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by Victor M. Parachin
There are some hymns that began and remain the parochial property of one branch of the church or another, and then there are hymns that are, at once, embraced across a broad ecclesiastical front. Few hymns have been adopted so readily, or remained poplar for so many years, as Joseph Scriven’s “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.”
What should have been the happiest time in his life became his most traumatic. It began with these words from a messenger: “Joseph, come quickly! Something terrible has happened.”
Young Joseph Scriven, joyously anticipating his wedding the following day, raced to his fiancee’s home only to find her family weeping.
“She’s dead, Joseph,” a family member explained. “Drowned on the very eve of your wedding!”
The pain which ensued drove Joseph Scriven, 25, from his home city of Dublin, Ireland, to a small community in Canada. In 1845 Scriven left Ireland settling in Port Hope, Ontario, a rural village located near the great lake. Because he was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, Scriven was able to find work as tutor for the children of a prosperous retired naval officer. While he tutored, the pain of grief eased, but when he was unoccupied, his hurt was almost unbearable.
In order to find further relief from bereavement, Scriven used his time off helping poor families in Port Hope and the nearby village of Bowden. A natural philanthropist and a deeply committed Christian, Scriven gave gifts of cash to the poor, repaired homes of widows, and donated his clothing to the less fortunate. In a short period of time he became known as “the man who saws wood for poor widows and sick people who are unable to pay.”
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Sometime in 1857 Scriven received a letter from his family in Ireland advising him, “Your mother is gravely ill.”
Because he was in the habit of giving away all of his savings, Scriven could not afford the trip back to Ireland. Greatly troubled that he could not be with his mother through her illness, Scriven poured out his heart in prayer.
During that time alone with God, a transformation took place in his heart as the burden of anxiety over his mother was lifted and peace flooded his life. Deeply inspired by that time of prayer, Scriven wrote out his thoughts in these now famous words:
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 pains we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Scriven titled his poem “Pray Without Ceasing” and enclosed it in a letter to his mother.
Shortly before his 40th birthday, Scriven again found love in the person of Miss Eliza Roche. Engaged, the couple planned their wedding.
Again, his life was to be shattered. Eliza Roche contracted tuberculosis and died before they could marry. With the pain of grief thrust upon him now a second time, Scriven devoted himself completely into the service of others.
Friends described him this way: “He considered the needs of others more urgent than his own and gave his entire income to their cause.”
Associated with the Plymouth Brethren, Scriven also served as a traveling preacher in their churches.
Sadly, on Aug. 10, 1886, Scriven stumbled and fell into a small stream near Rice Lake, where he drowned. His life of service for the poor was held in such high esteem that the people of the area erected a monument in his memory near Port Hope in 1920. It reads: “Four miles north in Pengelly’s Cemetery lies the philanthropist and author of the great masterpiece written at Port Hope 1857.” That inscription is followed by the three stanzas of Scriven’s hymn, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.”
It is not clear exactly how Scriven’s poem came to be published, but the words first appeared in a Sunday school songbook in 1870. One who took special interest in the new song was Ira D. Sankey, the famous gospel singer who accompanied Dwight L. Moody on his evangelistic crusades.
Sankey offers this account of how the words were written: “A neighbor sitting up with [Scriven] during an 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, Mr. Scriven said he had composed it for his mother, to comfort her in a time of special sorrow, not intending that anyone else should see it. Some time later, when another neighbor asked him if it was true he had composed the hymn, his reply was, ‘The Lord and I did it between us.'”
Sankey later included Scriven’s words in a song book he was preparing titled, Gospel Hymns No. 1. He put the hymn as the last song in the book.
Later Sankey would say: “The last hymn that went into the book became one of the first in favor.”
Scriven’s hymn remains a favorite among Christians and continues to be included in hymnals. The words he penned to comfort his mother still inspire people to trust God more deeply especially in times of difficulty.
A popular author recounted a conversation he had with Mary Cushman (a pseudonym) and whose life was transformed by Scriven’s words. During the Depression, Cushman’s husband earned a mere 18 dollars per week. The work was sporadic. It was never enough to feed and clothe their family of five children. After a series of accidents and illnesses that prevented her husband from working, the family lost the little house they had built with their own hands. In addition, they owed 50 dollars at the local grocery store. To simply survive, Mary Cushman took in washing and ironing from the neighbors. She bought secondhand clothing from the Salvation Army store and made them over for her children to wear.
“I made myself ill with worry,” she said.
One day the grocer to whom they owed 50 dollars accused her 11-year-old son of stealing a couple of pencils. He wept bitterly as he told his mother about the incident. Mrs. Cushman knew her son was honest and sensitive, and she knew he had been disgraced and humiliated in front of other people.
Consumed with worry and frustration, that incident became the final blow to Mrs. Cushman’s spirit. A few days later she took her little five year-old daughter into the bedroom and plugged up the windows and cracks with paper and rags. Then she turned on the gas heater in the bedroom but didn’t light it. She lay down on the bed with her daughter beside her.
“Then I closed my eyes, listening to the gas escape from the heater,” she said. “I shall never forget the smell of that gas.”
Suddenly Mrs. Cushman thought she heard music. She listened and realized she had forgotten to turn off the radio in the kitchen. The music continued and she soon heard someone singing the words of a 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.”
As she listened to that hymn, Mrs. Cushman realized she had made a tragic mistake.
“I had tried to fight all my terrible battles alone. I had not taken everything to God in prayer,” she recalled. Quickly she leapt into action turning off the gas, opening the door and raising the windows. “I wept and prayed all the rest of that day. Only I didn’t pray for help – instead I poured out my soul in thanksgiving to God for the blessings he had given me: five splendid children – all of them healthy and fine, strong in body and mind. I promised God that never again would I prove so ungrateful. And I have kept that promise.”
More than a century later, Scriven’s hymn continues to touch lives.
Albert Edward Bailey, author of “The Gospel in Hymns,” says that Scriven’s hymn provides a tremendous service: “Any unlettered person can understand it; the humblest saint can take its admonitions to heart, practice prayer, find his load more bearable and his spiritual life deepened.”
Victor M. Parachin is a Claremont, CA pastor and author whose works focus on grief counseling ministry.