As we celebrate Valentine’s Day this week, a holiday known for celebrating love, I feel it is important to tell the story about the love of Jesus. However, perhaps not the story you expect me to tell. Today I would like to tell you the story of the famous song so many of us have sung throughout the years, “Jesus Loves Me.” Perhaps the most famous children’s song ever written. However, this song did not start out as a song at all, it began life as part of a bestselling novel in the 1860’s. Norma Lee Liles writes of the story behind the beautiful song.
Anna Warner was a well-known author in her day who was well aware of the war between the states. She lived with her father and sister on Constitution Island practically next door to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Anna realized that if the southern states made good on their threat to withdraw from the Union many of the boys she knew from her Sunday School class would soon be in war. With an urgency brought about by a nation on the brink of dividing, sharing Christ’s love became her mission in life.
Besides her teaching, the forty-year-old Anna also wrote. With the help of her sister Susan, she had written several novels, using the pseudonym Amy Lothrop. In 1860 the sisters’ Say and Seal became the country’s best-selling work of fiction. Written for the masses and the moment, not fueled by timeless struggles or epic writing, the book would quickly pass from the public’s fancy, lost with thousands of other period pieces of the time. Yet, thanks to one very special scene on but a single page, the essence of the book and of Anna’s faith would live for decades after Say and Seal and Anna herself had been forgotten.
In one chapter a child lay dying. Nothing could be done to ease his pain or give him a second chance at life. As his ultimate fate grew nearer, the novel’s focal character, Mr. Linden, attempted to comfort the small boy.
Looking into the child’s eyes, he slowly recited a poem that began, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
The words of the poem made the boy’s last moments of life much easier. These simple lines also moved thousands of readers to tears. Hauntingly beautiful, composed straight from Anna’s faithful heart, “Jesus Loves Me” quickly sprang out of her book’s pages and became one of the most beloved poems of the era. No one can even begin to calculate how many times it was said on the battlefield, in the homes of children whose fathers were engaged in the Civil War, from pulpits and in Sunday school classes, and even at the White House itself. Ringing so clear and true, Anna’s sixteen short sentences had touched the hearts of millions with verses meant only to calm the soul of a dying fictional character.
William Bradbury was one of the many readers who fell in love with this poem. He began publishing his songs during the Civil War, hymns many of you may be familiar with in “He leadeth me” and “on Christ the Solid Rock I stand.’ William fell in love with this poem “Jesus loves me “and added a melody when writing simple musical notes for song.
Almost a hundred and forty years after this song was first published, few know of the writings of Anna Warner or recognize the name of William Bradbury. But even though the writer and the composer have been forgotten, everyone knows their song. Children and adults of all races and even millions outside the Christian faith can sing “Jesus Loves Me.” How many millions have clung to this message on lonely nights or rocked babies to sleep while singing this song is unknown. But what can be most assuredly stated is that “Jesus Loves Me” is the foundation on which many children not only first come to know Christian music but also come to know the love and sacrifice of the Lord who inspired it. And this message is what keeps them singing the gospel throughout their lives.
As I read the origin story of this song, I couldn’t help but share this with you the week of the one holiday we celebrate love. So often in our English language we forget the power of that simple but complex word, Love. I often say “I love pizza” in the same breath as “I love my wife.” However, the love I have for my wife means so much more than the love I have for pizza. In the same sense, God’s love for you and I don’t compare to any love we have ever experienced. It is from this love that we have hope, we have tomorrow to look forward to, and a savior who gave his life for you and I. So, let us sing of this love as we continue to sing and live out that wonderful truth, “Jesus loves me.”