Great Hymns of the Faith: What a Friend We Have in Jesus

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Great Hymns of the Faith

By John Michael Luther, Christian and composer

What a Friend We Have in Jesus: by Joseph Scriven (1819-1886)

We often sing hymns at church without ever learning the life experiences that inspired the rich lyrics. Such is the case with the popular hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven, a man who truly sought Jesus as his closest friend.

Joseph Scriven was born in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland, on September 19, 1819.  He received his degree from Trinity College in London. He decided to become a teacher and settle down in his hometown, where he fell in love with his childhood sweetheart. On the day before their marriage, they decided to meet near the river Bann. His fiancée’s horse suddenly threw the girl into the water, where she became unconscious and drowned. Scriven arrived and found that her body was being carried away. It seemed that the bottom had fallen out of his world. He turned to his closest friend for comfort–the Lord Jesus Christ.

In 1845, he left Ireland and immigrated to Canada and settled in Port Hope, Ontario. There he became a member of the Plymouth Brethren Church. He worked as a private tutor for local families and taught their children. Once again, Scriven fell in love. This time with Miss Eliza Catherine Roche. They were engaged to be married but Miss Roche, who struggled with consumption, fell ill with pneumonia and died before the wedding. Scriven was again left heartbroken but once again turned to his closest friend for comfort—the Lord Jesus Christ.

Through his studies of the Sermon on the Mount, he decided to take a vow of poverty and help the less fortunate and those in need. He was known in Port Hope as an eccentric, but was nonetheless a Christian philanthropist and a man who freely gave away what little money and clothing he had to people in great need. He would never take any payment for his work and only helped those who could not pay. He was a woodworker and would saw wood for anyone, anytime, anywhere. He once sold his watch to pay for a cow for an elderly lady whose cow had been lost and also delivered her milk.

In 1855, he received word that his mother was ill. She, too, had lost a very close friend. Without funds for passage back to Ireland he prayerfully wrote her a poem, then titled, “Pray Without Ceasing.” Later when Scriven was ill, a friend came by to visit him and discovered the poem near his bed. When asked about the poem, Scriven replied, “The Lord and I wrote it together.”

The poem was published anonymously and attributed to other authors, and composer Charles Converse wrote the music. The authorship of the words was unknown for quite some time, yet just before Scriven died in 1886, he received full credit for the hymn that became “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Joseph Scriven knew that the greatest friend that one could ever have was the Lord Jesus Christ.

What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Are we weak and heavy-laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge—
Take it to the Lord in prayer;

Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer;
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.

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