What a Friend We Have in Jesus

The story behind the hymn

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 no 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 Saviour, 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

Joseph Medlicott Scriven BA 1819 - 1886

Only God, and the man in question really know what burdens of sorrow and affliction were heaped upon the writer of this great hymn. One thing we do know however, is that this beautiful and blessed hymn would not have been penned if the author had not known such trouble.

The writer was Joseph Scriven and he was born in 1819 near Banbridge in the heart of the rolling hills of County Down in Northern Ireland.

After graduating with a BA from Dublin's famous Trinity College Joseph seemed set for a brilliant career and a happy life for he was engaged to be married. But then tragedy struck! His fiancée was accidentally drowned on the very eve of their wedding and Joseph was plunged into his first great experience of sorrow. It was this tragedy however which brought him to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ as his Saviour.

At the age of 25 Joseph sailed for Canada to start a new life and hopefully to leave all his sorrows behind. But it was not to be, for ill health dogged him and he was forced to return to Ireland after only two months. Two years later he again set sail for Canada to take up a teaching post and later he graduated to the position of private tutor to the children of a military captain.

Life at last seemed worth living and prospects were continually improving. He met and fell in love with a charming young woman called Eliza Roche and soon they were engaged to be married. However bitter disappointment was once more to be his lot, for Eliza was suddenly stricken with a serious illness and died.

Cheated for the second time out of the prospects of a happy marriage by the cruel hand of death, Joseph quite naturally became the victim of severe depression and declining health. But despite all this he never gave up his personal faith in the Saviour. By this time he had settled in Port Hope, Ontario and managed a small dairy there. He became known as the local "Good Samaritan" helping the poor and under privileged, sharing his food with the needy and often giving them clothing.

However all these good deeds may well have been forgotten if Joseph Scriven had not written twenty four lines of poetry to comfort his mother who was suffering from a serious illness. It had been through trial and affliction that Joseph had come to know the Lord in a very personal way, not only as Saviour but also as a friend, so from the heart he could write the words of this lovely poem.

Joseph had not seen his ageing mother since he said goodbye to her over ten years before. He was not able to make the long journey back home to be with her, so he wrote, "What a friend we have in Jesus" and sent it with the prayer that it would remind her of the "never failing friend", Jesus Christ.

Joseph never intended his poem to be published but a friend who visited him during his last illness before he died discovered the lines and asked, "Who wrote these beautiful words?" Scriven's modest reply was, "The Lord and I did it between us".

Soon it was published in the, "Port Hope Guide" which was a local newspaper. Remarkably a copy of that newspaper was used to wrap a parcel destined for an address in New York. When the recipient unwrapped his parcel he caught sight of Scriven's poem and arranged for it to be published. Eventually it was seen by the composer Charles Converse and very soon his simple plaintive melody gave the wings of song to Joseph Scriven's telling words.

Joseph Scriven was, "A big man, of pleasant countenance," he was deeply respected locally for his charity, piety, lack of concern for his own needs, and adherence to Bible truth.

It is however, his personal testimony in this hymn that will be his lasting legacy for it has been a blessing and encouragement to millions around the world and is the favourite hymn of many Christians still today.


(Adapted from, "The Story Behind Great Hymns" by James McClelland Published by Ambassador Publications in 1983 and other sources).