The very first Christian song most children learn is “Jesus Loves Me.” If there were a best-seller hit list among the preschoolers, this very simple but precious song would have to be at the top of the charts. Yet few people know that “Jesus Loves Me” began life not as a song but as a part of one of 1860’s best-selling novels.
Anna Warner was well aware of the coming of the war between the states. She lived with her father and sister on Constitution Island. Their home was practically next door to the United States Military Academy at West Point, and from her front porch she constantly heard the rumors of war. Yet even in the face of uncertain times, every Sunday Anna taught Bible classes to the cadets. She realized that if the southern states made good on their threat to withdraw from the Union many of the boys she knew could be killed or wounded in the war that would follow. While it broke her heart to consider the dismal fate for those too young to have experienced the many blessings of life, she also fully comprehended the importance of leading each of them to Jesus now. 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 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.
One of the scores of readers who memorized the poem was William Bradbury. A
teacher of voice and organ, in 1854 Bradbury had formed a piano company with
Ferdinand Lighte and Henry Newton. Besides heading up his business, the
noted musician also continued a practice of setting his faith to music by
composing his own songs. By the beginning of the Civil War, Bradbury had
built his own music company to publish and distribute his works. It was
during the time when his music business was taking off that he first read
and fell in love with “Jesus Loves Me.”
Although an accomplished composer of what many think of as high-church
music–he had already lent his talents to such hymns as “Sweet Hour of
Prayer, …. He Leadeth Me,” and “On Christ the Solid Rock I
Stand”–Bradbury was moved in a much different fashion when he decided to
add a melody to Anna Warner’s poem. A lover of children’s voices, as well as
a proponent of music education in both school and church, Bradbury allowed
the child in his own heart to spring forth when writing the simple musical
notes for “Jesus Loves Me.” Then, to fully complete the work, he added the
Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me, The Bible
tells me so.
The marriage of Waner’s words and Bradbury’s music was one of the most
beautiful gospel efforts of all time. Yet the song “Jesus Loves Me” might
have been as quickly forgotten as the novel Say and Seal if Bradbury’s music
company hadn’t published it. Through the publisher’s established
distribution network, the new children’s song quickly worked its way across
the North and South. In the face of the most horrible fighting this nation
had ever known, both sides were singing about a Savior who died, yet had
risen and still watched over everyone with equal love and compassion. It was
an ironic message for a very ironic time.
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.
Norma Lee Liles
Lyrics for “Jesus Loves Me” Song
“Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak, but He is strong.
“Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.
“Jesus loves me! This I know,
As He loved so long ago,
Taking children on His knee,
Saying, ‘Let them come to Me.’
“Jesus loves me still today,
Walking with me on my way,
Wanting as a friend to give
Light and love to all who live.
“Jesus loves me! He who died
Heaven’s gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin,
Let His little child come in.
“Jesus loves me! He will stay
Close beside me all the way;
Thou hast bled and died for me,
I will henceforth live for Thee.