Did Karl Barth Really Say “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know….?”

Did Karl Barth Really Say “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know….?” January 24, 2013

A  while back I asked a question mainly out of curiosity. Did Karl Barth really answer a student’s question (during his 1962 trip to the U.S.) with “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so?”

What sparked my curiosity are two things. First, I’ve heard the story numerous times in sermons and read it numerous times in books. Second, I wrote a book in which I told the story (in a chapter about Barth) and an anonymous reviewer of the pre-publication manuscript (ostensibly a scholar of modern theology) attempted to shoot down the story as apocryphal. If I am going to leave it in the manuscript, such that it ends up being published, I need to know that it really happened.

According to the best accounts of the incident I have heard (many have taken on weird additions), Karl Barth was at Rockefeller Chapel (really a Gothic cathedral!) on the campus of the University of Chicago during his lecture tour of the U.S. in 1962. After his lecture, during the Q & A time, a student asked Barth if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth allegedly said something like “Yes, I can. 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.” That is the simple, unadorned story. Many tellers have adorned it with additions of their own (in sermons, etc.).

Years ago I met a seminary professors (of one of the many seminaries near the University of Chicago) who told me he was there and heard Barth say it. Unfortunately, I did not keep his name. I don’t remember who he was. But I remember feeling that his testimony confirmed the story as other than apocryphal.

So, after the anonymous critic of my manuscript challenged the story, I asked here if anyone heard Barth say it or knew someone who heard Barth say it. Several things happened as a result.

First, someone pointed out that Barth scholar Martin Rumscheidt mentioned the incident in his 1968 memorial speech and that is included in a book he co-edited (Fragments, Grave and Gay). However, Rumscheidt there says  Barth said it in Richmond, Virginia (presumably at Union Theological Seminary of Richmond).

Second, I received a message on my blog asking me to e-mail the person as she claimed to have heard Barth say it in Richmond in 1962. I e-mailed her twice, but she has not responded to my e-mails.

Third, a reader of my blog said he knew someone who was there, in Chicago, in 1962, and heard the student’s question and Barth’s answer. I have now received an e-mail from that person. He is Noel Vose of Australia, a Baptist theologian and founder of a Baptist seminary (which now bears his name). In his e-mail to me dated January 23, Dr. Vose says “Yes, I was in Chicago for Barth’s lecture., and I recall the incident.” This is good enough for me. I consider Dr. Vose a reliable source.

Now, this raises an interesting question. Some years ago I saw a one frame cartoon in a Christian magazine (was it Christianity Today?). It showed Barth sitting at a desk speaking to a rather startled looking young man (presumably the student questioner). Barth says to the student (paraphrasing because I don’t have the cartoon anymore) “Now after the lecture you ask me if I can sum up my whole life’s theology in one sentence.” Clearly, whoever created the cartoon suspected that Barth (or someone) may have set up the question and answer. It wouldn’t be the only time a public speaker “planted” a question.

Could it be that the incident happened in BOTH Richmond and Chicago? I’m beginning to think it’s possible and maybe even likely. To confirm that would be a major breakthrough in Barth studies. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But it would certainly be interesting.

So, if anyone can find someone else who heard Barth say it, anywhere, please let me know. For now, anyway, I consider it settled that Barth did say it in Chicago. I have heard that from two reliable sources who were there–even though I cannot remember the identity of the first one.

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