Quick Follow Up to the Karl Barth “Jesus Loves Me….” Series

Just this morning I received an e-mail from a woman who confirms that she heard Karl Barth respond to a student’s question with “Jesus loves me, this I know…” at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in 1962. Her name is LeTourneau and her e-mail is convincing. Of course, as we have already discovered, Barth scholar Martin Rumscheidt says it happened there also.

So now we have two reliable witnesses (three counting Rumscheidt) confirming that the event happened in two places during Barth’s lecture tour in the U.S. in 1962–Richmond and Chicago. What does this mean?

I think it is reasonable to conclude that there was some kind of set up. Whether Barth was in on it or not is impossible to know. But surely someone either set up both incidents (viz., told a student to ask the question and prompted Barth to answer it by quoting the children’s song) or the second one (noticing how successful the first one was in delighting the audience). The one frame cartoon I mentioned in the previous post was not too far off–although it may not have been Barth who set it up.

Why does this matter? It may not to you, of course, but it matters to me because I mentioned the incident in 20th Century Theology (IVP 1992) and I mention it again in my forthcoming book on modern theology (The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction). People have told me I was falling for a religious urban legend (what scholars call an “evangelegend”). You may have doubted the veracity of the story. Doubt it no more. However, doubt that it was spontaneous.

  • Bob

    That’s too bad that Barth could be set-up that way

  • http://theeagleandchild.com Marc

    On the other hand, the question (“sum up your theology in one sentence”) seems to me to be a sensible and ordinary question of a student to ask, particularly of someone like Barth. That is, it doesn’t seem like such an unusual question that it could not have been asked unprompted by two individuals at two locations.

    • rogereolson

      It seems like an unlikely coincidence, however.

  • Elliott Scott

    I attended Union in the late 80′s and the professors still told stories of Barth’s visit 25 years before. The “Jesus loves me” anecdote was far less entertaining to them than the story about Barth looking in John Leith’s refridgerator and being disappointed to learn that Southern Presbyterians did not (at the time) drink beer.

    • rogereolson

      I’ll accept that one without investigation. Sounds completely likely given Europeans’ (including Christians’) love of wine and beer.

  • David T. Priestley

    My first reaction when I heard the “Jesus loves me” rejoinder (and it was long before Stan and you wrote 20th century thelogy) was surprise and an elevated respect for that o-so-teutonic scholar. It was evidence that he knew American Christianity well enough to be familiar with its colloquialisms. Maybe there is a Swiss/German children’s song of equivalent content; but St. Karl certainly hit on culturally relevant way to express “essential Christianity” (and wouldn’t he love to have that neo-Protestant tag pinned on him?).

  • JohnD

    I don’t think it matters in the slightest if it was “set up.” If it was, it should be seen as simply part of his lecture, his way of giving the audience the ultimate answer to his admittedly difficult theology. We will probably never know, so, given the evidence presented here, we should embrace the story as is, for it is wonderful indeed and a great sermon illustration for all time.

  • Ben

    Does the song have the same melody in Swiss?

    • rogereolson

      Someone else will have to answer this. I simply don’t know. But I can testify that “Happy Birthday” is sung in English to the same melody we all know and love in Germany.

  • http://langueorparole.blogspot.com Jeremy Patterson

    This has been a great academic saga to follow. Thank you for keeping us updated. Do you plan to document the evidence you have received in any way, perhaps in your new book where you cite the story? It definitely seems like these events should enter into the biography of Barth.

    • rogereolson

      All this has unfolded after the manuscript is completed. So I doubt I can add a footnotes. The manuscript is at the publisher’s. I agree that this information should inform any future biographies that deal with Barth’s 1962 American tour. It’s just too interesting to ignore.

  • Robert (Bob) Osborn

    No single sentence better epitomizes Barth”s theology. If he did not say it, probably twice, spontaneously, he might well have (or should have). I know M. Rumscheidt, and have the highest regard for him.. He knows Karl Barth as do few.
    Robert T Osborn, Ph.D, Emeritus Duke u. Prof.


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