A Poem for Mom Becomes a Classic Hymn – Story Behind “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” Lyrics

story behind what a friend we have in jesus lyrics

While a great many have heard the hymn in traditional church services or during funeral services, few know the story behind the lyrics of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Like the song itself, the story of songwriter Joseph Medlicott Scriven and the penning of his timeless poem is both inspiring and hopeful.

Story Behind ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ Lyrics

Born in Northern Seapatrick, Ireland, in 1819 to a wealthy and devoted family, Joseph Scriven received his degree from Trinity College. He was scheduled to marry his childhood sweetheart in the spring of 1844. However, on the eve of their wedding, the young woman was thrown from her horse and drowned as she rode to meet Joseph along the River Bann.

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Devastated and convinced that he would only ever see the image of his beloved fiancé and the day he'd dreamed of and never realized, Joseph decided to leave his home in Ireland. By 1845, he had settled in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada.

After losing his fiancé, Joseph dedicated his life to serving God. He was 25 years old when he made a vow of poverty, sold his possessions, and began helping those in need. Joseph Scriven preached and read the Bible wherever he found people gathered together. He provided for himself by teaching school, and he often gave his time cutting wood for others in the community.

Hymnologist Albert Bailey wrote in his 1950 book The Gospel in Hymns that Mr. Scriven was recognized as "the man who saws wood for poor widows and sick people who are unable to pay."

More Tragedy For Joseph Scriven

Approximately ten years after Joseph's fiancé's tragic death, he fell in love and was to be married to another. Eliza Roach (some sources indicate Roche or Rice) was the niece of a naval officer named Robert Lamport Pengelly. Joseph and Eliza met when Joseph tutored Robert's children.

Once again, Joseph faced a horrible loss when Eliza became ill with pneumonia. Though he was with her throughout her illness, she never regained her health, and the two were never married. She died in 1860 at the age of 23.

Though heartbroken, Joseph Scriven continued to be a faithful servant of God throughout his entire life. While he might have grown angry and bitter and turned from God, he never did. His incredible faith was evident when he wrote a poem for his mother that became one of the most beloved hymns of all time.

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Back in Ireland, Joseph's mother had become ill and sorrowful. Unable to return to see her, Joseph wrote the poem and sent it in a letter to his mother. Written in 1855, Joseph never expected anyone other than the two of them to see the poem. However, H.L. Hastings published it in 1865, and Joseph Scriven received full credit for the work in the 1880's.

Biographers note the song "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" is indeed different from other hymns Joseph Scriven wrote. Jay Macpherson wrote in his biography, "almost all of his others are more firmly constructed, without emotional softness, and developed from biblical texts." In addition, the poem is written from a first-person plural perspective-consistent with the structure of a personal letter.

‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ Lyrics

Though he may never have intended his poem to become a hymn, it is by far the most widely known of all of his songs. Critics have observed that the verse is relatively simple. However, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" has touched untold millions of souls with the encouragement that our Heavenly Father is but a prayer away in our times of distress and sorrow.

Here are four lines from the song's chorus:

“What a Friend we have in Jesus,

all our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

everything to God in prayer!”

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While countless people have oft written about this beautiful, timeless hymn, there are some dates and details about Mr. Scriven's life that remain unclear. These include the circumstances of his death in 1886.

Joseph Scriven was 66 when he drowned near the home of a friend, where he was convalescing. He'd gone to bed on the very hot night, and, presumably, left his bed without disturbing his hosts to get a cold drink. He was found the next day near a spring.

What is known for sure is that Mr. Joseph Scriven faced tremendous sadness in life, but he lived his life as a humble servant and became known as "The Good Samaritan of Port Hope."

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‘"Don't let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me." John 14:1

WATCH: The Story Behind ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ Lyrics

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h/t: Discipleship Ministries

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