History Behind the Hymn: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
The great hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” depicts a rich understanding of God forged through times of loss and loneliness. The hymn’s lyricist was a native of Dublin, Ireland, a man named Joseph Scriven (1820-1886). This is part of his story.
After graduating from Trinity College, he greatly anticipated the day that he and his long-time love would be married. She was his childhood sweetheart, and all of the wedding preparations were made. The day before the wedding, however, tragedy struck. While riding to meet him, the young woman’s horse was startled by something, throwing the her into the river nearby. The impact knocked her unconscious and she drowned shortly before Joseph arrived to meet her.
After this tragic loss, Joseph was troubled by the sight of his home in Ireland, and soon left for Ontario, Canada where he spent the rest of his days in Port Hope. He devoted himself to good works and to caring for others in the village, being known as someone that never turned away those in need that could not repay him.
Eventually, he began tutoring the children of a man in town, and in the process, fell in love with the man’s niece, Eliza. The two planned to be married in 1854, but shortly before, Eliza fell sick with pneumonia, passing away at the age of 23. Once again tragedy invaded Joseph Scriven’s life, as the hoped-for marriage day never came.
Throughout the struggles and loss of his life, Scriven continued to find solace in the nearness of God, whom he described as his closest friend. It is unclear as to when the lyrics he penned were put to music, as he initially sent them in a letter to his mother, intending that they be seen only by her.
His words remind us that though life is challenging and often painful, we have someone with us that is a dearer friend than any human ever could be, sustaining us and remaining close to us through it all.
Remembering his story can give us and the children in our lives faith to persevere and to serve others in need in every season.
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.
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