Story Behind the Hymn
Taken from the pages of a best-selling novel and inspired by the prospect of an American Civil War, this might be the best-known hymn in the history of the Christian church. This poem, written by Anna Warner, weaves together some of the most basic truths of Christianity—Jesus loves me, He saves me, and He welcomes me. Anna and her sister Susan lived with their father, Henry, in New York City. Henry sent his beloved daughters to school so they could be well-educated at a time when few women had the opportunity to do so. The girls invested themselves in their studies and in teaching Sunday school near their home at West Point. In 1857 a depression left this well-to-do, close-knit family without the finances they were accustomed to. Henry, unable to recover from the loss, died soon after, forcing the sisters to provide for themselves. The girls had become gifted fiction writers. Their first book was an overnight best-seller, as were many of the books they wrote.
One of their books, Say and Seal, with sales rivaling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, included the poem that would be transformed into a statement of faith for children and adults around the world. In the book, a little boy lay sick on his deathbed, looking up to his beloved Sunday school teacher, Mr. Linden, searching for strength and hope. Overcome with grief, Linden comforts little Johnny gently reciting this poem just before he dies. Anna, quite certain that many of the young boys she taught in Sunday School would die during the Civil War, wrote the book with war on the horizon. Her poem was as much for each of the readers who would soon be facing death as it was for her fictional little Johnny.
William B. Bradbury, composer of many well-loved gospel hymns including “Just as I Am” and “He Leadeth Me”, began reading this popular book one evening in 1862. When he read Linden’s poem to the dying boy, a song began to resonate in his mind. Sitting down at the piano, he arranged and soon published a simple melody, thinking it would become an important children’s song. He was right. During the Civil War soldiers gathered around campfires to share stories and sing songs. This well-loved song could be heard simultaneously on both sides of the battlefield. At home, children and adults were singing this new hymn in church, in school, and at community gatherings. Sometimes called “the greatest missionary tool of all times” it is often the first song missionaries teach in Africa, Asia, and South America.