A serene image of a worn-out hymn book open to the "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" page, softly illuminated by a beam of sunlight streaming through a stained glass window.

What A Friend We Have In Jesus Hymn: History, Lyrics Analysis, And Impact

The hymn ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ has brought comfort and hope to Christians for over 150 years. Its timeless lyrics remind believers that they can bring all their sorrows and struggles to God in prayer.

If you’re looking for a quick answer, here it is: This beloved hymn was written by preacher Joseph Scriven in 1855 to comfort his sick mother. It was first published anonymously and only later attributed to Scriven.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the history of this classic hymn, analyze its Gospel-centered lyrics, and discuss the enduring impact it has made in the church and beyond.

History and Background of ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’

The author: Joseph M. Scriven

Joseph M. Scriven was born in 1819 in Ireland. As a young man, he was engaged to be married, but his fiancée died in a tragic drowning accident shortly before their wedding day. Heartbroken, Scriven moved to Canada in 1844 seeking a fresh start.

While in Canada, Scriven anonymously wrote the lyrics to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” to comfort his mother who was living in Ireland and facing illness and anxiety. Scriven himself faced much tragedy and anxiety in his life, so he was inspired to write about the consolation and peace that only Christ can provide during times of trouble.

The lyrics therefore come from a very personal emotional place for Scriven.

Original context and publication

Joseph Scriven originally wrote the lyrics to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” as a poem in 1855 without any intention of it being sung. He simply shared the poem with friends and locals in his community to comfort the anxious and disheartened.

In 1875, Charles C. Converse composed the music to accompany Scriven’s lyrics which transformed the poem into a hymn. The hymn version was published that same year in Ira Sankey’s influential hymnal Gospel Hymns No. 3.

Scriven remained anonymous, and only after his death in 1886 was it discovered that he had written the powerful and enduring lyrics.

Subsequent popularity and legacy

The hymn version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” became immensely popular after its publication in 1875. By the early twentieth century, it was one of the most beloved hymns in churches across America and among English-speaking Christians worldwide.

The hymn has continued to touch hearts and provide comfort for over 100 years. Its beautiful message of Christ’s empathy and availability as a confidant and helper during turmoil resonates across generations.

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” remains one of the most widely known Christian hymns with its lyrics translated into over 40 languages.

Lyrics Breakdown and Analysis

Examining each verse

The hymn’s lyrics are comprised of four verses, each with a consistent rhyme scheme and meter. The first verse establishes Jesus as a sympathetic and caring friend who shares in our sorrows and griefs.

It expresses the comfort and support believers can find in Christ during hard times (“O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear”).

The second verse portrays Jesus as a friend who has already solved our deepest problem – sin. It declares we can take everything to God in prayer because Jesus has paid our debt through his sacrifice on the cross (“Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged, Take it to the Lord in prayer”).

The third verse is a petition, asking Jesus to continue being our friend and guide. It recognizes human weakness and limitations, pleading for Christ’s unchanging friendship and strength (“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”


Finally, the fourth verse is an encouragement to all believers to depend on Christ’s friendship both now and forevermore. It ends optimistically, pointing to the hope of eternal life with Jesus after death (“Jesus can be found in rapture, Far beyond the starry sky; As we enter Heaven’s portals, We will find so loving Friend”).

Thematic elements and imagery

Some key themes expressed in the lyrics include friendship, prayer, faithfulness, sorrow, forgiveness, help, eternal life, weakness, and hope. The hymn employs intimate imagery, portraying Christ as a trusted confidante who compassionately listens, understands, and uplifts.

Other metaphors present in the text are nautical (“Heaven’s portals”), celestial (“beyond the starry sky”), monetary (“paid the debt”), and militaristic (“trials and temptations” suggesting spiritual battles).

By utilizing relatable concepts like friendship and prayer paired with grand theological imagery, the lyrics create a worshipful yet accessible portrait of Jesus. This combination helps explain the hymn’s far-reaching appeal over 130+ years of Christian tradition globally.

Theological significance

The song reflects several core biblical themes about Christ’s nature and his relationship with followers. Jesus is presented as an omnipresent miracle worker and faithful mediator who invites all believers into an intimate, dependent friendship (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Yet despite his divine power and position, Jesus chooses to humbly enter the human struggle, bearing our griefs and weaknesses so we can access redemption (Isaiah 53:4-5). As the lyrics suggest, he provides strength, hope, forgiveness, and eternal victory to all those who faithfully pray and rely on him.

In this way, the hymn affirms key aspects of Christ’s identity – his compassion, dependability, power over sin, and eternal reign. It points people to find true peace and comfort in friendship with Jesus.

Cultural Impact and Legacy

Enduring popularity in churches globally

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” has remained one of the most beloved and well-known Christian hymns for over 150 years. The song continues to be widely used in churches across denominations worldwide, with its inspiring message of finding comfort and hope in God’s friendship being universally appealing.

According to a survey by the Hymn Society, it was ranked the fourth most popular hymn sung in U.S. churches, demonstrating its enduring ability to resonate with worshippers.

Appearances in films and media

The memorable and comforting lyrics of “What a Friend” have led to its inclusion across various forms of popular media and entertainment over the decades. For instance, the song has been featured in numerous films to underscore poignant story moments, like in the Western epic How the West Was Won, the family drama Father of the Bride, and more.

It is also frequently included in compilation albums spotlighting treasured hymns and gospel standards.

Continued resonance and memorability

A key reason “What a Friend” has remained so popular culturally is due to its highly memorable, singable, and resonant lyrics. Phrases like “O what peace we often forfeit” and “Take it to the Lord in prayer” have become common refrains, with the hymn being described as an “American Christian idiom.”

This memorability and relatability have cemented its legacy, as seen in various pop culture references. For instance, characters singing its lyrics have appeared in TV shows like The Simpsons and South Park.

Clearly, the comforting message and familiar tune of “What a Friend” have established its cultural staying power that continues even today.

The Meaning and Relevance Today

Central message of divine comfort

The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” conveys a powerful message of God’s comfort and support during difficult times. At the core is the assurance that one can bring any burden or grief to Jesus in prayer, finding solace in His empathy and grace (UMC Discipleship).

This remains relevant today as people continue to struggle with illness, loss, doubt, and other challenges.

The opening lyrics emphasize Jesus’ close companionship and understanding: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!” This promise has brought tremendous peace to Christians for over 150 years.

Finding solace amidst pain and grief

The hymn’s message resonates for those enduring seasons of adversity and grief. Studies show that over 50% of Americans consider themselves lonely, while depression and anxiety are rising (Gallup). The assurance that Jesus walks alongside offering solace and strength is thus greatly needed.

Likewise, the lyrics “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!” highlight the power of bringing anxious burdens to Christ. Turning to Jesus helps ease psychological distress.

An anthem for difficult times

“What a Friend” remains one of the most beloved hymns today because its promise of divine aid offers hope amidst hardship. Sung frequently after disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, it serves as an anthem crying out for God’s help and comfort.

The final verse perfectly captures this ongoing relevance: “In His arms He’ll take and shield you; You will find a solace there.” Regardless of the age, Christians take refuge in Jesus’ embrace during trials and grief.


For over 150 years, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ has encouraged believers through its reminder of Christ’s empathy and care. This staple hymn has permeated church traditions worldwide thanks to its lyrical expression of the Gospel promise that we do not suffer alone.

Whether enduring illness, grief, doubt or pain, Christians can cast their cares upon Jesus – what a friend indeed.

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