How does a personal poem Pray Without Ceasing, which was written by a disheartened and crestfallen son to an ailing mother, become one of the most well-loved and best-known hymns in the world, What a Friend We Have in Jesus?
What a Friend We Have in Jesus is a timeless Christian hymn written by Irish poet and preacher Joseph Scriven (10 September 1819 – 10 August 1886) in 1855. It was first penned as a poem by the writer to comfort his mother, who was in critical condition in Ireland while he was in Canada. The poem was renamed by Charles Crozat Converse becoming the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” who also composed the tune to the song in 1868.
Do you know that some of the most popular hymns were written in times of great sadness? Despite the trials and tribulations, many hymnists found comfort in the mighty arms of Jesus and shared this source of abiding joy with others who suffered.
We never know when tragedy strikes our lives. Our faith is strengthened during these times of difficulty and pain. We can see God’s grace and faithfulness work in our lives amid these periods of hardships, and we learn the most important lessons about God’s love and promises.
Listen to this famous song, sing along with the matchless lyrics, and learn the incredibly tragic story of the writer who authored this beautiful hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
Table of Contents
What a Friend We Have in Jesus Song
What a Friend We Have in Jesus Lyrics
What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O 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.
The Unknown Story Behind What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Joseph Medlicott Scriven was born in 1819 in Banbridge, County Down, Northern Ireland, in a well-to-do family. His father was a captain in the British Royal Marines, and Scriven had the prospects of a great life with a devoted family in his native country.
He enrolled in Trinity College in Dublin and graduated in 1842 with a bachelor’s degree. His ambition was to become an army officer, and so he joined the Addiscombe Military College near London, England, training for service in India. However, he had to abandon his military career because of his poor health condition. However, Scriven became a teacher and planned to settle in his hometown.
Tragedy in Ireland
He fell in love with a beautiful woman and was engaged to be married. On the evening before the wedding, tragedy struck. His fiancee fell from the horse while crossing the bridge over the River Bann. She drowned in the water and died in a dreadful accident. Scriven was traveling to meet her on the day before the planned wedding. However, he came upon this horrible scene as he saw the woman who stole his heart was harrowingly lying under the water in a creek bed. Heartbroken, he stood helplessly and was plunged into the deepest sorrow.
Being overwhelmed with grief due to his fiancee’s death, he began to follow the practices and teachings of the Plymouth Brethren, a non-conformist and evangelical Christian movement, which believed in the priesthood of all male believers, and the adequacy of mercy for justification and redemption.
Relocating to Canada
He left his native country, Ireland, in 1845 to start a new life in Canada, settling in Woodstock, Ontario.
He began to wander and moved to Port Hope, Canada, where he tutored school children to make a living. Scriven organized a private school in 1850 in Brantford and also preached in the area. Scriven met Eliza Catherine Roche, a relative of one of his students, and fell in love. Scriven was engaged to be married. Once again, disaster struck. Eliza developed pneumonia, became very sick, and died shortly a few weeks before the wedding.
With his hopes and dreams shattered, Scriven was shocked, depressed, and devastated. It was unbelievable that so much misfortune would befall anyone in such a short period. These adversities paved the way for Scriven to consecrate his life for Christ. He never married and chose to live as a preacher and helper of the poor and the downtrodden.
A Life of Service and Compassion
He leaned on his faith in the Heavenly Father during these dark days of his life and started a mission of helping the poor and disabled. He spent a substantial time studying the Bible and praying and made a vow of poverty. Selling all his possessions, he spent his time and money, the next ten years, helping those in need.
Finding solace and purpose in serving, he joined the local Plymouth Brethren and assisted those unfortunate than himself by cutting wood for their stoves. Known as The Good Samaritan of Port Hope, he spread the love and compassion of Jesus, helping the elderly, impoverished widows, sick people, and the mentally challenged.
The Poem “Pray Without Ceasing”
Ten years after his second fiancee died, catastrophe struck again. Scriven came to know that his mother, who was still in Ireland, had become very ill. Since he did not have any money to go home and be with her, he wrote a comforting letter to her, including the words of the poem Pray Without Ceasing to remind her that she had a reliable friend in Jesus no matter what happens.
The poem written in 1855 explained the intimate friendship the author had cultivated with Jesus through the perils of his life and how he cherished that relationship.
In 1869, Scriven published an anthology of 115 Hymns. However, it did not include, Pray Without Ceasing, as it was a personal poem.
On one occasion, when Scriven was sick, a friend visited him. He saw the poem scribbled on a piece of paper lying near his bed and inquired about the poet who wrote these beautiful words. Scriven answered that he and the Lord had authored it. It was a personal poem not intended to be noticed by anyone else. It was the story of his life in three stanzas. Some of Scriven’s friends got a copy of the poem, and one of them gave it to a publisher.
However, some scholars say that Scriven wrote the poem when he was residing at the home of his friend Sackville, near Rice Lake. He sent one copy to his ailing mother and gave the other to the wife of his friend. It is believed that his mother gave it to a publisher.
Whatever the real story is, the poem was published incognito under the title, Pray Without Ceasing. Scriven was finally acknowledged as its author in the 1880s. In 1868, attorney Charles Crozat Converse (1832-1918) put music to one of the poems transforming it into a melodious song. He renamed it What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
Death and Memorial
Scriven’s last years were plagued by poor health, meager finances, and depression. He became seriously ill in August 1886. In a demented state, he went outdoors and fell into a small creek and drowned. He was buried next to Eliza, his second fiancee, in Bewdley.
The citizens of Port Hope, Ontario, erected a monument in honor of this humble man, who had led a painful, sad, grieving, and obscure life. The monolith has the first stanza of his song engraved on it.
It is unbelievable that a simple poem that was written to provide solace to an indisposed mother has encouraged, uplifted, and blessed thousands of believers for more than 160 years.
The great American evangelist Dwight L. Moody who heard the song What a Friend We Have in Jesus in 1875, incorporated the hymn in his writings and sermons. The song became a national phenomenon when Ira D. Sankey, Moody’s song leader, sang it in his crusades.
During World War I and II, What a Friend We Have in Jesus became one of the most commonly sung hymns of American forces when young men were sent off to war or commemorate when they died on the battlefield. The lyrics of this hymn, which was spurred by the tragic events in the life of the writer, serves as an anthem in times of trouble, uncertainty, sacrifice, and insecurity.
The Hymn Discussion — What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Stanza 1 of the hymn illustrates that Jesus is the only true friend who bears our burdens and transgressions. It expresses the author’s personal friendship with Jesus. Jesus has not forsaken us, and He patiently hears our prayers. Our Savior intervenes on our behalf, meets us in our despair, and blesses us way beyond what we expect or deserve. Failure to pray leads to loss of peace and results in pain and suffering as we neglect to hand over our deepest fears, regrets, and worries to the redeemer who holds our future in His everlasting hands.
Stanza 2 of the hymn provides the answer to people’s ills and issues. We all fall into trials and temptations and witness trouble in our lives. We should take everything to the Almighty One in prayer as Jesus, as the faithful friend, intercedes on our behalf to His Father. Jesus knows our intimate secrets and weaknesses, and He is the only source of solace and comfort on this Earth.
Stanza 3 of the hymn poses a variety of questions, with the theme remaining the same.
Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Do your friends despise, forsake you?
The answer to all these questions is, Take it to the Lord in prayer. Jesus embracing and protecting His friend in His arms gives us the picture of comfort in sorrow, misfortune, or trouble.
We come to know that despite his great calamity, Scriven realized that Jesus is the only one who can positively impact his life even in the worst of circumstances. He discerned that Jesus, his dearest friend, is the only point of support he could find, and his life only has meaning through God and for him.
What a Friend We Have in Jesus reminds us that it is indeed a privilege to approach our Heavenly Father every day and cast our burdens, worries, and fears on Him. What a Friend We Have in Jesus illustrates that God protects and strengthens us. What a Friend We Have in Jesus encourages us to pray and confide in Jesus no matter the circumstances. What a Friend We Have in Jesus stresses the fact that Jesus is the only true friend, and we are never alone during the darkest seasons of our life.
For more awesome Christian Music check our Hymns Collection. You will find the background stories behind the hymns very interesting and informative. Sing along with the lyrics understanding the meaning of each song and fill your heart with joy.