Support Life Post-Roe!

The Powerful Story Behind the Hymn 'I Love to Tell the Story'

Sylvia Schroeder

Contributing Writer
Published: Jun 02, 2022
The Powerful Story Behind the Hymn 'I Love to Tell the Story'

"I Love to Tell the Story" is a great classic hymn, a wonderful reflection on the gospel message in all its beauty. But where did this hymn come from?

“I Love to Tell the Story” was part of a lengthy fifty-stanza two-part poem, The Old, Old Story, written by Katherine Hankey (1834-1911). If you know this old hymn, you may have been captivated by its simplicity as it declares the composer’s faith in Jesus. The words, full of evangelistic zeal, carry the hearer to the heart of the gospel.

I love to tell the story,
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story
Because I know tis true.
It satisfies my longings
As nothing else can do.

The full poem was originally set to music to create another well-known hymn, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story.” Later, “I Love to Tell The Story” was born by taking the second part of the poem and making it into a separate piece. The beloved hymns were composed about 10 months apart.

When Was 'I Love to Tell the Story' Written?

Katherine Hankey wrote the words to the poem in 1866. It then became published as a small booklet. Hankey first put the words to music herself, but it didn’t gain a following.

In 1867, the text of “I Love to Tell the Story” was read at a large YMCA gathering in Montreal. Dr. W. H. Doane, the composer of more than 2,000 songs (including some of Fanny Crosby’s hymns), heard it and put the words to music.

However, the tune and refrain as we know them today are credited to William G. Fisher in 1869.

I love to tell the story
Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.

Fisher became a popular conductor for revival meetings and choral programs. He composed some 200 Sunday school and gospel songs. He also conducted a 1,000-voice choir for Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sanky. Sanky later worked with Phillip Bass to release a collection, Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs in 1875. They included Fisher’s version of the hymn in their book, which ensured its fame.

What Do We Know About the Woman Who Wrote: 'I Love to Tell the Story'?

Arabella Katherine Hankey was born in Clapham, England, in 1834. She was the daughter of a wealthy London banker and a devotedly Christian mother. Called Kate by her friends, she and her father belonged to an evangelical group led by William Wilberforce known as the Clapham Sect. The group, comprised of prominent evangelicals from the Clapham area, included several members of Parliament. They opposed slavery and the slave trade and had a great influence in abolishing both in England. Motivated by their Christian beliefs, they worked for social reform for the working class and fairness for all. They supported missionary and Bible societies and published evangelistic pamphlets and journals.

Katherine gave herself to helping better workers’ conditions, taught Bible classes for shop girls, and visited the sick in hospitals. While still a teenager, Katherine organized and taught in London’s Sunday Schools.

Inspired by the Methodist revival of John Wesley, her evangelistic fervor prompted her to travel to South Africa as a missionary nurse and help her invalid brother.

However, Hankey’s tireless work for the Lord took a drastic turn in her early thirties. She became severely ill. Katherine remained bedridden for a long time. During her long and difficult recovery period, she wrote a two-part poem. Its first part, “The Story Wanted,” asks who Jesus was. “I Love To Tell the Story” derives from the answer within the second part, “The Story Told.”

Is 'I Love to Tell the Story' Based on a Bible Verse?

“I Love to Tell the Story,” while certainly biblically-driven, cannot be separated from the writer’s life experience and testimony. Katherine’s love for her Savior inspired her deep passion for seeing souls saved. Her zeal for telling others about Jesus in word and deed was a driving force in her life. The heart of the gospel is “good news.” She proclaimed the good news of salvation in her actions, writing, and music.

Jesus told His followers to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 ESV).

After Jesus’ resurrection, He commissioned the disciples to be proclaimers of the gospel in the whole world.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen’” (Matthew 28:18-20 NKJV).

Again in Acts, before Jesus ascended into heaven, His parting words mandated the spreading of the gospel, But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV).

Paul the Apostle declared, “So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:15-16 NKJV).

The early Christians kept their eyes on the gospel of Jesus’ love for the world and other believers. His death and resurrection centered their faith, and the promise of eternal life gave them hope. 

Peter tells his readers, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV).

The book of James speaks of actions demonstrating the gospel. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27 NIV).

In John’s later years, the disciple of Jesus wrote, By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16 NKJV).

This passion for the purity of Jesus’ salvation message flowed throughout Katherine’s songs. They reflect the joy and love of one sure of eternity and a desire for others to know and receive the same assurance. 

I love to tell the story,
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest. 

And when in scenes of glory
I sing a new, new song,
‘twill be the old, old story
That I have loved so long.

Katherine’s life and the hymn she wrote can still instruct us today. The title begs us to examine, “Do we love to tell the story?” The simple story of Jesus’ love for us overflows to declare the true gospel to the world.

In Katherine’s later years, she became too old to go out into the streets to declare the gospel. She continued proclaiming its message in another way. Katherine organized Bible classes in the local prisons toward the end of her life. She never quit telling the old, old story until she died at age 77 in 1911.

I love to tell the story
Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Paha_L

Sylvia SSylvia Schroeder loves connecting God’s Word with real life and writing about it. She is a contributing writer for a variety of magazines and online sites. Sylvia is co-author of a devotional book and her writing is included in several book compilations. Mom to four, grandma to 14, and wife to her one and only love, Sylvia enjoys writing about all of them. 

Her love for pasta and all things Italian stems from years of ministry abroad. She’d love to tell you about it over a steaming cup of cappuccino. Connect with Sylvia on her blog, When the House is Quiet, her Facebook page, or Twitter.

SHARE