Hymns & Hymn Writers: What a Friend We Have in Jesus

This may be one of our best-loved hymns. How many times have these words ministered to our souls in times of despair and grief? The words of this hymn were born from the heartbreak of Joseph Scriven, who proved the truths of this hymn in his own life.

He was born in Ballymoney, County Down, N. Ireland. His parents wanted him to pursue a military career, but the Lord had other plans. While he was at Trinity College in Dublin, he came into contact with the gospel, and he was saved by God’s grace. He was engaged to be married shortly after his graduation, at age 25. However, on the eve of his wedding, his bride-to-be drowned in the River Bann.

Heartbroken, he moved to Canada to start a new life. He taught school and tutored students. But his real love was the gospel –both preaching it publicly, and ministering it practically to the indigent and homeless. He became widely known as a man who had a real heart, and who lived for the needs of others.

He fell in love with another Christian woman, and again, a wedding was planned. However, she took ill with tuberculosis, suffering three years of lingering illness. He stayed with her the entire time, helping her family care for her, but after three years, the Lord called her home.

The sorrow that filled his heart this time seemed to stay with him for the rest of his days. In cases like these, some believers draw away from God, but he drew closer. This hymn was written during this time, but it was written as a poem for his mother in Ireland, to help her in her grief and loneliness, missing her son, and sorrowing for his loss.

He never intended these words to be published. It was not until he sustained an illness, nearly 30 years later, that a friend found these words among his papers. He asked Scriven, “Who wrote this?” Joseph Scriven answered “I wrote it. The Lord and I did it between us. Many years ago, my mother was going through a time of great sorrow, and was very ill, and I wrote it to comfort her.” Part of his added sorrow at the time these words were written, was that he was unable to return to Ireland to see her before she died. In October 1886, he developed an acute illness with a high fever. In his delirium, he rose from his bed, went outside his home, and fell into a creek, where he drowned. He was buried in Port Hope, Ontario, beside his second fiancée.

Shortly after his death, the words were published in the local newspaper. In a series of events orchestrated by the Lord, one of the pages of this paper was used to wrap a parcel for delivery to New York. The recipient caught sight of the words as he unwrapped the package, and arranged to have them published. The words then came to the American composer Charles Converse, and he wrote the simple tune that is still used today.

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.

The hymn was then discovered by Ira Sankey, who included it in his Sankey’s Great Gospel Hymns Number One. Of this hymn, Mr. Sankey said “The last hymn which went into the book became the first in favor.”

Several years ago, this writer had the great privilege to spend time with the dear Christians of the Crandon, VA assembly. The majority of the believers have been saved out from the Amish faith, and they have paid a great price to be gathered to the Lord’s Name. We had a hymn sing in one of their homes using the Believer’s Hymn Book. One of them gave out this hymn, and as we approached the second half of the third verse, a number stopped singing. I looked up to see tears on most faces as they sang of having friends and family, who had despised and forsaken them. They had felt the deep sadness, the test to their faith. But they had made a great Friend, Who was there for them through every dark night.

It is one of the amazing truths of the gospel, that while we were enemies to grace and to God, the Lord Jesus came here to us, and called us His friends. Our love to Him arises, not from within our fallen natures, but because of the changes wrought out of His great love to us. And this Savior, Redeemer, and Shepherd has become our dearest Friend.

Such was the Friend Who drew near to Joseph Scriven in his sorrow and grief. Such is our Friend, Who will never leave us or forsake us, and Who sticks closer than any relative or earthly friend.