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  • Writer's pictureRevShirleyMurphy

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

You were made for friendship with God. God does not just want us to know about him; he wants us to know him — and to experience his friendship. Jonathan Edwards urges us to “Let it be [our] first love to enter into an everlasting friendship with Christ that never shall be broken” (WJE Online Vol. 44). The gospel calls us to trust Jesus as our Saviour, submit to him as our King, and value him as our Treasure. It also calls us to enjoy him as our friend.

But do you view him this way? What does it mean for him to be our truest friend, and how do we experience his friendship?

Despite the pain, many hymn writers were able to find comfort in the arms of Jesus and point others to this source of unshakeable joy with their music. One of the most helpful hymns in popular use is Joseph Scriven’s hymn on the friendship of Jesus, the comforter and burden-bearer.

Imagine your life held so much sadness and tragedy, that you willingly decided to take and live a vow of poverty. In our day and age, this seems extreme but it is the story of the author to the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

The lyrics were penned by Joseph M. Scriven in the mid-1800s. Mr. Scriven longed to bring comfort to the mother that gave him life in 1819's Banbridge, Ireland. He had not seen his mother in over a decade when word reached him at his Canadian home that she was ill. Sitting at his desk, he must have thought back over the events that separated him from his mother.

He was born the second son to John, a Captain in the Royal Marines in Canada during the War of 1812, and Jane Medlicott Scriven. In his youth he attended Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. As a young man, he was deeply in love and looking forward to his wedding the next day. Imagine the heartbreak, as he waits on the opposite side of the bridge for his bride to meet him. While travelling across the River Bann, she fell off of her horse and died in a tragic drowning accident. Instead of walking down the aisle to meet his bride, he was now forced to say goodbye to the woman that had stolen his heart.

His grief was so great that he left Ireland in 1845 on the Perseverance, saying goodbye to his beloved Mom and friends, to start a new life in Canada. He did return to Ireland after a couple of months to recover from a short illness.

The following year he travelled as a tutor with a family to the Middle East where he had what he called a “Saul of Tarsus” moment on the street called “Straight in Damascas.”

Canada offered him a fresh start, where he taught school for a while. Joseph stayed with a local family and paid for his board by doing various chores, such as cutting wood. During the time that he was teaching at Woodstock and Brantford {Canada}, Joseph met Eliza Catherine Roche, who was a relative to one of his students. The two fell in love and once again Joseph was engaged to be married. Before their wedding could take place, a full immersion baptismal service was held in Rice Lake. Eliza, who was already battling consumption, developed pneumonia and died four months later on August 6, 1860. She was buried in the little cemetery beside the Pengelley chapel.

Joseph Scriven was again left heartbroken, but leaned on his faith in God. After losing his fiancé, he spent considerable time in prayer and Bible study. Through his studies of the Sermon on the Mount, the twenty-five year old teacher made a vow of poverty. He sold all of his earthly possessions and vowed to give his life to the physically handicapped and financially destitute. This is a vow that he reportedly never broke. He spent the remainder of his life giving his time, money and clothes to help the less fortunate and spread the love and compassion of Jesus everywhere he went. He preached wherever he found people gathered.

The Port of Hope journal says that he preached “in the country or on the street corners of Port Hope, Millbrook or Bewdley, sometimes to their express annoyance. Pelting with fruits and vegetables did not stop him. Arrest didn’t deter him. Scriven became a familiar sight around Port Hope, a big man with bushy white hair and full white beard, carrying a buck and a bucksaw, offering to cut wood for anyone who was unable to cut his own or pay someone to do it for him. But he wouldn’t cut wood for hire. ”

Now his mother was ill, but he did not have the finances for passage back to 1855’s Ireland to see her. Feeling a need to reach her, he prayed for words that would give his mother comfort. Accompanying the letter of comfort, he included the story of his life in the three verses that would become the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Scriven shared the words with a friend, who took a copy to a music publisher. Within two years the poem was published and Charles Converse, a US Attorney and composer, had written a tune for the words in 1868. At the time of the original publication, no one knew who had written the lyrics.

Almost thirty years after mailing the poem to his Mom, Joseph Scrivner became ill. When a friend came to visit, he was flipping through some of Joseph’s papers and discovered the poem. He was impressed to discover his friend had penned the words to this hymn. When asked about it, Scriven replied “The Lord and I together wrote the song.” As a result of this visit, Joseph’s poems were published in a book called Hymns and Other Verses and by the 1880' s Scriven received full credit for the hymn.

Joseph Scriven became critically ill in October 1886. In a state of delirium, he stumbled outdoors from his sick bed and fell into a small creek. One friend described the 66 year old’s death by saying: “We left him about midnight. I withdrew to an adjoining room, not to sleep, but to watch and wait. You may imagine my surprise and dismay when on visiting the room I found it empty. All search failed to find a trace of the missing man, until a little after noon the body was discovered in the water nearby, lifeless and cold in death.”

Legend has overtaken his death with various myths of suicide or murder, but what is clear is that regardless of the circumstances this was a tragic accident. Joseph Scriven was buried next to Eliza Roche in the Pengelley family cemetery. Originally he was buried in an unmarked grave, but years later local residents did add a marker.

His obituary, published on Friday, October 15, 1886 described him in part by saying: “Mr. Scriven had not an enemy in the world, he was truly a good man and it is to be hoped the sermons he preached on the streets of Port Hope may be like bread cast upon the waters, the fruit of which may be seen for many days.”

The citizens of Port Hope, Ontario thought so much of him that they erected a monument on the Port Hope-Petersborough Highway to this humble man that had led such a sad and obscure life. From his pain and heartache, Mr. Scriven gave the world the comforting words to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

When the great evangelist, Dwight L. Moody heard the song in 1875, he said it was “the most touching modern hymn I have ever heard.” Moody and his song leader, Ira D. Sankey, gave the song a national platform through their crusades, writings, teachings and their hymn book Sankey’s Gospel Hymns Number 1.

As War loomed on the American home fronts during World War I and World War II, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” became the most common played and sung hymn {along with Amazing Grace} to send the young men off to war or memorialise these same young men when lost in battle.

The words to this beautiful hymn have served as an anthem with a universal theme in times of “trouble and sacrifice” and “insecurity and doubt.”

This hymn has always been my favourite hymn and I remember singing it many a times during my school assembly while growing up back home in India. This hymn has maintained its popularity for a century and a half—probably because a man acquainted with grief—who happened also to be acquainted with faith—helps us to see that faith can triumph over grief.

As we read, receive, and remember God’s word, we hear him address us as friends. And then we pray — we thank him, we confess our sins to him, and we share our burdens with him. We do this throughout the day, not reporting as servants, but relating as friends. Jesus chose us as friends, he died for us as friends, he caused us to trust him as our friend, and he will remain our friend for the endless ages to come. What a friend we have — moment by moment, now and forever — in Jesus.


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