448) The Story Behind ‘Jesus Loves Me’

     Anna Warner was born in 1827 to a wealthy New York lawyer and his wife.  Her mother died from complications during her birth.  Anna and her sister Susan were raised by their father, who did well until he suffered severe financial losses in the Panic of 1837.  Other difficulties left the family reduced to desperation and faced with eviction from their home.   As teenagers the girls began writing to earn a little money to help out with the family debts and expenses.

     By the late 1850’s the two sisters were writing novels that were very popular in the last half of the 19th century.  Then, the novels were forgotten and for many years have been out of print and unread— except for a few stanzas of a poem in one of the books.  In 1860 Susan published a novel entitled Say and Seal which became, like many of their books, a best seller.  That book contained a poem, written by Anna, which is now familiar to Christians around the world.

     In Say and Seal two of the characters, Faith Derrick and John Linden, are greatly concerned for a very sick little boy named Johnny Fax.  Johnny’s condition becomes critical and he asks Mr. Linden, his Sunday School teacher, to take him up in his arms and comfort him.  Mr. Linden readily does so, and picking up the feverish little boy, walks slowly back and forth across the room trying to console him.  Suddenly Johnny pleads, “Sing;” and Mr. Linden sang:

Jesus loves me, this I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to Him belong,

They are weak, but He is strong.

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Jesus loves me, loves me still

Though I’m weak and very ill

From his shining throne on high

Comes to watch me where I lie.

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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.

     With this Mr. Linden sought to comfort the final moments of the dying boy.  A few hours later, little Johnny Fax went to be with the Lord, the One who loved him so much.

     The child-like faith expressed in those words were inspired by Anna’s own profound faith in God.  She, like Mr. Linden, also taught Sunday School for many years.  Her uncle, Rev. Thomas Warner, was a chaplain at the West Point Army Academy, just across the river from their long-time home on Constitution Island.  For many years Anna and Susan taught a Sunday class for the cadets at the Academy, and their long years of service were greatly appreciated.  After their deaths they were honored by being buried in the West Point Military cemetery.  They are the only two civilians in the entire cemetery.

     Not long after the book was published, the lines of the poem came to the attention of composer, William Bradbury.  In 1862 he set them to music and added the chorus:

Yes, Jesus loves me,
Yes, Jesus loves me,
Yes, Jesus loves me,
The Bible tells me so.

     Years later the second verse was changed to:

Jesus loves me—He who died
Heaven’s gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin,
Let His little child come in.

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 portrait

Anna B. Warner  (1827-1915)

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portrait

William Bradbury  (1816-1868)

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     Many stories that have grown up around this song.  One is that someone asked Karl Barth, the great theologian, to summarize the essence of the Christian faith in a few words.  He responded, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Another is that, at the height of persecution in Communist China, a Christian sent a message to a friend.  The message escaped the attention of the censors because it said simply:  “The this I know people are well.”  That phrase, the “this I know people” clearly identified the Christian community in China.  It assured the friend that the church in China was alive and well.

     In 1944, John Hersey wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled “Survival.”  This was the story, told to him by John F. Kennedy, of the rescue of Kennedy and his crew after their PT-109 boat was destroyed in the Solomon Islands.  After being stranded several days on an island, Kennedy and his men were discovered by two natives.  Through the efforts of these natives who led a rescue boat to the island, the men were saved.  Hersey concludes his dramatic account with this anecdote:  “Johnston (one of the rescued men) retired topside and sat with his arms around a couple of roly poly, mission-trained natives.  And in the fresh breeze on the way home they sang together a hymn all three happened to know:  Jesus Loves Me.

    John Kennedy (right) and his crew on the PT-109

     To Hersey’s readers, in the midst of World War II, these well-known words with their simple expression of faith had a special meaning.  This familiar hymn, carried all over the world by nineteenth century missionaries, has long been a part of the Christian education of many children.  The simple words and lilting tune are easily learned and thus make it a great favorite in Sunday school classes for young children.  No doubt, it was this same simplicity that made it so popular with the missionaries for, apparently, once learned, it is never forgotten.  Therefore, it is not so surprising that it should pop up as a common bond between the American sailors and the Solomon Island natives.

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Ephesians 3:17b-18  —  I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.

Romans 8:38-39  —  I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 John 3:16  —  This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. 

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

–Ancient ‘Jesus Prayer’