Karl Barth’s “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know….” Answer: Can Anyone Verify It?

Most Christians have heard it as a sermon illustration. I’ve heard and read many variations of the story. According to the story, Karl Barth was fielding questions from the audience after a lecture in Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University Chicago in 1962. A student stood and asked him if he could summarize his life’s work in theology in one sentence. According to the story a gasp went up from the audience–responding to the student’s perceived audaciousness. Also, according to the story, Barth didn’t skip a beat. He said (paraphrasing) “Yes. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’.”

But did it really happen?

There’s a category of folklore called “evangelegends.” Many have been collected, published and interpreted by the chronicler and interpreter of urban legends Jan Harold Brunvand. Is the Barth story an evangelegend?

I don’t believe it is. It sounds like one, but I once met a man who said he was there and claimed the story is substantially correct. He was a retired theology professor of one of the seminaries near the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name.

And there’s part of the problem. Urban legends always come in that form–”I once met a man who said that this really happened!” But what makes an urban legend, including an evangelegend, a legend is the total lack of proof. In most cases urban legends “could have” happened. But if there is any proof of one actually having happened it ceases to be an urban legend and becomes historical event.

Recently someone challenged the truth of the Barth story (after I told it). He claimed it’s legend, not fact. One reason for discounting its factual nature is that the recordings of the question and answer session after Barth’s Chicago lecture does not contain it. However, there is some question about whether the recording contains the entire Q & A session. And that particular question and answer may have been cut out by the editors of the recordings.

Some years ago I saw a one frame cartoon in a Christian magazine that showed Barth sitting behind a desk saying to a student “Okay, so you ask me if I can summarize my whole life’s work in one sentence….” In other words, the cartoonist thought the event may have happened but that it was a set up.

The theologian who challenged the story (to me) said it is highly unlikely that Barth would even know of the childrens’ song “Jesus Loves Me” as he grew up in Switzerland and lived in Germany and only traveled to the U.S. once–in 1962. However, I remember hearing German children singing “Happy Birthday to you” in English in a backyard next to our house in Munich. We knew the family; they were our neighbors for a year. The parents spoke English; the children didn’t. But all the children at the party, all German children, sang the song in English.

So, it’s possible (however unlikely) that “Jesus Loves Me” is known in Germany and Switzerland. Perhaps it’s been translated into German and Barth learned it in German but was simply translating it back into English.

The whole story is so unlikely as to seem, on its face, to be invented. But it has taken on legendary status. Most people accept it at face value as true. I didn’t–until I met the theologian who was there and confirmed to me that he heard it. Again, I so wish I had kept his name in  my memory.

So, I believe it really happened on the basis of that person’s testimony. He was a reliable witness, as far as I’m concerned. But, of course, I can’t expect others to take his/my word for it.

Does anyone have more solid information about this? Can anyone verify it as more than legend with documentary evidence? What would count as that? First, what would be best would be a recording. Lacking that, second best, would be the identity of a living person who was there who can verify that it happened. Third, possibly not solid, a written record left behind by someone who was there.

This blog gets thousands of “views” monthly. I’m hoping someone who visits can confirm (or disconfirm) the Barth story as fact. Please don’t comment unless you have some verifiable information about the incident–the existence of a recording that includes the question and Barth’s answer (or a transcript of such a recording), a living eyewitness or his/her written or recorded testimony about it, etc.

  • http://fredfredfred.com Fred Sanders

    I’ve tried to find a reliable source for this and never have. Good luck!
    Here are two things I’ve written about it. First, a catalog of the variants with which the story can be found: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scriptorium/2012/08/jesus-loves-karl-barth-2/
    And second, a passage from the Church Dogmatics where Barth says that he learned the main thing from kids’ songs:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scriptorium/2007/04/let-the-little-children-come-old-karl-barth-comes-back-to-the-matter-itself/
    Here’s hoping one of your readers can help. I heard the story in a sermon just about a month ago.
    Fred

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Fred. I’m glad to see you visit here. I missed seeing you at Biola last year when Mike Horton and I held our dialogue.

  • http://krateo.blogspot.com Ben Merritt

    Funny you should post this today… I recently requested audio CD’s of Barth’s Evangelical Theology lectures via inter-library loan (picked up yesterday), and it does include audio of some Q&A that took place at Rockefeller Chapel in 1962. The booklet that came with the CD’s includes a list of questions that were asked at that event, and I see nothing even remotely resembling what is described in that story… but then again, I haven’t had a chance to actually listen to it yet.

    Anyways, I uploaded the relevant part of the booklet here: https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B8HMKXDZwalmUE1iblRjU29FMDA

    Hope that helps! If I hear anything relevant to this when I listen to the Q&A I’ll pop on here again to let you know.

    • rogereolson

      I have listened to that and didn’t hear the question and answer in question. But, as I suggested, it could have been edited out.

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  • John I.

    Martin Rumscheidt edited “Fragments Grave and Gay” (1971). It contains the address that Rumscheidt gave at the Memorial Service for Barth in the chapel of Knox College, University of Toronto, on December 19, 1968. In it he refers to Barth’s “reply to a student at Richmond Theological Seminary in Virginia who asked him what the most momentous discovery of his long theological life had been.” The “Jesus loves me” sentence is the reply mentioned by Rumscheidt. (p 124)

    I do not have the book.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks. That’s getting close–only six years after the event is supposed to have happened. All my life I’ve heard it happened at Chicago, though. And I did meet that theologian in Chicago who said he was there and heard it. It does make one wonder if the question was planted and asked in more than one place? Or did the story take on a life of its own so that the location doesn’t matter? Yet, mostly out of curiosity, it matters to me.

  • Jerry Flora

    I recall reading about it years ago in the biography by Eberhard Busch. At my age (80), memory isn’t always correct, but I think it’s correct this time.

    • rogereolson

      I have the biography and I read it years ago. I’ll have to dig it out and see if it’s there. Thanks.

    • http://theologyoutofbounds.wordpress.com/ Darren

      I recently finished reading Busch’s biography cover-to-cover, and I don’t believe the incident is in there. Looking forward to you posting a conclusive update on your findings, Prof. Olson!

      • rogereolson

        I reviewed Busch’s biography and especially the pages about Barth’s trip to American in 1962. As you say, there is no mention of the incident. I did find, however, a reference to Luther’s comment about planting trees even if the return of Christ is imminent. That appears in a letter Barth wrote to his son Markus. The biography, however, doesn’t indicate the source of Barth’s belief that Luther said it.

  • http://thoughtsonbiblicalsubjects.blogspot.com/ Bruce K. Oyen

    It’s an interesting subject, Dr. Olson. I heard the question was asked of Barth by a host of one of the famous TV talk shows, maybe on “The Tonight Show.” It’s true, such things take on a life of their own. May I be allowed to take this in a different direction? Here it is: On what Biblical basis can 5-point Calvinists say, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” ? And I mean, on what Biblical basis can they say he loved them enough to die to save them? Anyone who believes in “limited atonement” cannot point to any verse that teaches he died for them in a saving way. Their belief that he did so is merely subjective, rather than being based on objective statements of the Bible. Subjectivism is not a good nail on which to hang one’s faith.

    • rogereolson

      I’ll invite Calvinists to answer this. Many of them come here, so hopefully at least one will take the challenge and answer the question.

      • James Petticrew

        Sawn this. Can’t say he doesn’t have the courage of his Calvinist convictions

        http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/confronting-the-problem-s-of-evil

        • rogereolson

          Nothing new there, just the same old attempt to defend God’s character in light of affirmation of God’s authorship of sin and evil. Does he have the courage of his Calvinist convictions? If he did, he’d go the next logical step and affirm that God, not sinners, is guilty of all the sin and evil in the world.

      • http://thoughtsonbiblicalsubjects.blogspot.com/ Bruce K. Oyen

        Dr. Olson, let me say, once again, that Calvinists and non-Calvinists need to read your books, “Against Calvinism,” and “Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities.” I have read both of them twice, and continue to recommend them. They can easily be used in theology classes and Bible institutes.

        • rogereolson

          Thank you. I appreciate your support.

  • http://www.chris.toph.de/ Christoph Fischer

    Being German, I can confirm that I learned to sing “Jesus loves you, this I know…” as a child in both German and English. We sang it in both languages in Sunday school, even in a German-language-only church. While this doesn’t say anything about whether Barth knew the song in English, at least there’s a chance he learned this way it as well.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for confirming the possible truth of the story by disconfirming one objection to it.

      • Clemens A. Heidrich

        The German version would be “Jesus liebt mich ganz gewiss, denn die Bibel sagt mir dies”. There are a few German websites quoting this version: http://www.google.com/search?q=%22jesus+liebt+mich+ganz+gewiss%22+karl+barth

        See also the discussion at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3AKarl_Barth#Doggerel

        • rogereolson

          Thanks. Now (in the wikipedia discussion) we have someone claiming to know people who heard Barth say it at Princeton. That means it has been reported to have happened at: University of Chicago, “Richmond Theological Seminary” (Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA?), and Princeton. Barth gave lectures at a number of seminaries during his 1962 American tour. Where else might it have happened? Or did it happen at all? Still, the closest we’ve come here to a reliable source is Martin Rumscheidt’s reference to it happening at Union in Virginia (although he called it “Richmond Theological Seminary”). That was only six years after it allegedly happened and everyone considers Rumscheidt a Barth scholar. If anyone comes up with anything more reliable than his recollection or reference, I’d still like to know it. Thanks for this, though, about the song in German. That gives some support to the story.

  • Jason R.

    Dr. Olson, have you tried checking with the folks at the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary? Someone there might be able to track down the kind of evidence you are looking for.
    http://kbarth.org/center-for-barth-studies-princeton/

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for that recommendation. I’ll ask them, although I suspect they have better things to do than answer my question.

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  • Craig Higgins

    I’ve heard the story told about both Princeton and Chicago, so I’m hoping for a definitive answer. Well, as long as the answer doesn’t prevent me from using this quote in sermons.

    By the way, in a great irony, I’ve heard the story attributed, not to Barth, but to Cornelius Van Til!

    Thanks for this blog. This (moderate) Calvinist reads it regularly!

  • Matt F.

    Tony Campolo, for what it is worth, has told the story as if he were in the audience.

    • rogereolson

      Perhaps he was there “in spirit.”

  • Sarah Letourneau

    I WAS THERE AND HEARD IT LIVE.in Richmand 1962. I tried to send you the whole info, but when I sent it ,it was all erased. 2 times Please e mail me. To tire to do it all again now. Sarah

    • rogereolson

      Okay. I’m intrigued.

  • Michael O’Neil

    Hi Roger,
    I have sent you an email with a written affirmation from someone who was at the 1962 Chicago meetings – a credible person, still living – who affirms that he heard the student’s question and Barth’s reply. Obviously this does not constitute “proof,” but is, I think, valid witness.

    Warm regards,
    Michael O’Neil

    • rogereolson

      I look forward eagerly to reading it. Another person said she was at Richmond when Barth said it. But I haven’t received her promised e-mail yet.

      • Michael O’Neil

        Thanks for the follow-up Roger. Did you get the original email I sent you with Dr Vose’s handwritten notes from the Chicago Q&A session? I sent them to a Baylor email address on January 11 and a follow-up on Jan 21.

        • rogereolson

          I don’t think I got those e-mails. I’ll go back and look again.

  • DOCWRIGHT

    I believe the story is true… but even if it turns our not to be, “Jesus loves me this,,I know…. for the Bible tells me so” is still the greatest theological.. or any truth of all times.

    • Roger Olson

      Oh, we established that the story is true–with several eyewitnesses. The surprising conclusion, though, is that Barth said it in at least two different places (and, of course, different times) during his 1962 America lecture tour.


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