Let's not talk of death and heaven

How children’s songs became sanitised

‘Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so’ is a greatly loved children’s hymn, one of the favourite hymns of all time with its simple affirmation of the Jesus of the Bible whose death and rising open for us the path to eternal life.

‘Jesus loves me, loves me still, When I’m very weak and ill.’ These easily understood but deeply meaningful words open the third verse. But when I tried to find them in my modern hymn book, they were gone. The tune and first lines were still there but the rest of the old hymn had been sanitised away with lacklustre words, replaced with bland rhymes which conveniently avoided unpleasant references to sickness and death. Tame theology which bypassed any mention of heaven and eternal life.

A hymn to be sung at the bedside of a dying child

‘Jesus loves me still today, walking with me on my way’ began the new third verse.  The Jesus of this carefully modified verse is very nice to children, particularly healthy children. He loves them and wants to be their friend. He will walk with them though life and help them to be strong and good. These are nice thoughts. These are true thoughts. Jesus should indeed be our friend!

We all want Jesus as our companion, walking with us on our way. But this is a pale image of the strong Jesus of Anna Warner’s hymn, the Jesus who conquered death, ‘he who died Heaven’s gate to open wide’.

Anna Bartlett Warner (1827 – 1915) wrote Jesus Loves Me as a hymn to be sung at the bedside of a dying child. Anna and her sister Susan were greatly loved 19th century American authors. Many of their novels, which they often wrote together, would today be classified as sentimental religious fiction, but in their day, they were best-sellers.

The most important scene in their novel Say and Seal is the lingering death of 6-year-old Johnny. Knowing her sister to be the more talented poet, Susan asked Anna to compose a song which could be sung to Johnny.  Anna did, penning the words to Jesus Loves Me.

Books like Say and Seal are no longer fashionable, relegated to the dustbin of an old-fashioned, heart-wrenching sentimental genre which no one reads any more. But Anna’s song, hidden away in chapter 8, has become immortal.

Have times changed so much that today’s children no longer need that same absolute assurance?

Musician and composer, William Bradbury read Say and Seal. Struck by the poem, he wrote its now-famous tune and added the chorus ‘Yes, Jesus loves me.’ The hymn was an instant success. Although composed in a novel, Jesus Loves Me joined many other hymns written for long vigils at the bedsides of dying children

Anna Warner’s Jesus will be with us in our sickness, present in our dying, and, beyond our death, will take us to eternal life. Anna knew that children needed to know this, not only dying children but all children because any child might unexpectedly face death. She also knew that children could learn these deep and complex truths from the repetition of simple phrases, particularly in verse and song. Her poem, so simple but yet so deep, overflows with confidence in the reality of life beyond death. The same Jesus who opened wide the gate of Heaven will ‘let his little child come in’. Jesus will ‘take me home on high’.

Have times changed so much that today’s children no longer need that same absolute assurance?

Children in the 19th century certainly faced death far more frequently than do modern Australian children. Statistics tell a stark story. In Australia today, 5 children in 1,000 will not reach the age of 10, compared to 200 children in the 19th century. In times of the plague, child mortality was even higher but even without the plague, at least one child in five would die.

What did this mean for children like Johnny? In real life, children like him had already learned the ever-present reality of death – the death of a sister, a brother or a cousin, the death of a classmate or the child next door. Even some children’s rhyming games played at death – ‘A tissue, a tissue, we all fall down.’ They had experienced loss. They had seen grief and they themselves, in their own childlike ways, had also grieved.

… The issues are no different today than they were two centuries ago.

Yes, fewer children die today. But should death therefore be avoided as an awkward and taboo or even unnecessary subject? The death of a child is always a tragic thing but to us Christians, death is not a dark end but a glorious beginning. Must we shield children from this wonderful truth? Do we think it best to let them grow up before they understand that beyond death there is life with God?  Can only adults have the assurance that Jesus’ death has opened for us the gate of Heaven?

The death of children today may be less common but for those children who do face death – and for any other children who know them and will miss them – the issues are no different today than they were two centuries ago.

We have not even touched upon children today who live in less affluent, more unhealthy societies around the world where child mortality is so much higher than in Australia. We must hope and pray that such children are given the chance to learn at the earliest possible age that there is a heaven and that they can trust Jesus to take them there. What about the Christian children killed in Mosul? Surely we would hope that long before they had faced their violent deaths, they had already learned that death was not the end, that beyond death lay a heaven where pain was no more and that there, Jesus would welcome them home.

Do we find Jesus’ death and rising too deep and difficult a subject for children to sing about? In a tongue-in-cheek but very thought-provoking poem, Christmas is Really for the Children, poet Steve Turner writes that Easter is not suitable for children. He suggests that children prefer animals and stables, gifts and babies and stars. Easter is far too confronting. Rather than Easter, he satirically proposes, we should just give children a re-run of Christmas without asking too many questions about what happened to baby Jesus when he grew up.

‘Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.’ – Away in a Manger

It is interesting that Anna Warner’s original Jesus Loves Me became very popular with adults. Christian people absorb much of their theology from Christian songs and hymns long before they maturely study the Bible. The words of Jesus Loves Me are far more memorable than Scripture but convey the same Biblical truth. Adults appreciate its simple, direct and memorable statement of personal faith and confidence in the future. Still today, some people ask for Jesus Loves Me to be sung at their funerals. During Anna Warner’s lifetime, the hymn was so popular in the US Army that she was honoured as one of the few civilians buried in the Wrest Point cemetery, the first verse of her hymn engraved upon her headstone.

Very few once-popular children’s hymns have survived the centuries, but of those which have, many have this one thing in common: they are not afraid to hold out to children the promise of eternal life beyond this life. Away in A Manger may seem sloppily sentimental with the little Lord Jesus laying down his sweet head, the cattle lowing and the Christ child who never cries. Yet, after Silent Night, it is the second most popular Christmas carol of all time. Its unknown authors made certain that among the poetic sentimentality surrounding the birth of the baby, the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation was made abundantly clear: ‘Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.’

The most prolific writer of children’s hymns was Irish composer Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–-1895). A number of her best hymns have become Christian classics and will survive for ever, loved enough to be elevated from the children’s section of hymn books to sit among the adult hymns. Like Anna Warner, Cecil Alexander understood that children best learned theological truths from simple songs. When she discovered that her young godsons found it tiresome and difficult to learn the Apostle’s Creed, she decided to write a hymn each week to illustrate its various phrases.

So Cecil Alexander wrote O Little Town of Bethlehem to explain ‘Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary.’ The ‘wondrous gift’ of the Christ child had an eternal dimension, a purpose beyond this life. ‘So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven’.

To explain the phrase ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried’, she wrote There is a Green Hill far Away. This hymn sensitively but very clearly told the story of the death of Jesus. It also made abundantly clear the purpose of his death, ‘that we might go at last to Heaven’. Only Jesus can take us there. ‘He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.’

Hymns specifically dealing with heaven seem to have been particularly avoided.

Older hymn books contained specific sections of ‘Hymns for Young Children.’ The 1916 standard edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern contained 34 such hymns. The 1933 edition of The Methodist Hymn Book contained 32. Only three or four of those hymns have survived the century and some of those have been drastically modified.

It is true that some of those children’s hymns are best forgotten. Some were too sombre, overly explicit in reference to death and the grave. Some were too stern, placing too much stress on sinfulness and guilt. But there were good hymns, popular hymns, with bright tunes that children (and adults!) liked to sing. Hymns such as Tell Me the Stories of Jesus and I Am so Glad that My Father in Heaven, were hymns full of good teaching which were not coy about the death of Jesus and his promise of eternal life.

Hymns specifically dealing with heaven seem to have been particularly avoided. The beautiful hymn There’s a Friend for Little Children, Above the Bright Blue Sky dealt very specifically with heaven in concrete images that children could understand but is now deleted from the hymn repertoire. One elitist objection to such hymns is the specificity of images such as ‘above the bright blue sky’, but that is an image a child can understand. Eternity and everlasting life are abstractions beyond a young child, but a home where our friend Jesus is waiting for us, ‘above’, that is beyond where we are now, that is a picture a child can grasp. Indeed, large numbers of adult hymns picture heaven as upward.

With adult hymns, revisers and editors have often changed the words a little, removing thee and thou and other archaic terms. Many of the old children’s hymns would be very appropriate today if the revisers had been prepared to give them the same editorial care and attention.

Perhaps children (and adults) might still be singing them, absorbing their teaching in simple and direct ways. But to include a hymn like Jesus Loves Me only if its very nature is completely changed is to rob us of an effective way of helping children know about heaven and to trust the Jesus who takes us there.

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