Today’s hymn has a unique history – it first appeared in a novel as a poem meant to comfort a dying child, and not written specifically as a hymn. The poem was part of a Susan Warner (pseudonym Elizabeth Wetherell) novel entitled Say and Seal, published in 1860. Her sister, Anna Bartlett Warner, had written the four-stanza poem:
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,–he who died
Heaven’s gates to open wide;
He will wash away my sin,
Let his little child come in.
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.
In 1861, William Batchelder Bradbury, well-known composer of children’s Sunday School music and other hymns, set the poem to music and added the chorus/refrain:
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.
Anna Bartlett Warner was born on August 31, 1824 (some records indicate 1827) to parents Henry Whiting and Anna Marsh (Bartlett) Warner. Her parents were from prominent families, both descendants of Puritans and Pilgrims. Henry was a successful New York City lawyer and real estate speculator. The Warner’s oldest daughter, Susan, was born in 1819.
Anna Marsh Warner died in 1826 and the girls were then cared for by Anna’s sister Frances (Aunt Fanny). Aunt Fanny remained with the family until her death in 1885. Henry provided private tutors for his daughters, who received a well-rounded classical education. From an early age Susan was the story teller in the family. During the summer, Henry and his family would visit his brother Reverend Thomas Warner, who served as the chaplain at West Point from 1828 to 1838. Susan recorded those trips in her journal, providing details about the various ceremonies and chapel services.
Constitution Island was situated across the Hudson River from the Academy and in 1836 Henry decided to purchase it for a country home, paying $48,000. The two brothers dreamed of building an elegant hotel on one side of the island. Not long afterwards, the Panic of 1837 left Henry financially devastated. He sold the family home in New York City and moved to the island. Henry continued to experience even more financial losses, to the point that his family’s possessions were auctioned off in 1846.
Aunt Fanny used her savings to assist the family, but their financial difficulties persisted into the late 1840’s. Aunt Fanny believed that Susan, being talented as a writer, might be able to write books and earn an income. After Susan’s first book The Wide, Wide World became a financial success (it was said to have been the first book to sell one million copies), Anna began to write and publish her own work as well. Together the two sisters were able to bring more financial stability to their family. They also collaborated on a children’s game called Robinson Crusoe’s Farmyard.
Susan and Anna became Christians in the late 1830’s and devoutly so in the 1840’s after joining the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church. They became successful authors and collaborated on a few books as well, Susan being the more prolific (and well-known) of the two. Because of the success of their writing they were able to remain in the family home on Constitution Island, even after the death of their father and Aunt Fanny. Neither sister ever married.
The sisters also taught Bible classes for the West Point cadets for over forty years. So esteemed were they by the Academy, both are buried in the Academy cemetery. Susan died at the age of sixty-six in 1885. Anna lived for thirty more years, dying on January 22, 1915. She continued to teach the Bible classes up until her death at the age of ninety (or eighty-seven depending on her actual birth date, which is disputed). On her tombstone, she is noted as the author of Jesus Loves Me:
Today their home is a museum and still furnished with the original Warner family possessions. In 1916 the Constitutional Island Association was organized to preserve the home and its furnishings. You can read more about it here.
The song, with its simple words and message, became popular around the world. It was the song sung by John F. Kennedy and the crew of PT-109 with the natives who rescued them. One story I ran across was especially poignant as Richard Niell Donovan, a former U.S. Army chaplain, relates it:
[A]t 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” – but 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.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.