Thursday, April 9, 2009

What A Friend

Joseph Scriven is not a household name. Chances are you have never heard of him. He was born on September 10, 1819, in Ireland. When he was 24 years old he had an experience that changed his life. The night before he was to be married, his fiance drowned while he watched helplessly.

He decided to move far away from the place that claimed the life of his fiance. He came to Canada where he went to work for the Lord. He eventually settled around Port Hope on the north shore of Lake Ontario. He used his time to preach the gospel and to care for the poor and the widows. The local people referred to him as the man who saws wood and carries water for sick people and widows who are unable to pay.

He gave freely of his limited possessions, and never once refused to help anyone who needed it. His faith led him to do menial tasks for poor widows and the sick. He often worked for no wages and was regarded by the people of the community as a kind man, but a bit odd.

Joseph made a humble living as a country tutor who worked for a number of families in the Rice Lake area of Ontario. Joseph met Eliza Roche while he was tutoring for some of her relatives. He asked Eliza to marry him and she agreed. Shortly after their engagement Eliza fell ill with tuberculosis. She died in 1857, a few days before the date she and Joseph had set for their wedding. Fate had dealt Joseph Scriven another broken heart.

Around this time, Joseph learned that his mother was seriously ill. He didn't have the money to visit her back home in Ireland. When he wrote to her, he sent her a poem he had written as an encouragement. He called it "Pray Without Ceasing."

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.

Are his words familiar to you? You probably have heard them before.
Some time later when he himself was ill, a friend who came to call on him chanced to see the poem scribbled on scratch paper near the bed. The friend read it and asked Joseph if he had written the words. He replied, "The Lord and I did it between us."

Joseph never intended for the poem to be published, but it made its rounds as he gave copies to friends. One of the people he gave a copy to was a friend of his by the name of George Wilson, who published the local newspaper in the town of Port Hope, Ontario. Wilson was deeply impressed and was convinced he should print it in the paper so the whole town could enjoy it.

The people of Port Hope enjoyed the poem but quickly forgot it. And that would have been the last anyone ever heard of it except for the fact that somebody in Port Hope sent a parcel to New York City and wrapped it in the very newspaper that had Joseph’s poem in it. When the parcel arrived in New York , the recipient unwrapped it and saved the newspaper because she wanted to read it. She smoothed it out and began to read, and Joseph’s poem caught her attention. She read the poem several times and it moved her so much that she came to the conclusion that everybody in town should read it. She took it to a local New York newspaper, showed it to them and asked if they would be interested in printing it. They looked at it, and deciding that the readers would enjoy the piece, printed it under the title “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. A copy of the newspaper made its way to composer Charles Converse who composed music to go with Joseph Scriven’s words.

Ira D. Sankey discovered the hymn in 1875, just in time to include it in his well-known collection, Sankey's Gospel Hymns Number One. Later Sankey wrote, "The last hymn which went into the book became one of the first in favor."

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is a song that reminds us, as the Bible puts it in Proverbs 18:24 , A man who has friends must himself be friendly, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. No matter what we have to face in life, no matter how hard things get, we have a God who is always there for us. What a friend we have in Jesus!


  1. Some people are saints. We will always acknowledge them.

    CJ xx

  2. I've sung this wonderful hymn all my life but until now did not know the background. Thanks, Richard.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story...I have always loved that hymn...we sang it almost daily at the school I attended from fifth through eighth grade! I haven't thought of it in a long time. Beautiful post! Thank you!

  4. You are right, I never heard of his name before. Nice story and information there. Have a nice weekend and happy easter.

  5. I don't know this hymn. Your story about it is beautiful. A Happy Easter to you and your family.

  6. Richard
    Tks 4 the information, very touching like the hymn, it has never failed to encourage me when the going is tough and hopeless.

    Have a GLORIOUS Easter.

  7. I do know the name Joseph Scriven for the very reason you cite, the man who wrote the words of "What A Friend We Have In Jesus." Thank you for this interesting and touching post about his life and how his poem came to bless so many others.

    I hope you and your family have a wonderfully blessed Resurrection Day weekend.