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I want to tell stories that reveal deep truths. I never want to “tell stories” in the sense of making stuff up. This May, during a devotional for our Faculty Senate meeting, I told my colleagues a story that I hoped was in the former category. And it was—once my colleague helped me see through the parts that were simply made up.

I told the story of how Fredrick M. Lehman and his daughter Claudia Mays wrote the hymn “The Love of God.” I drew from several sites on the internet that share how they had written the first two verses but were stuck needing a third, when it was provided in a remarkable way:

During their travels, the father/daughter team came across a German insane asylum. One of the prisoners had recently been put to death, and when the soldiers examined his cell afterwards they found the following words penciled onto the walls of his prison:

     ‘Could we with ink the ocean fill,
     And were the skies of parchment made,
     Were every stalk on earth a quill,
     And every man a scribe by trade;
     To write the love of God above,
     Would drain the ocean dry.
     Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
     Though stretched from sky to sky.’

…  F.M. Lehman and his daughter were amazed—the words etched onto the walls of this asylum matched the rhythm of their new hymn perfectly. They inserted these words as the third and final verse of their hymn and published The Love of God by 1920.1

This miraculous story spoke to me of God providing through words scrawled on hidden walls. All of us in higher education, experiencing turbulent times with more turbulence ahead, need to be reminded of God’s provision. This image promised that God would provide for our needs, even through eccentric means. So I told it.

Yet some elements of the story nagged at me. Its cited source is a 1950 journal for pastors, not likely to have rigorous historical peer review. The poem itself was reasonably attributed to an eleventh-century Hebrew source from Germany, so could it have been passed down locally to a prisoner almost a thousand years later?

But then, why would it be written on a German wall in an English translation that precisely fit the meter of the other two verses? And how could Lehman and his daughter travel to Germany, when he had “lost everything in business and found himself working manual labor in a California packing house”?2 It didn’t add up. As I told the story to my colleagues, I mentioned my skepticism, which now ameliorates my embarrassment at repeating a story that turned out to be too glib and too easy. The truth of how God worked was much bigger than that story allowed.

Immediately after the meeting, my friend Steve Perisho found me. Steve is SPU’s Librarian for Theology, Philosophy, and History, and we were co-leading a reading group on Gregory of Nyssa. Steve is the consummate librarian: He obtained for our group not just a few reference works on Gregory of Nyssa, but an entire shelf-full of books including the massive 10-volume Lexicon Gregorianum. Steve knows how to trace a story back to its source.

I thought Steve would offer to investigate the loose ends of the story. Instead, Steve had already investigated them (Steve works fast). We would continue to pull on the loose ends to reveal a more complicated truth that, even after a lot of work, is still incomplete.

The story I told in my devotional was shorter, sweeter, and punchier. It had been reordered, sanded, and smoothed, so it easily spread around the internet as a result. Steve’s work discovered a story that is longer and messier but has a distinct advantage: It actually happened. God’s love really works this way, and isn’t that “greater far,” as the hymn’s first line says?

Lehman’s own 1948 account reorders the story widely dispersed on the internet. The third verse was not supplied to miraculously fit the other two, but the other two were written to fit the third, which he heard around the turn of the century “at Camp Meeting in a mid-western State some fifty years ago in our early ministry, [when] an evangelist climaxed his message by quoting the last stanza of this song.”3

In 1919, Lehman wrote the lines which were supposedly found “written on the wall of a cell in a lunatic asylum. They were based on a writing by Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak (d. 1095) of Worms, Germany, from Sura 31 of the Holy Qur’an.”4 This story was published in several books at the time, which is where the evangelist could have learned it, passing it on as an oral tradition.

So, this poem was already widely printed throughout the nineteenth century and even into the eighteenth. Steve found a 1789 version of the last six lines on hymn,5 and a 1746 version of a song that is clearly not a hymn, stating that it would drain the ocean dry “to write the tricks of half the sex”!6

Similar formulas were found in Medieval writings.7 For example, a 15th-century Italian text written in Latin contains the image of the sky of parchment and oceans of ink but has a different object of devotion: these all could not describe “unum gaudium paradisi” which translates as “the one joy of paradise.”

In the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, the third verse of “The Love of God” is directly connected to an eleventh-century Jewish poem, written to be sung during the Festival of Weeks before the reading of the Ten Commandments:

At God’s command is infinite power,
Which words cannot define.
Were all the skies parchment,
And all the reeds pens, and all the oceans ink,
And all who dwell on earth scribes,
God’s grandeur could not be told.8

This may refer back to Sura 31 of the Qur’an:

And if all the trees on earth were pens,
and if the sea and seven more added to it [were ink],
the Words of God would not be exhausted.9

Farther back, in the first century, there is another Jewish parallel, when Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai said of his teacher, Rabbi Hillel:

If all the heavens were parchments, and all the seas quills, and all the seas were ink, it would still be impossible to write down even a part of what I learned from my teacher.10

And, of course, the last verse of the Gospel of John:

And there are many other things that Jesus also did, which, were they written down one by one, I think the cosmos itself would not contain the books that would be written.11

In each of these six acclamations , the quality that overflows is different. In recent centuries, the poets refer to the abundant love of God; in the fifteenth century, to His heavenly gifts; in the eleventh century, to His grandeur; and in the seventh century, to His words. In the first century, the images describe what a Rabbi learned from his teacher and what Jesus did according to John. But, for all their differences, the praise and wonder these all evoke is the same.

There’s a lesson here. In the twentieth century, Lehman was given the third verse of “The Love of God” first as an act of grace, communicated globally and over centuries, not last as an instant and focused deus ex machina to his initial efforts. He held onto that third verse like a diamond in the rough. Then, when it was time, Lehman fashioned the two previous verses for the diamond’s setting.

Instead of a perfectly translated and metered stanza dropped down as if from heaven, we have many versions of one idea, each a different color of light refracting through the clear truth of the diamond. All these beaming colors converge in Christ, He who plays in ten thousand places, He who supplies every need (as I stated in my devotion in May), He who sets all these stories in motion and carries them to completion.

Steve’s search took mental work (and physical work in transporting himself to the right library). To get to the bottom of this, we drained oceans of electrons rather than ink. We have found more instances of the love of God than we knew existed, all limited by the language and intentions of their time.

It’s a lot more work to research the actual sources than it is to copy and paste glib histories off the internet — but a commitment to getting the details right is part of a commitment to loving the Creator of those details. Hopefully, all of our words and works as Christian scholars attest to that same eternal light as we receive, contemplate, and are changed by the gifts of a rich tradition, given by a humble, hidden Savior who is always greater than the stories we can tell.


  1. John Mark Miller, “The Love of God: Medieval Prayer to Modern Hymn,” The Artistic Christian, January 23, 2014,; Note: Thanks to commenter Michael McNichols for supplying Lehman’s daughter’s name.
  2. Cameron Frank, “The Love of God: Hymn History & Devotional,” A Frank Voice, accessed June 20, 2024,
  3. John R. Watson and Emma Hornby, eds., Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Canterbury Press, 2013,; Note: Thanks to Ryan Giffin of the Church of the Nazarene Archives for providing Lehman’s original 1948 pamphlet and to Emily Banas of the Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections for finding other confirming correspondence.
  4. Watson and Hornby, The Canterbury Dictionary, cite a reference as “Further Reading” at the bottom of the entry which contains elements of this story without citation: Ken Nafziger, “Hymn Performance,” The Hymn 64, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 41–2.; Note: The Library of Congress Name Authority refers to the author as Meir ben Isaac Sheliʼaḥ Ẓibbur.
  5. William Waring, The New-Jersey Almanack for the Year of our Lord 1790 … Carefully Calculated for the Latitude and Meridian of Philadelphia (Trenton: Isaac Collins, [1789]), August (scan no. 21), ), as reproduced in the database Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
  6. The London Magazine, or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer (1746) #461 p. 421,
  7. One particular scholar wrote a masterful paper finding similar formulas throughout history: for example, in the fifteenth-century Italian text, in an English folk song (beginning “If all the world were apple pie”), and the Sanskrit legend of the Ten Avatars, which he placed as the earliest of all [Irving Linn, “If All the Sky Were Parchment,” PMLA 53, no. 4 (December 1938): 951–970. The Sanskrit legend states “that in case the whole sea was filled with ink, and the earth made of paper, and all the inhabitants of the terrestrial globe were only imployed in writing, they would not be sufficient to give an exact account of all the miracles wrought by Kisna (= Krishna),” 952]. This scholar attributes the English hymn to Isaac Watts, but Steve’s searches haven’t yet found external evidence for this claim. Attributing it to Watts seems a little too easy, like attributing an English verse to a German prisoner scratching on his wall.
  8. Macy Nulman, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (Jason Aronson, 1993), sv AKDAMUT MILIN (אקדמות מלין), p. 14. English translations of the piyyut “Akdamut Millin” ( אַקְדָּמוּת מִלִּין ) may be found in United Synagogue of America, Festival Prayer Book: the Hebrew Text of the Synagogue Service for the Three Festivals With English Translations In Prose And Verse =מחזור לשלש רגלים (New York: United Synagogue of America, 1927), 269 (English), and Nosson Scherman, Meir ben Isaac Sheliʼaḥ Ẓibbur, and Avrohom Yaakov Salamon, Akdamus = [Aḳdamut Milin] = Akdamus Millin : With a New Translation and Commentary Anthologized from the Traditional Rabbinic Literature, 2nd ed. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mesorah Publications, 1980), pp. 53 ff.
  9. M.M. Dakake & J. E. B. Lumbard. The Study Quran: A new translation and commentary. First edition, edited by S. H. Nasr, C. K. Dagli, & M. Rustom (HarperOne, 2015), 1005–1006.
  10. Gershom Bader. The Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages (Jason Aronson,1988),156. from original source Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Soferim, chap. 16, rule 8, =Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, vol. 29:  Minor Tractates, edited by Abraham Cohen (London:  The Socino Press, 1984), p. 82 | 41b(1).
  11. [1]. John 21:25, The New Testament translated by David Bentley Hart, first edition (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017), 219.

Benjamin J. McFarland

Benjamin J. McFarland, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Seattle Pacific University.


  • Michael McNichols says:

    I very much appreciated this article. F. M. Lehman, who died when I was an infant, was my great-grandfather. I have an original bound copy of his music, titled Songs that are Different (including hits like “King Nicotine Must Die” and “Up a Coconut Tree”).

    The history of “The Love of God” was often debated by my grandmother and her sisters, including my great-grandfather’s daughter, Claudia Mays (the article incorrectly identifies her as W. W. Mays. William Willard Mays was her husband). It was good to see this helpful background.

    • Ah, yes, I saw a different name in other sources but at that point was focused on fixing the order of the verses and accepting that there may be other errors in the account, but just decided to quote it verbatim and let it be wrong! That’s fascinating, and I love the title of his book. Thanks for letting us know.

    • Dear Mr. McNichols:

      Does anybody in your extended family retain a copy of the pamphlet by your great-grandfather entitled History of the song “The love of God” (Los Angeles, 1948)? There doesn’t seem to be any record of one in the whole of WorldCat, and the Library of Congress has just referred me to the Copyright Office, though I am not optimistic. Possibly there is a theological library or archive out there that owns an uncatalogued (and therefore unheralded) copy, of course. In any case, we would like to be able to verify that the quotations of it widespread on the Web are accurate.

  • The 1789 Almanack cited in footnote no. 5 is in Eighteenth Century Collections Online, not the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

  • Thanks to Emily Banas of the Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections, and to librarians Juliana Morley of the Talbot School of Theology and Jonathan McCormick of Gateway Seminary, who put me onto them, I have now in hand scans of a couple of letters written by Frederick M. Lehman to a (since 1944) inquisitive [Palermo] Evangelistic Party on 1 & [3] June 1947 (Wheaton Archives & Special Collections Collection 329, the Papers of Phil and Louis Palermo,, Folders 1-6). And thanks to Ryan Giffin, Denominational Archivist of the Church of the Nazarene, a scan of the 1948 pamphlet Lehman later self-published (History of the song “The love of God”). Though I haven’t compared the text of the latter with the quotations from it on the Web, it does appear that the latter (or, at least, the original(s) upon which they are based) are reasonably reliable.

  • massa says:

    Your blog post on the origins of “The Love of God” hymn was incredibly enlightening. It’s refreshing to see a deep dive into the historical roots and evolution of such a beloved hymn. The way you unpacked the layers of its creation—from the initial inspiration to the meticulous research that uncovered multiple historical precedents—highlighted the richness and complexity of God’s love as reflected through human creativity and devotion.

    Your emphasis on the truth behind the story, despite its embellishments over time, resonated deeply. It’s a reminder that God’s providence often works through the ordinary and the messy, weaving together disparate threads into a beautiful tapestry of faith and inspiration. The journey of discovery you shared, guided by Steve Perisho’s meticulous research, underscores the importance of authenticity in storytelling and in our spiritual journey.

    Thank you for this thoughtful exploration. It deepened my appreciation not only for the hymn itself but also for the diverse traditions and voices that contribute to our collective understanding of God’s love. Looking forward to more reflections that blend history, faith, and the human experience in such a compelling manner.

  • Glad you mentioned the qur’anic text. I was going to do that had you not discovered it. 😉

  • And there’s another mistake. I misread Linn’s report on the “apple pie” reference. The apple pie is in a folk song found in one of these references: The Book of Knowledge, The Children’s Encyclopedia, Holland Thompson and Arthur Mee eds. (New York, n.d.), xvIII, 6800; Gaminer Gurton’s Garland, usually ascribed to Joseph Ritson (London, 1810), p. 34. Tamburlaine has the line “If all the pens that poets ever held.” The original scholar (Linn) wrote about both of these in the same sentence so that I got them mixed up.