Hymn Story

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

Hymn lists by

book of Bible

Joseph Scriven was a man acquainted with grief.  Born in County Down, Ireland, he aspired as a young man to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Royal Marine, but his poor health made that impossible.  Then he fell in love and was engaged to be married, but his fiancee drowned before their wedding could take place.

To put as much distance as possible between himself and that tragedy, Scriven then moved to Canada.  While living there, he became engaged again, but his fiancee became ill and died before they could be married.

In his grief, Scriven determined to devote himself to a life of service.  He was especially known for carrying a bucksaw and cutting firewood for people in need.

Scriven received word that his mother was ill.  He couldn’t afford to return to Ireland, so he sent his mother a poem in the hope that it would comfort her.  The poem began, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!  What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!”  He later submitted a copy of his poem to a religious journal, where it was published.  A few years later, in 1866, he died.

But his poem lived on in ways that he could never have imagined.  Ira Sankey, a musician who worked with Dwight L. Moody, published it in a book of hymns, and Moody had it sung in his evangelistic meetings.  Soon “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was one of the best-known hymns in America.  Missionaries took it abroad, where people sang it in many languages.

This hymn has maintained its popularity for a century and a half—probably because a man acquainted with grief—who happened also to be acquainted with faith—helps us to see that faith can triumph over grief.

— Copyright 2007, Richard Niell Donovan