-1952), who received a Doctor of Music from the Royal College of Music, was written for a competition sponsored by London’s, National Sunday school Union. Its lilting meter is ideal for a ballad. For those in the United States, it has the same feel as C. Austin Miles’ GARDEN (1913), composed for his text, “I come to the garden alone.” While serving its purpose well over 100 years ago, this musical style perhaps dates the hymn for some, and even trivializes the text for others.
For an alternative approach to a hymn on the life of Christ written for children, see Louis F. Benson’s “O sing a song of Bethlehem” (The UM Hymnal, No 179), http://www.gbod.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-sing-a-song-of-bethlehem. Benson was the American counterpart to Parker in many ways, living at almost the exact same time (1855-1930). While his language is quite accessible to children, Benson was more in the classical hymn tradition.
From a broader perspective, religious educators have understood for many years the significance of singing in the faith development of children. Our hymnal contains many hymns that, though composed originally for children’s education, continue to speak to adults because of the directness and simplicity of their poetry. We never outgrow our need to hear and sing “another story” from Christ, our teacher.