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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  • James Petticrew

    Thank goodness for that, thought that was another sermon illustration I was going to have to ditch

  • I also wonder whether the story that Karl Barth gave a lecture and afterwards a questioner identified himself as Carl F. H. Henry, editor of Christianity Today, to which Barth is said to have replied, “You mean, Christianity Yesterday,” is apocryphal or actual? Of course, that is often the story of scholarship, all the best quotes, whether from Anthony of the desert or Francis of Assisi or Karl Barth can prove to be apocryphal.

    • rogereolson

      I have long been under the impression that Barth referred to Christianity Today as “Christianity Yesterday” in a letter, but I’m not sure. I don’t think it happened publicly as you suggest.

      • I think that story is in Henry’s biography, Confessions of a Theologian. Don’t have it with me right here – in DFW airport 🙂 – but I recall him telling the story there and it was his first meeting with Barth. I believe Barth replied “Did you say Christianity Yesterday?” or something similar and a bit taken off balance with such a retort from a giant, Henry replied, “Christianity Yesterday, Today and Forever.”

  • Mary Eloise Smith

    My religion professor at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana was T.Wayne Rieman in the 1960’s. He personally attended the lectures at the University of Chicago and told the above story in his classes. Another good friend, Doug Archer, who is a reference librarian at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana also knows people who attended Karl Barth’s lectures in Chicago.

    • rogereolson

      I am satisfied that it happened in both Chicago and Richmond. The remaining mystery is how. Did someone plant the question the second time (which I think would be in Chicago)?

  • Jon Stovell

    Roger, have you had it confirmed that both the question and the answer were the same in Richmond and in Chicago? I ask because it could be that a question was asked in Richmond to which “Jesus loves me…” was an excellent and memorable answer, and that when Barth received a different but suitable question a short time later in Chicago, he recalled the “Jesus loves me…” answer and decided to give it again. I don’t think we need to postulate a planted question unless the question was the same in each case.

    • rogereolson

      According to both “eyewitnesses” who have e-mailed me, to the best of their memories, anyway, the question was if Barth could summarize his life’s work in a sentence.

  • Jon

    Have you ever asked Martin Marty? He certainly would have been in the Chicago Cluster (Seminary) at the time…

    • rogereolson

      Good suggestion. No, I never thought to ask him. (And I’ve talked with him many times.) If I see him again I’ll ask. Last time I saw him he was getting “up there” (and I’m talking about where he lives).

  • Larry

    I heard a story about – as I recall – Karl Barth speaking to the Sallman painting of Jesus knocking on the door. Someone (and I THINK I recall the person saying it was Barth) supposedly cried out “Nein!” and then the commentary runs along the line of “Jesus doesn’t knock gently; he takes the cross and BASHES it down!” Do you happen to have any theoretically correct information about the story? Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      I’ve never heard it before this.

  • Roger Olson

    I know of two people writing books about Barth who want to know the true story about “Jesus loves me….” So the thread is not dead. Please tell me the identity of the person.