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Jerry Earl Johnston: Hymn for kids is true Easter hit

Published: Saturday, March 22 2008 12:23 a.m. MDT

It's ironic that the best-selling Easter tune of all time was penned by a Jewish composer — "Easter Parade," by Irving Berlin. The song's popularity is measured in sales of sheet music, records and radio play.

The real story, of course, is that the true popularity of a song can't be measured in money; it's measured by how many people sing it, love it and know it by heart. Given that, I'd say the most popular Easter song would have to be a hymn — one that has filled chapels and homes and souls for many years. And the leading candidate, it seems, is a hymn that many Utahns have probably never sung, a children's hymn called "Jesus Loves Me (This I Know)."

Music scholar, Kenneth W. Osbeck, calls it, "Without doubt the song that has been sung more by children than any other hymn." In his own book of hymn histories, Robert J. Morgan labels it "the best-known children's hymn on earth."

Even those who haven't learned it have probably heard it:

Jesus loves me! This I know,

For the Bible tells me so;

Little ones to him belong,

They are weak, but He is strong.

The other original verses were "Easter verses," including this heart-stabber:

Jesus loves me! Loves me still

Though I'm very weak and ill,

that I might from sin be free,

He bled and died upon the tree.

The words are from Anna Warner's poem in her sister's novel, "Say and Seal," a book that rivaled "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in popularity in its day. In the story, a boy named Jimmy Fox is dying and his Sunday School teacher makes up the song "Jesus Loves Me" for him. That was in 1860. A year later William Bradbury — who also wrote the music for "Sweet Hour of Prayer" — composed a tune for the little song. After the song found success, the two Warner sisters went on to teach Sunday School at West Point. They remain the only civilians buried in the military cemetery there.

Down the years their little hymn has amassed a big history. It has been translated into dozens of languages, including nonwritten Cherokee. Bob Dylan once sang, "Jesus loves me, this I know, because the foxes tell me so."

Dr. Karl Barth, one of the greatest Christian minds, was once asked to sum up the essence of all his books. He did so by quoting the first verse of "Jesus Loves Me!"

In Communist China, the code phrase among "Christians" was "This I Know People."

As for me, I often think of religious music as different bodies of water. The "Messiah" and other oratorios are the pounding surf, the hymns are serene and lovely lakes. And the children's songs are like little brooks. Each type of music has a different role to play, but each — in the end — is composed of "living water" for the soul.

"Jesus Loves Me!" is a "little stream" that gives and gives.

And that business about Irving Berlin and Easter? He also wrote the song considered the most popular Christmas tune of all time — "White Christmas." But I find it hard to believe Berlin's melody actually outshines "Silent Night" or "Joy to the World" in popularity.

But that's another column, for another season.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com

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