What a Friend We Have in Jesus is a familiar hymn in many denominations, but it did not come about in one of the more conventional ways. I’ve researched and written about several hymns that were written by song writers who intentionally set out to write a hymn of praise and worship, but this hymn began as a poem meant for private usage and when first publihed, credit was not give to the writer.
What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
Joseph Scriven (1819-1886) was born in Dublin, Ireland (in 1819 or 1820, depending on who you ask) and graduated from Trinity College there. When his health did not allow him to enroll in the military, he emigrated to Canada at the age of 25 and became a teacher.
What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer!
Scriven faced two different tragedies concerning two different fiancees. The first died in a drowning accident just before they were to be wed in 1844. This seems to have happened (my sources are unclear) while Scriven still lived in Ireland though he would have emigrated shortly afterward. In 1855, while in Ontario, Scriven had a second fiancee who succumbed to an illness before they could be married.
Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh, what needless pain we bear!
Scriven wrote the words for what became “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (which he titled “Pray Without Ceasing”) for his mother, grieving in Ireland. He sent them to her as a poem of comfort. How it eventually became published is not known, as Scriven had not intended it for public use. Consequently, it was for some time credited to Doctor Horatius Bonar. It was while Scriven was sick and a friend was visiting that the manuscript was discovered among his things. When asked if he was actually the one who had written the hymn, Scriven replied, “The Lord and I did it between us.”
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!
Scriven spent the rest of his life trying to live by the Sermon on the Mount. His neighbors considered him odd because of his work with the poor and physically disabled. Sadly, though he gave and shared all he could, he still suffered greatly from depression. So much so that when he died from drowning in Rice Lake, it was unknown if his death was an accident or suicide.
As with any hymn we include in our worship of God, more important than its beginnings (for the writer is only a tool in God’s hand) is: how true to the Scriptures are the words? If we sing words that don’t honor Him, then we are certainly not worshiping Him in Spirit and in truth, and in fact, may be in danger of blasphemy or of breaking the third commandment.
So, is Jesus our Friend? One we can bring all our sins and griefs? Can we bring everything to Him in prayer and expect Him to care? I believe these two verses answer those questions very well.
“On the day I called, You answered me; And You made me bold and confident with [renewed] strength in my life.” Psalm 138:3 (Amplified Version)
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Hebrews 4:14-16 (NIV)
One Hundred and One Hymn Stories Carl F. Price; Abingdon-Cokesbury Press; 1923
Near to the Heart of God Robert J. Morgan. Baker Publishing Group
Sankey’s Favorite Hymns and Songs: A Selection and their Stories. (p. 131). White Tree Publishing.