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Child’s hymn rings a bell in the heart

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Mormondom has been celebrating so many anniversaries lately, it shouldn't hurt to add another.

"I Am a Child of God," the song that binds LDS children together like a string through pearls, turns 40 this year.This also marks 20 years since the passing of the song's composer, Mildred T. Pettit.

But Naomi Randall, the woman behind the words, is alive and wise and living in San Diego at age 88.

I phoned to ask if people still talked to her about her song.

The answer was "more than ever."

"They always share their experiences with me," she said. "They tell me that `I Am a Child of God' is their favorite song, that they use it at funerals, or baptisms, or in missionary work. I've been told the song is in 90 languages now, including Russian."

So how did a humble little number gain such a royal reputation?

I think a lot of it has to do with craftsmanship. First, much of Pettit's melody in the chorus is based on "minor thirds" - the same opening notes as Brahm's "Lullaby." They're "children's notes." Kids sing them in "It's raining, it's pouring" and other rhymes.

Second, the opening line of "I Am a Child of God" - like "Amazing Grace" and other fine hymns - hits you between the eyes. The rest of the text simply expands on the thought, the way preachers "define the scripture" at the beginning of sermons before expounding.

Yet, as Randall is quick to point out, the true pull of the piece is not artistic at all. It's spiritual.

"The song rings a bell in the heart," she says. "People want to feel the closeness and the magnitude of being a child of God. It's an amazing thought."

One change was made early on. President Spencer W. Kimball - in priceless, Kimball-esque style - altered the line "teach me all that I must know," by replacing the word "know" with "do." Today, some would like to see "do" changed to "be," but the song is untouchable now. It stands shoulder to shoulder with scripture. The words have been sanctified by a million tongues; the sentiments have put a million kids to bed.

"As a young girl, I always felt secure singing that song," says Martha Chavez, who sings it in Spanish as "Soy un hijo de dios."

"It talks about having a home and parents. I remember feeling safe whenever I sang it."

Randall says people like Chavez come by those feeling honestly.

"When I was young," she says, "my father began our family prayers with `We, a few of Thy children, bow before Thee.' I never forgot that."

Now, a father's prayer has become unforgettable for an entire people. Testimonials to the song - whether from LDS apostles or ward Scout masters - sound surprisingly similar. They're filled with sweet gratitude.

And, in the end, I feel gratitude, too. I first heard the song in 1957 when the ink was still wet on the sheet music. I was a smalltown kid who didn't know quarter notes from quarter horses; but I knew when I heard something real. That song felt real. It is pure salt-of-the-earth. And though I haven't done the research, I'd bet that every hour of every day, somebody, somewhere is singing:

I am a child of God,

And he has sent me here;

Has given me an earthly home,

With parents kind and dear.

Even today, the emotion wells up as I copy out Randall's bell-ringing words.