The author of the hymn, Elisha Hoffman, reported about the account of the origin of the hymn:
During a pastorate in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, there was a woman to whom God permitted many visitations of sorrow and affliction. Coming to her home one day, I found her much discouraged. She unburdened her heart, concluding with the question, “Brother Hoffman, what shall I do? What shall I do?” I quoted from the word, then added, “You cannot do better than to take all of your sorrows to Jesus. You must tell Jesus.”
For a moment she seemed lost in meditation. Then her eyes lighted as she exclaimed, “Yes, I must tell Jesus.”
As I left her home I had a vision of that joy-illuminated face ... and I heard all along my pathway the echo, “I must tell Jesus ... I must tell Jesus.”
When he got back to his study, Elisha Hoffman quickly penned the words, and soon after the melody. The hymn has become one of the most loved hymns among Christians.
The verses that are said to have been used to help the woman included the following:
Matthew 11:28 “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Psalm 55:22 “Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee: He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.”
The tune for the hymn is “Orwigsburg” and comes from the birthplace of the author: Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania.
The hymn first appeared in 1894 in a hymnbook that Hoffman edited, Pentecostal Hymns.
Paul Eckert, Steve Green's MIDI Hymnal : A Complete Toolkit for Personal Devotions and Corporate Worship., Electronic ed. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1998).
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1985), p. 131. Origin of the quote of the author about the hymn.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace : 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1990), p. 89. Mostly the same as the above article by the same author.
George W. Sanville, Forty Gospel Hymn Stories (Winona Lake, Illinois: Rodeheaver-Hall Mack Co., 1943), p. 60.