What a Friend We Have in Jesus

Joseph Striven, 1820-86

What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear!  

This is a song for the lonely—-those  who ever have been, are, or will be—written by a man who was familiar with friendship and acquainted with grief. Various threads of his life story-—-the tragedy, the mercy, the mystery-—-bear retelling.


After graduating from Trinity College in Dublin and spending several years in a military college, Joseph Scriven was forced by poor health to switch careers. Taking up theology, he studied for the Anglican ministry though in time he decided not to "go for" ordination.

Then, the night before Scriven was to be married, his bride was thrown from a horse—into the river in which she drowned.

Some say Scriven never quite recovered from this loss. At the age of twenty-five he left Ireland-—-alone—for Canada, where he was a family tutor on Rice Lake in Ontario. There Scriven fell in love again, but alas tragedy struck twice: his fiancee died of pneumonia, shortly after being baptized in the biting cold lake.

It seems that Scriven wrote "What a Friend" at this juncture-—-in 1855, for his mother, possibly sending it to her with the news of his misfortune and grief. (Can a mother bear her son's sorrow?) One copy he mailed to Ireland. Another-—-of draft manuscript quality and titled "Pray without Ceasing"-— went into his own scrapbook. It's not at all clear how the poem-—-with no author attribution at all—found its way into an 1865 book published in Boston: Social Hymns, Original and Selected. Ten years later Ira Sankey made a last minute substitution to include it in a widely distributed gospel-song collection. He later noted that "the last hymn that went into the book became one of the first in favor."


Scriven never did marry. He was increasingly viewed as an eccentric—sometimes tormented by town toughs. But if eccentric, the element was entwined with a faith that worked. He was known for "preaching to everyone about the love of Jesus." There was nothing empty about his words; a friend to the needy, he went about doing good, for example, sawing wood for the sick and the widows too poor to hire help. (It's said he would be "handyman" only for people who couldn't pay for his services.) "When he saw a need, he gave people money (not that he had much), his own winter clothing, his time. After Scriven's death a liquor salesman in town said, "If ever there was a saint on earth, it was Joseph Scriven."


Never robust, Scriven's health failed him before he reached nature's allotted three-score years and ten. Hearing of his predicament, friends took him in. Thumbing through Scriv-. en's scrapbooks, his host-nurse, a Mr. Sackville, found an old handwritten copy of the popular song. The wheels began churning. "Did you write this?" he asked.


For my mother, he explained. I didn't intend anyone else to see it.


When asked again—directly—-if he'd written the poem, Scriven answered, "The Lord and I did it between us."

This one statement makes me think this man knew the friendship of Christ as well as he knew grief. 

To Scriven, Christ was a present partner, a burden bearer, helpmate who came alongside to inspire, to encourage, and help carry the load. "Can we find a friend so faithful / Who will all our sorrows share?" This is the type of friend noted in Proverbs 18:24 - "who sticks closer than a brother." This is the Friend who "took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows" (Isaiah 53:4).


And Jesus is the Friend who remains steady, still today. When we're lonely, feeling abandoned, in need of a soul mate. Jesus' word to his disciples might be his word to us: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters' business. Instead, I have called you friends" (John 15:15).


Lord, allow me to know you as the friend who sticks closer than a brother. 

I might end the- story there; but Scriven's death is shrouded with such mystery that I cannot cut short the account. October 9—10, 1886: Scriven was sick, feverish, possibly delirious. He was also by some accounts severely depressed over his deteriorating health and his inability to care, for himself, physically and financially. Some postulate that he was still haunted by the loss of his first love, river-swept from his life. With what intent or purpose, no one knows, but sometime in the night he left his bed. In the morning he was found down by the lake, on his knees as if in prayer, his forehead to the ground—drowned in six shallow inches of water.


From the book "Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns" by Evelyn Bence.


Oh how tragic to loose two to-be wives like that. Yes through times of sorrow and hardship, some can write the most beautiful spiritual songs. This on "What a Friend we Have in Jesus" has to be now one of the most famous and beloved spiritual hymns of all time.


Keith Hunt