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Jesus Loves Me

August 14, 2010

 

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth was the author of a thirteen-volume work entitled Church Dogmatics. Barth’s incredible intellect made his ideas difficult to understand and his writing tedious for the reader. His approach was “Let me tell you the point I intend to make. Then, let me write it in as much detail as possible. Finally, let me explain to you what I have written.” Church Dogmatics is not light reading and is not recommended unless you need a remedy for insomnia.

On a trip to the United States, Barth was invited to speak at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He was identified as a neo-orthodox theologian because his conservative theology centered on the person of Jesus Christ. As he lectured, he enjoyed his pipe. His craggy face, topped by a shock of white hair and encircled by smoke, made him look something like a snow-capped mountain peak rising above the clouds in the Swiss Alps.

As Barth waxed eloquent, a woman on the front row of the lecture hall became more and more agitated. The distinguished Southern lady, also a patron of the seminary, struggled to understand the reasoning of the Swiss professor. Finally, at the conclusion of his lecture, Barth entertained questions from the audience. The elegant lady rose to her feet and asked in a frustrated tone, “Dr. Barth, could you please summarize in simple terms what your theology means?”

Taking a long draw on his pipe, Barth thought for a moment and then responded, “Madam, I would summarize all of my theology with words my mother taught to me as a child. ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”

Like Karl Barth, many children reared in the Christian faith learn the song at their mother’s knee. Recently, at a baby dedication service, our organist and pianist played the tune as a musical transition. On impulse, I asked the congregation to join in and sing the song together. Without hymnals, young and old alike sang from memory. The blend made the children’s song sound like it had been rehearsed by a choir. It was a spontaneous musical affirmation of faith.

The words to “Jesus Loves Me” first appeared in the novel Say and Seal, written by Susan Warner and published in 1860.  In her story, she told of a Sunday school teacher visiting a dying child. Susan asked her sister Anna to write a poem for the teacher in her novel to recite to the child. With the help of her Anglican priest, David McGuire, Anna wrote the poem that became the lyrics for the song.

The tune was added in 1862 by William Bradbury. As he was reading Susan Warner’s novel, he found the words of “Jesus Loves Me,” spoken as a comforting poem to a dying child. Along with his tune, Bradbury added the chorus “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus Loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me for the Bible tells me so.” After its publication, the song became one of the most popular Christian hymns for children around the world.

The song is not only a simple summary of Christian theology and a concise affirmation of faith; these words have the power to comfort. The Christmas following the death of our twenty-seven-year-old son, Erik, his young widow, June, gave us an old home-recorded cassette tape that she found among Erik’s things. It was a tape recording I had made when we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As I recall, the tape was made when Erik was a preschooler. One snowy day, school was out and the roads were icy, so our family was at home together. We built a fire in the fireplace, played games, and sang together. During our happy family time, I made the recording as a gift for grandparents. Years later, following the death of Clare’s mother, Erik had retrieved the tape when we were clearing out his grandmother’s house.

As we listened to the tape together on the Christmas following Erik’s death, we heard his small voice asking to sing a solo. We listened, and we wept as three-year-old Erik sang on tape the words to “Jesus Loves Me.” His recorded affirmation from twenty-four years earlier washed across us like soothing salve and brought comfort and peace to our grieving spirits.

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2010
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