Let the Little Children Sing

From the time Emily and I first knew we were expecting, we sang “Jesus Loves Me” to our daughter Evelyn. She heard it in the womb, then in the first few moments after delivery, and even now she hears it every evening at bed time. Next, we immersed her sister Kyrsten in the tradition. We now get the joy of singing “Jesus Loves Me” to our third daughter, still in the womb. This immensely popular song has a simple beauty and enduring quality to it. Anna B. Warner (1820-1915) wrote the text, and William B. Bradbury (1816-1868) wrote the tune. We owe a great debt to Bradbury in particular, not only for his influence in popularizing this wonderful children’s song, but also for a wealth of other “Sunday school songs” that have directly influenced our hymnody today.

     A native of Maine, Bradbury’s family moved to Boston when he was fourteen years old. There Bradbury studied under the influential Lowell Mason. In due time, Bradbury was in New York City serving as a Baptist choir director and organist at such prominent churches as First Baptist Church of Brooklyn, Baptist Tabernacle, and Broadway Tabernacle. An educator and composer, Bradbury blended elements of the camp meeting song, urban revivalism, and secular tunes to pioneer a new genre—the Sunday school song.

     Bradbury was so influential it is hard condense the scope of his works. Oriola (1859) stands out as his first Sunday school songbook. Its initial success may have encouraged him to continue his work; he soon published a trio of songbooks, cleverly titled Golden Chain (1861), Golden Shower (1862), and Golden Censer (1864). These three books were then combined and sold in various collections like the Golden Trio (1866). Bradford authored the tunes we still sing today to cherished texts like Dorothy A. Thrupp’s “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (Oriola), William Wolford’s “Sweet Hour of Prayer” (Golden Chain), and Edward Mote’s “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”

     In fact, Bradbury served as the Sunday school editor of the prominent publishing company Biglow and Main. He collaborated with Lowell Mason and several other significant church musicians to establish the Normal Musical Institute in New York, which became a proto-type for other such institutes nation-wide. Bradbury also contributed directly to the rise of the vastly popular stream we call “gospel songs.” As a result, Bradbury still influences us today.  

Title page of Bradbury’s Golden Chain, published in 1861

     Bradbury and his Sunday school song colleagues have, at times, been criticized for being uneducated, unrefined composers. But Bradbury enjoyed a European-quality music education equal to any of his time. Even his own teachers did not appreciate some of his work. We can only conclude that Bradbury made the conscious decision to write in a style that served the needs of his audience—often children. And, like Isaac Watts’s “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” many of Bradbury’s tunes for children made their way into adult church hymnody.

     We should be thankful for Bradbury’s humble, Christ-like service to the church. Though he was a towering figure, he did not hesitate to “stoop” and craft such simple, timeless tunes as what we find in “Jesus Loves Me.” He knew we should invite the little children to come and sing; such an endeavor was never below him. His humility is something we ought to appreciate and emulate.

Bibliography

A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).