Hymn History: What A Friend We Have In Jesus February 9, 2022

What A Friend We Have In Jesus

 A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24

We are thrilled to share a series of brief accounts of how some of the great hymns of our faith were written. Each synopsis has been compiled through the research of Jerry Vargo and is shared by permission. It is our hope that these stories will be a help and encouragement to your Christian walk. In this article we examine the amazing story of the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”


Joseph Scriven was born in Ireland in 1820. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin, and was engaged to be married to his Irish sweetheart – then tragedy struck.  All preparations had been made for the wedding ceremony and the date had been fixed. But the day before the wedding, his promised bride was accidentally drowned, and he was plunged into the deepest of sorrow.  When Joseph saw her body being taken from the water he suffered shock which was to stay with him the remainder of his life.

Trying to escape his immense sorrow, he went across the ocean to Port Hope, Ontario, Canada.  He put thousands of miles between his familiar Dublin home and the difficult memories it carried.

Because he had a college education, Joseph found employment as a private tutor to the children of a wealthy family named Pengally.  Joseph became a live-in tutor. He soon found a man who was to become his best friend, James Sackville.

In 1855, Scriven’s received word that his mother was seriously ill. Unable to be with her, he wrote a poem entitled, “Pray Without Ceasing.” He kept a copy of the poem in his desk drawer and put it out of his mind.

Joseph fell in love a second time. He met a beautiful woman named Eliza Catherine Roche, daughter of Lieutenant Andrew Roche of the Canadian Royal Navy. Tragedy struck again. Six weeks before they were to be married, Eliza contacted tuberculosis and died.

With these two tragic blows, Joseph determined to give himself to helping others. The twenty-five year old Scriven took a vow of poverty, sold all of his earthly possessions, and vowed to give his life to the physically handicapped and financially destitute. He preached at the Balieboro Baptist Church whenever they needed someone to fill in for the pastor. Joseph gave away his income to needy people. faithfully, he cut firewood for widows and needy people who had no money. He overcame his sorrow by losing himself in the help of others.

Scriven had short grey hair, a close cropped beard, sparkling blue eyes, and the face of an angel. He spoke to everyone he came in contact with about the love of Jesus. People would often ask if they could hire him to cut wood for them to which he would respond, “I only help those in need and ask nothing in return”.

In 1886, thirty one years later, his body was worn, his mind weary with disappointment, and he was no longer living with the Pengally family.  His friend James Sackville took him to live with himself and to care for him. Joseph was very ill and wanted his friend James to write down his last will and testament. James went to Joseph’s desk to get a piece of paper and pen and found the poem that Joseph had sent to his mother so long ago.

“Where did you get this poem?” James asked.  Joseph told him that it was a poem he wrote to his mother before she died. Joseph said, “The Lord and I did it between us”.

Joseph’s condition worsened.  One day James went to Joseph’s room to check on him and found the room empty. A search was made around the property and finally Joseph’s body was found near a shallow creek. In his delirium, Joseph had staggered from his room and gone down to a nearby creek. They found him on his knees, in a position of prayer, face down in six inches of water, drowned. He did not live to see his song carried to every corner of the globe.

James sent Joseph’s poem to a Christian newspaper and it was published.  Indeed, for some time after it was printed its authorship was unknown, being sometimes incorrectly attributed to Dr. Horatius Bonar. The poem was set to music by C.C. Converse, an attorney who worked to compose church songs, and quickly found its way into nearly every hymnbook since then. Later, Scriven became recognized as the author of the hymn that has blessed so many thousands of believers.

Two decades later, the great American evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, came across the song and believed it to be the most touching modern hymns that he had ever heard. It was Moody who gave the song a national platform.

Joseph Scriven died on August 10, 1886. His tale would hardly seem to warrant a page in church history were it not for one fact: he is the man who wrote a hymn that must rank among the ten best-known and most-beloved of all time. That hymn is “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”


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 pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!


Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful,
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.


Are we weak and heavy-laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.


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  1. Raymond Ricard on February 9, 2022 at 11:39 AM

    What a blessing this hymn has been to me also. The Lord took my first wife in 1970 and my second one in 2019.
    When our God give a blessing to His dear children Joseph Scriven, it is wonderful that those blessing are lasting because of whom is at the center of the blessing: Christ our Lord.
    Thank you for this good initiave telling the reason for those hymns.

    • Sue Hardy on February 10, 2022 at 6:41 AM

      Love to hear these stories Scott. I have the book on many hymn authors and cherish it. Thank you!!???

  2. Israelee on February 9, 2022 at 9:07 PM


  3. Susie Hall on March 26, 2022 at 11:51 PM

    What a Friend!! Amen

    • scottpauley on March 31, 2022 at 5:55 PM


  4. Jim on August 4, 2022 at 4:40 AM

    When I was young my parents, missionaries sometimes drove thousands of miles with us in the car. This hymn is one of the many that my mum sang as we travelled, and it has stuck with me because of her and most of all because of the deep, deep truth in the words. I can hear her voice now, and what a friend is our Lord and Savior Jesus!

    • scottpauley on August 6, 2022 at 9:09 AM

      Great memories. Great truth.

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