“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is one of the most beloved hymns in Christian worship.
While many know the words and the tune, not many know the history behind the song.
Joseph M. Scriven was born in 1819 in Banbridge, Ireland.
Scriven grew up educated and graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland in 1842. He was set to be married in 1843. With a strong education and a new fiancee, Scriven had a bright life ahead of him.
Then a tragedy struck Scriven that would change his life forever. The night before his wedding day, Scriven’s fiancee fell off her horse while crossing a bridge over the River Bann. She fell into the water below and drowned.
Stricken with grief, Scriven turned to both religion and travel to cope with the death of his love.
His faith in Christ and his study of the Sermon on the Mount led Scriven to dedicate himself to a life of poverty, service, and preaching at the young age of 25.
Seeking new beginnings, Scriven moved near Port Hope, Canada in 1845. He sold all his possessions and lived with a local family, earning his keep through chores such cutting wood and milking cows.
An educated man, Scriven became a tutor to many children around Port Hope. He also spent time preaching the gospel and offering free labor to the impoverished who could not afford to hire a hand. He was a beloved man in his adopted community.
In 1855, Scriven received word that his mother had fallen ill.
He did not have the funds to return to Ireland to visit her. Seeking a way to comfort her, he drew on his own experience with pain and tragedy and the peace he found through faith. He wrote and mailed her a poem which he called “Pray Without Ceasing.”
Scriven published the poem anonymously. It was later discovered by music publishers, who were moved by the lyrics. Then composer Charles Crozat Converse set it to music in 1868.
The resulting hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” exploded in popularity and soon found itself in music books around the world.
It wasn’t until many years later that Scriven was identified as the author of the words. A friend of Scriven’s, visiting Scriven when he was ill, discovered a copy of the original poem in a stack of papers. When asked, Scriven said he and the Lord wrote the song together.
Although Scriven died of drowning in 1886, the legacy of the poem he wrote to his mother lives on.
While a classic hymn in most English-speaking churches, the song’s influence goes far beyond that. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” has been translated into many languages. It is the most popular Christian song in Japan, and is commonly the opening hymn at Western-style weddings in Japan.
Here’s Alan Jackson’s rendition of What a Friend We Have in Jesus: