Sunday, March 24, 2019

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was written by Joseph Medlicott Scriven. He was born in 1819 in Ireland and died in 1886 in Canada. Scriven wrote the poem in 1855 to comfort his mother during a troublesome season.

William Reynolds wrote the following concerning Scriven:
“Joseph Scriven, who lived near Port Hope, Ontario, wrote this hymn in 1855 to comfort his mother in a time of sorrow. A friend, visiting Scriven when he was ill, saw the manuscript of the poem and Scriven admitted having written it. To another friend Scriven once explained that ‘the Lord and I did it between us.’ Its first appearance seems to have been in Horace L. Hastings’ Social Hymns, Original and Selected (Boston, 1865), where it appears unsigned.” (From Hymns of Our Faith, William Jensen Reynolds, Nashville, TN, 1964, p. 224)
Reynolds follows his information with a quote from Ira David Sankey, in My Life and Sacred Songs, (1906, p. 279). I give below the hymn Sankey’s entire biography of Scriven.

In Hastings’s Social Hymns, Original and Selected the poem appeared as No. 242, without attribution. Later the song was properly attributed in Song of Pilgrimage: a Hymnal for the Churches of Christ, Second Edition (H. L. Hastings (1831-1899), Boston, MA: Scriptural Tract Repository, 1886, No. 1291, Page 446) as “Joseph Scriven, cir. 1855.” It has four stanzas, only three of which are found in most hymnals. The heading gives the scripture, “I have called you friends. John xv.15.” The meter is 8s & 7s.

1. What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!

2. 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.

3. 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.
[3 stanzas, above, in Silver Wings, see below]

4. Blessed Jesus, 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,
Shall be our sweet portion there.

From My Life and Sacred Songs, by Ira David Sankey, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906, pp. 279-281, What a Friend We Have in Jesus (pp. 279-281).

“Thousands have been cheered in time of trouble, and so led nearer to Christ, by this sweet and simple hymn; for very few hymns have been more widely published or more frequently sung. The author was born in Dublin in 1820, and went to Canada when he was twenty-five. There he lived a useful life until his death in 1886. The young lady to whom he was to be married was accidentally drowned on the eve of their wedding day. This led him to consecrate his life and fortune to the service of Christ. Though a graduate of Trinity College and a man of refinement, he chose humble duties. One afternoon he was seen walking down the streets of Port Hope where he lived, dressed as a plain working-man and carrying a saw-horse and a saw on his mission of help. A citizen, noticing that a friend recognized him, said:
“Do you know that man? What is his name? and where does he live? I want some one to cut wood, and I find it difficult to get a sober man to do the work faithfully.”
       “But you can’t get that man,” was the reply. “That is Mr. Scriven. He won’t cut wood for you.”
       “Why not?” queried the gentleman.
“Because you are able to pay for it. He only saws wood for poor widows and sick people.”
Until a short time before his death it was not known that he had a poetic gift. A neighbour, sitting up with him in his illness, happened upon a manuscript copy of “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” Reading it with great delight and questioning Mr. Scriven about it, he said that he had composed it for his mother, to comfort her in a time of special sorrow, not intending that any one else should see it. Some time later, when another Port Hope neighbour asked him if it was true that he composed the hymn, his reply was: “The Lord and I did it between us.”

   Returning from England in 1875, I soon became associated with P. P. Bliss in the publication of what later became known as “Gospel Hymns No. 1.” After we had given the completed compilation to our publishers I chanced to pick up a small paper-covered pamphlet of Sunday-school hymns, published at Richmond, Virginia. I discovered this and sang it through, and determined to have it appear in “Gospel Hymns.” As the composer of the music was my friend C. C. Converse, I withdrew from the collection one of his compositions and substituted for it, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” Thus the last hymn that went into the book became one of the first in favour.
   As published in the small Richmond hymnal, the authorship of the words was erroneously attributed to the great Scottish preacher and hymn-writer, Dr. Horatius Bonar. We were in error, also, in assigning the words to him. Some years afterwards Dr. Bonar informed us that he was not the author, and that he did not know who wrote it. It was not until six or eight years after the hymn first appeared in our collection that we learned who the author really was.

The music was written by Charles Crozat Converse and published in Silver Wings:  a Collection of Entirely New Sunday School Music in 1868 by Karl Reden (pseudonym of Charles C. Converse). Reden/Converse credits the source of the text as Genevan Presbyterian Church (of Brooklyn) Collection.

Other’s thoughts on What a Friend We Have in Jesus maybe be found HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

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