History of Hymns: Famed hymn begins as poem in time of sorrow
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
UM Hymnal, No. 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.
Personal experience always influences a hymn writer in some manner. Famed revival song leader Ira Sankey notes that “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was written around 1855 to comfort the author’s mother “in a time of special sorrow, not intending that anyone else should see it.”
Joseph W. Scriven (1819-1886) was born in Ireland and died in Ontario, Canada. After attending classes at Trinity College Dublin, he pursued a military career, but had to abandon this ambition because of poor health. He returned to Trinity and graduated in 1842.
Scriven’s life was full of tragedy. When his Irish fiancée was drowned accidentally the evening before their wedding, he moved to Canada where his Canadian fiancée also died after a brief illness.
He became a member of the Plymouth Brethren and dedicated his life to the care of the physically handicapped and poor. Hymnologist Albert Bailey notes that Scriven was known as “the man who saws wood for poor widows and sick people who are unable to pay.”
Later in life he suffered depression and died by drowning. It was never determined if his death was an accident or a suicide. His grateful neighbors erected a monument to his memory.
Baptist hymnologist William Reynolds notes that this hymn was first included in Spiritual Minstrel: A Collection of Hymns and Music (1857). The late Perkins School of Theology professor, Fred Gealy, found it anonymously contained in Social Hymns, Original and Selected (1865) 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.
The melody CONVERSE by Charles Converse (1832-1918) is reminiscent of Stephen Foster tunes of the era, and provides a perfect musical vehicle for this prayerful text. The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes that this tune follows the same general melodic contour as “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” Converse, a Massachusetts native, was an associate of William Bradbury and Ira Sankey in revivals and the Sunday School movement.
Albert Bailey notes correctly that Scriven’s poetry is of relatively poor quality with monotonous rhymes (there are seven words that 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.”
There are few hymns that I have heard more regularly around the world than “What a Friend”—from a humble congregation for lepers near Ogbomosho, Nigeria and a Filipino Anglican congregation in Manila, to a thriving Baptist congregation in Matanzas, Cuba and an African-American Methodist congregation in Atlanta.
The simple language becomes a virtue in translation and the folk-like melody seems to transcend cultures around the world easily. The musical treatment of CONVERSE varies in each cultural setting, but the message remains the same.
A modest poem, written in Canada as private meditation for the author’s mother in Ireland, has found its way into many hearts around the world and, undoubtedly, has been a vehicle of comfort for millions of Christians for over 150 years.