History of Hymns: 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus'
By C. Michael Hawn
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
By Joseph Scriven
The United Methodist Hymnal, 526
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 not carry
everything to God in prayer.
How does a personal poem written to a mother from a despondent son, recently immigrated from England to a relatively remote section of Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, become one of the most widely sung hymns in the world?
Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1819–1886) was born in Seapatrick, Ireland (now Northern Ireland,) and died in Ontario, Canada. After attending classes at Trinity College, Dublin, he pursued a military career, where he trained for service in India; but had to abandon that ambition because of his poor health. He returned to Trinity and graduated in 1842.
Scriven’s life was full of tragedy. Following the accidental drowning of his Irish fiancée the evening before their wedding, he moved to Woodstock, Canada West (now Ontario) in 1844, where he led a Plymouth Brethren fellowship and taught. Scriven organized a private school in 1850 in Brantford and preached in the area. Some scholars believe that Scriven may have composed his initial draft of “What a Friend” written during this time.
Moving near Clinton in Huron County in 1855, he read the Bible to railway construction workers who were building the Grand Trunk Railway across the Canada West. By 1857, he relocated to Bewdley, supporting himself as a private tutor to the family of Robert Lamport Pengelly, a retired naval officer. Tragedy struck again when his second fiancée, Eliza Catherine Roach, Pengelly’s niece, died in 1860 of an illness shortly before their wedding. Scriven then returned to ministry among the Plymouth Brethren in Bewdley, near Rice Lake (McKellar and Leask, Canterbury Dictionary, n.d.). Hymnologist Albert Bailey noted that Scriven, a selfless person by nature, was known as “the man who saws wood for poor widows and sick people who are unable to pay” (Bailey, 1950, p. 495).
The Dictionary of Canadian Biography
describes what we know about the circumstances surrounding Scriven's death in October 1886:
His last days were clouded with ill-health and despondency. James Sackville, his friend and fellow-believer, found Scriven ill and brought him to his house. One hot night in 1866, Scriven left his bed without disturbing anyone, probably to drink at a nearby spring: some hours later, presumably having fainted or fallen, he was found dead in the spillway of Sackville's grist-mill, a few feet from the spring. He was buried in the Pengelly burial-ground in an unmarked grave between Eliza Roach and Commander Pengelly (Macpherson, “Scriven,” n.d.).
A few days before Scriven’s death, Sackville found the dejected Scriven “prostrate in mind and body and heard him say, ‘I wish the Lord would take me home’” (Cleland, 1895, p. 17). It was never determined if his death was accidental or a suicide. A monument was later erected over his gravesite by friends and neighbors. Joseph Medlicott Scriven's historical marker was placed in Otanabee-South Monaghan, Ontario, Canada, marking his homestead and burial place.
Origins of 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus'
Scriven published a collection of his poetic works, Hymns and Other Verses, which included seventy-one hymns “intended to be sung in assemblies of the children of God on the first day of the week and on other occasions when two or three are met together in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” These were followed by thirty-four scriptural paraphrases “not to be sung in the assembly, but to express truth, as well as convey comfort, instruction or reproof to our hearts, in order that we may walk together in obedience” (Scriven, 1869, Preface). “What a Friend,” the hymn for which he is known, does not appear in the collection, however. Why not?
Some writers have noted that the hymn was written for his mother, who was suffering from illness. Musical evangelist Ira D. Sankey (1840–1908) spread this account (cited in Bailey, 1950, pp. 495–496). This assertion is hard to verify, however. A statement from Scriven’s biography (1895) by James Cleland includes the author's mother in the dissemination of the hymn but does not clarify other details:
When residing at the house of his friend Mr. Sackville, near Rice Lake, he composed this hymn; making two copies, one of which he sent to his mother, in Dublin, and gave the other to Mrs. Sackville, which the old lady, now over eighty years of age values highly. Probably it was through his mother that the hymn was given to the public (Cleland, 1895, p. 13).
If indeed “What a Friend” were composed as a personal poem, it may explain why it did not appear in the collection the author published in 1869. The personal first-person plural perspective contrasts with other hymns by the author. As one author noted, “almost all of his others are more firmly constructed, without emotional softness, and developed from biblical texts” (Macpherson, “Scriven,” n.d.). Carl Daw Jr. has also noted the differences between "What a Friend" and the author's published works in Hymns and other verses, supporting the hypothesis that the poem was intended for his ailing mother rather than public use (Daw, 2016, p. 470).
Some commentaries state that the text was first published in J.B. Packard’s Spiritual Minstrel: A Collection of Hymns and Music (1857), but this is erroneous, according to hymnologist Chris Fenner (See Fenner, 2020, n.p.). The hymn appeared as we know it anonymously in three stanzas of eight lines each in Social Hymns, Original and Selected (1865), compiled by Horace Lorenzo Hastings. New England composer and church musician Charles Converse (1832–1918) then included the text in his Silver Wings (1870) with his tune under his pen name Karl Reden, a Germanization of his name (“reden” meaning “to speak” or “converse”). He states that he obtained the text from the privately produced hymnal, "Genevan Presbyterian Church (of Brooklyn) Collection." No copy of this hymnal appears to be extant. Converse's tune paired with the text gained prominence with Ira Sankey and spread in his revivals with Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899). Published in Sankey’s Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (1875), later known as Gospel Hymns No. 1., Sankey mistakenly attributed the hymn to Scottish hymnwriter Horatius Bonar (1808–1889), an assertion disputed by Bonar.
The text has remained unusually stable with few editorial alterations over the years. Edward Samuel Caswell (1861–1938) published an early manuscript version signed by Scriven that was titled “Pray without Ceasing” (from 1 Thessalonians 5:17) in 1919. It appeared in four quatrains, the first three of which are familiar. The fourth reads as follows:
Are we cold and unbelieving,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Here the Lord is still our refuge:
Take it to the Lord in prayer. (See the manuscript at Fenner, 2020, n.p.)
Of the hymn, Caswell stated that it was “beyond question the best-known piece of Canadian literature” (Macpherson, “Scriven,” n.d.).
Stanza 1 establishes that Jesus is a friend that can bear our sins and burdens. This theme appears in the eighteenth century with Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” (1740) and John Newton’s “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” (1779). Nineteenth-century hymnwriters are especially known for expressing their personal friendship with Jesus. For example, see Louisa M.R. Stead’s “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” (1882), Elisha A. Hoffman’s “I Must Tell Jesus All of My Trials” (1894), and Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine” (1873). The author uses the first-person plural perspective—perhaps indicating that he and his mother (“we”) have a bond in prayer and need not suffer sin and grief alone.
The second stanza asks two rhetorical questions—rhetorical because, indeed, all humans suffer “trials and temptations” and witness “trouble.” The answer becomes a short refrain: “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” A third rhetorical question asks, “Can we find a friend so faithful . . .?” The intimate friendship with the one who “knows our every weakness” is the source of solace. The refrain returns: “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”
The third stanza reframes the premise of the song with different questions, while the theme remains the same:
Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Do your friends despise, forsake you?
The answer to both questions is, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” The closing image of Jesus enfolding his friend in his arms is also a common trope in many hymns from this era. The two most known are Fanny Crosby’s “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” (1868) and Elisha Hoffman’s “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (1887).
Hymnologist Fred Gealy found an additional stanza published in Hastings’ Songs of Pilgrimage: A Hymnal for the Churches of Christ (Boston, 1886; Second Ed. 1888) with the following fourth stanza:
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.
Since this seems to be the only hymnal to include this stanza, it may have been added by the editor who felt that an eschatological focus was more theologically suitable for a closing stanza.
Albert Bailey notes correctly that Scriven’s poetry is of relatively low quality with monotonous rhymes (Scriven uses five words to rhyme with “prayer”—some multiple times) and trite language. But even Bailey admits, “Our criticism is made harmless by the tremendous service the hymn has rendered. Any unlettered person can understand it; the humblest saint can take its admonitions to heart, practice prayer, find his load more bearable and [her] spiritual life deepened” (Bailey, 1950, p. 496).
Paul Westermeyer offers a critique from a Lutheran perspective, noting:
It has been a source of comfort for many who have sung it, though paradoxically it has also been a part of a Protestantism that denies its own heritage by turning prayer into work to control God’s grace. The repeated line “Take it to the Lord in prayer” relates to . . . comfort, and forfeiting peace or suffering pain “All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer” suggests our capacity to save ourselves by the work of our prayer (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 606).
Carl Daw offers a different analysis: “As a hymn of assurance, it has served as an effective reminder of the centrality of prayer in a well-rounded spirituality. Unfortunately, singing it has often been a substitute for the comprehensive prayer life it advocates, and its advice has been cherished, but not followed” (Daw, 2016, p. 471).
While other tunes appear with this text, CONVERSE by Charles Converse is the most popular. Carlton Young suggests that CONVERSE is reminiscent of Stephen Foster tunes of the era and provides a perfect musical vehicle for this prayerful text. He notes that this tune follows the same general melodic contour as Foster’s “Jeanie with the light brown hair” (Young, 1993, pp. 687–688). Converse, a Massachusetts native, was an associate of William Bradbury (1816–1868) and Ira Sankey in revivals and the Sunday school movement.
The range of recording artists who have sung this song is staggering from long-established white performers Pat Boone (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcHbzSi7fho&feature=emb_title), Rosemary Clooney, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton to African American gospel artists Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and Ike and Tina Turner (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay1lUmnaZfA&feature=emb_title). More recently, Contemporary Christian artist Paul Baloche has recorded the song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pJb0nUiZWc&feature=emb_title), indicating that it continues to have a witness to younger generations. Baloche’s improvisatory coda bridges the nineteenth century with the twenty-first. The hymn’s inclusion in the film Driving Miss Daisy (1969) as sung by Little Friendship Missionary Baptist Church Choir (Decatur, Georgia) confirms its iconic status in the genre.
The simple language becomes a virtue in translation, and the folk-like melody easily transcends cultures around the world. The musical treatment of CONVERSE varies in each cultural setting, but the message remains the same. There are few hymns that I have heard more regularly around the world. Scriven’s biographer, James Cleland, noted in 1895, “In the steerage of the steamer, a traveler returning from Europe, heard a mixed company, who spoke different languages, united in singing this hymn” (Cleland, 1895, pp. 5–6). One hundred years later, this author verifies hearing this song sung in various languages and renditions, including a humble congregation for people with leprosy near Ogbomosho, Nigeria; a Filipino Anglican congregation in Manila; a thriving Baptist congregation in Matanzas, Cuba; and an African American Methodist congregation in Atlanta. A modest poem, written in Canada as a private meditation for the author's mother in Ireland, has found its way into many hearts worldwide and, undoubtedly, has been a source of comfort for millions of Christians for more than one hundred fifty years.
Albert E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950).
James Cleland, What a Friend We Have in Jesus and Other Poems by Joseph Scriven with a Sketch of the Author (Port Hope: W. Williamson, Publishers, 1895): https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b11858da2772cf01402ee6e/t/5d39e5d9fe96670001ff42a6/1564075486316/Scriven-WhataFriend-1895.pdf (accessed December 27, 2020).
Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
Chris Fenner, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Hymnology Archive (February 2020), https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/what-a-friend-we-have-in-jesus (accessed December 26, 2020).
Margaret Leask, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus, ”The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/w/what-a-friend-we-have-in-jesus (accessed December 26, 2020).
Hugh D. McKellar and Margaret Leask, “Joseph Medlicott Scriven,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/joseph-medlicott-scriven (accessed December 26, 2020).
Jay Macpherson, “Scriven, Joseph Medlicott,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Vol XI (1881–1890), http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/scriven_joseph_medlicott_11E.html (accessed December 26, 2020).
Joseph Medlicott Scriven, Hymns and Other Verses (Peterborough: James Stephens, 1869): https://archive.org/details/cihm_24372/page/n5/mode/2up (accessed December 26, 2020).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2010).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.