The year was 1860. The nation was on the brink of Civil War. Two sisters, Anna and Susan Warner, lived with their father next door to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Everyone knew what was coming, but no one knew what would happen.
During those years of uncertainty, Anna and Susan Warner made a name for themselves as writers of popular religious and children’s novels. In 1860, they collaborated on a novel called Say and Seal. The book became a national best seller, but as with many literary works which were popular at the time, it has been all but forgotten today.
The novel would have been completely forgotten if not for a poem hidden within its pages. At one point, the protagonist, Mr. Linden, stood beside the bed of a dying boy. No one could comfort the distraught child. Mr. Linden recited a poem which Anna had composed specifically for the book:
Jesus loves me—this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong –
They are weak but he is strong.
Jesus loves me—loves me still,
Though I’m very weak and ill;
From his shining throne on high,
Comes to watch me where I lie.
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.
The poem comforted the dying boy. During the terrifying and violent years of the Civil War, Anna Warner’s words gave comfort to countless other children and adults.
In 1862, William Batchelder Bradbury, who had previously composed the music to a number of other popular hymns, including Just As I Am, put the poem to music, adding one verse and a refrain:
Jesus loves me—He who died,
Heaven’s gates to open wide,
He will wash away my sin,
Let his little child come in.
Yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me;
Yes, Jesus loves me – the Bible tells me so.
For over 150 years, Jesus Loves Me has been the first learned and most beloved hymn for countless children throughout the world. In my work with the aged at nursing homes, it is also a hymn they never forget. Even after they can no longer remember their children or their own name, they can still remember and sing, “Jesus loves me – this I know.”
So often as a pastor I forget the tremendous power and comfort of the simple gospel message: Jesus loves me – this I know for the Bible tells me so. At times I fail to cling to the simple truth that Jesus loves me – he who died, heaven’s gates to open wide.
In our complicated world torn apart by turmoil, may we never outgrow or stop singing the simple and powerful message that, yes, Jesus loves me. He will stay close beside me all the way. He has washed away my sin. Heaven’s gates are open wide.
How do I know? The Bible tells me so.