Hymn of the Month
What A Friend We Have In JesusJoseph Scriven, 1819-1886/Charles C. Converse, 1832-1918
…the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
Though this hymn is not considered to be an example of great literary writing, it’s simply stated truths have brought solace and comfort to countless numbers of God’s people since it was first written in 1857. So relevant to the basic spiritual needs of people are these words that many missionaries state that it is one of the first hymns taught to new converts. The very simplicity of the text and music has been its appeal and strength.
Joseph Scriven was born September 10, 1819, of prosperous parents in Dublin, Ireland. After attending classes at Trinity College, Dublin, he pursued a military career, where he trained for service in India; but had to abandon that ambition because of his poor health. He returned to Trinity and graduated in 1842. In 1844, at the age of twenty-five, he decided to leave his native country and migrate to Canada after the accidental drowning of his fiancée the night before their scheduled wedding. Scriven organized a private school in 1850 in Brantford and preached in the area.
Scriven published a collection of his poetic works, Hymns and Other Verses, which included seventy-one hymns “intended to be sung in assemblies of the children of God on the first day of the week and on other occasions when two or three are met together in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “What a Friend” does not appear in the collection.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was never intended by Scriven for publication. Upon learning of his mother’s serious illness and unable to be with her in far-off Dublin, he wrote a letter of comfort enclosing the words of this text. The poem was originally titled “Pray Without Ceasing”. Some time later when he himself was ill, a friend who came to call on him chanced to see the poem scribbled on scratch paper near the bed. The friend read it with keen interest and asked Scriven if he had written the words. Scriven, with typical modesty, replied, “The Lord and I did it between us”.
The composer of the music, Charles C. Converse, was well-educated and his talents ranged from law to professional music. Though he was an excellent musician and composer with many of his works performed by the leading American orchestras and choirs of his day, his life is best remembered for the simple music so well suited to Scriven’s text. He composed the tune in 1868 and renamed the poem.
Ira D. Sankey discovered the hymn in 1875, just in time to include it in his well-known collection, Sankey’s Gospel Hymns Number One. Later Sankey wrote, “The last hymn which went into the book became one of the first in favor.”
Taken from 101 Hymn Stories Copyright © 1982, 2012 by Kenneth W. Osbeck. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Used by permission from “History of Hymns” by Dr. C. Michael Hawn, Director of the Sacred Music Program and Distinguished Professor, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.