What a Friend We Have in Jesus

Joseph ScrivenSuffering is part of life, even for Christians, and the man who wrote this wonderful song was no stranger to suffering. I grew up with this being one of my favourite songs, a source of encouragement and hope for so many over so many years.  But what is the story behind it?

Irish born Joseph M. Scriven (1819-1896) was 25 years old, in love and about to be married. The day before his wedding his fiance died in a tragic drowning accident.

Understandably, this broke his heart, and Joseph decided to leave Ireland to start a new life in Canada. While in Canada working as a teacher, he fell in love again and became engaged to Eliza Roche, a relative of one of his students. Once again, Joseph’s hopes and dreams were shattered when Eliza became ill and died before the wedding could take place.

Such tragedy to face, losing the love of your life twice, but he really knew who the true love of his life was! Soon after Eliza’s death Joseph joined the Plymouth Brethren and began preaching for a Baptist church, deciding never to marry but instead devote his life to serving the Lord.. While he never married, he did make an incredible difference by giving all his time, money and even the clothes off his own back to help the less fortunate people around him, and to spread the love and compassion of Jesus wherever he went.

Around the same time that Eliza died, Joseph received word from Ireland that his mother was ill. He had no money, and could neither go to her bedside or send a financial gift, so he wrote a letter of comfort and enclosed one of his poems entitled What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

Years later a friend was sitting with Joseph, as he was very ill. During this visit, the friend found the poem and was very impressed.  As a result of this visit, almost 30 years after his letter of comfort and the poem was written to his mother, Joseph’s poems were published in a book called Hymns and Other Verses.

Not long after noted musician Charles C. Converse (1834-1918) put music to one of those poems: What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

Yet still no one knew the song… until D.L. Moody’s music director Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908), who was a great admirer of Joseph Scriven, got a hold of it. In 1875, Sankey came upon the music and words for What a Friend We Have in Jesus. He included it as the last entry into his well-known publication Sankey’s Gospel Hymns Number 1.

After Joseph Scriven’s death, the citizens of Port Hope, Ontario, Canada, where he gave so much of himself, erected a monument to his life. The seemingly sad and obscure life of one man resulted in so many lives being uplifted, both in his own time, and for many years after whenever the beautiful and comforting words of What a Friend We Have in Jesus are sung.

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

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 your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.

Blessed Savior, Thou hast promised Thou wilt all our burdens bear
May we ever, Lord, be bringing all to Thee in earnest prayer.
Soon in glory bright unclouded there will be no need for prayer
Rapture, praise and endless worship will be our sweet portion there.