The hymn ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ is one of the most popular Christian hymns sung in churches around the world. Its lyrics about finding comfort and hope in God during times of trouble have resonated with believers for over 150 years.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The lyrics to ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ were written by preacher and songwriter Joseph M. Scriven in 1855.
In this comprehensive article, we will explore the history behind this beloved hymn, including details on its author, Joseph Scriven, the inspiration behind the lyrics, how the melody was composed, and the hymn’s rise to popularity over the past century and a half.
The Author: Joseph M. Scriven
His upbringing and early years
Joseph M. Scriven was born in 1819 in County Down, Ireland to a wealthy family. As a young man, he graduated from Trinity College in Dublin and planned to pursue a military career. However, after converting to Christianity and joining the Plymouth Brethren church, Scriven decided to dedicate his life to charitable service.
Scriven’s move to Canada
In 1845, faced with family opposition to his religious beliefs, Scriven immigrated to Ontario, Canada. He worked as a tutor in Woodstock and Brantford, finding fulfillment in teaching others and giving to those in need.
Though isolated from his remaining family in Ireland, Scriven continued corresponding with his mother, hoping to maintain their relationship.
The tragic death of his fiancée
In 1854, the night before his wedding, Scriven received the shocking news that his fiancée Eliza Roche had drowned. Devastated, he poured his grief into a poem titled Pray Without Ceasing, which we now know as the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Scriven initially had no intention of publishing his very personal hymn, but shared it privately with others going through trials.
His life in Port Hope, Ontario
Scriven spent the final years of his life in Port Hope, Ontario, living modestly and giving generously to those in need. Though eccentric and reclusive, he was deeply involved in the Biddulph St. Presbyterian Church.
When Scriven died in 1886, townspeople who had been touched by his kindness funded a granite monument in his honor. Engraved on it are the first two verses of his famous hymn, ensuring his legacy of faith and friendship.
The Inspiration and Writing of the Hymn
The illness of a friend – inspiration strikes
The beloved hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was born out of adversity. In the 1850s, Irish-born teacher and preacher Joseph M. Scriven was living in Port Hope, Canada when his friend fell ill. Seeing his dear companion suffer stirred something in Scriven, who felt inspired to put pen to paper.
As Scriven watched his sick friend endure great hardship with courage and faith, he gained new perspective. AlthoughScriven felt helpless to alleviate his friend’s physical troubles, he found great comfort in God’s promise that all believers have a sympathetic savior in Jesus to turn to during trials and tribulations.
This realization led Scriven to draft the now-iconic opening lyric, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
Scriven pens the now-famous lyrics
According to historical accounts, Scriven intended to pen only a poem for his sick friend, meant to encourage and uplift. He likely did not realize at the time that his words would one day become a beloved Christian hymn, sung by believers all over the globe.
In 1855, Scriven completed the poem containing the lyrics we know today. Titled “Pray Without Ceasing,” the poem describes the comfort and hope Jesus’ friendship brings during difficult times. It highlights our ability to freely and openly cast all our cares upon our Lord.
Though Scriven modestly shared the lyrics only with his ill friend at first, the words soon spread through the local community. Well-received by all who read them, Scriven’s poem was eventually set to music and published anonymously in Charles C. Converse’s 1868 tunebook The Choir.
Paired with Converse’s tranquil melody, the poem was reborn as the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
The intended audience and purpose of the hymn
Originally, Scriven wrote the poem exclusively for his sick friend, aiming to reassure and inspire. He used vivid language to paint a picture of the great comfort believing Christians can access by leaning on Jesus in even the darkest, most difficult seasons.
However, as the lyrics spread organically, they clearly resonated with a much wider audience. During the mid-1800s, many people faced troubles like financial panic, illness, and grief on immense scales. These hardships likely amplified the poem’s message of hope.
Eventually published as a hymn, the lyrics reached even more people in need of reminders of God’s unchanging love and support. To this day, the hymn speaks deeply to anyone facing trials or troubles of any kind – which is likely why it remains highly popular even 100+ years later.
Sung commonly in churches across all denominations, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” unites and uplifts believers globally. It serves as a meaningful reminder that whenever grief, temptation, hardship or tragedy strikes, we can find peace and rest in Christ’s listening ear and outstretched arms.
The Melody Composed
Charles Converse composes music in 1868
The tune for “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was composed by Charles Converse, an American lawyer and musician, in 1868. Converse had written over 200 hymn tunes in his lifetime and this particular melody, originally titled “Erie”, remains his most famous and enduring work.
Converse was inspired to write the music after reading a poem by Joseph Scriven titled “Pray Without Ceasing”. He was struck by the poignant words and felt compelled to set them to music that would complement the message.
After completing the melody, Converse published it in a hymn collection called Bristol later that same year.
The first publication of hymn and tune together
While the words and music were created separately, it was not until 1873 that the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was published together with Converse’s “Erie” tune in Gospel Hymns No. 2. This was one of the first major collections of gospel hymns compiled for revival meetings lead by preacher Dwight L. Moody.
The pairing of Scriven’s hymn text and Converse’s melody was an instant success. The way the music matched the reassuring and uplifting message of the lyrics struck a chord with worshipers and evangelists of the time. From then on, the hymn and tune were forever linked together.
Rise to popularity across English-speaking world
In the decades following that first publication, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” steadily grew in popularity and became a staple among Protestant hymnals across the English-speaking world. By the early 20th century, the hymn was already considered a beloved religious standard.
Part of the hymn’s widespread appeal can be attributed to its warm, relatable lyrics expressing the comfort found in bringing one’s troubles to God alongside a memorable, singable tune. It resonated with people from all walks of life.
The hymn has been translated into dozens of other languages over the past century, demonstrating its universal message.
Today, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” remains one of the most recognized and sung hymns of all time, thanks in large part to Converse’s iconic melody which so stirringly supports the meaning behind Scriven’s words.
Impact and Legacy Over the Past 150+ Years
Inclusion in major North American hymnals
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” has been included in almost every major North American hymnal published since the late 19th century, cementing its status as one of the most beloved hymns of all time.
As early as 1875, it was added to hymnals like Gospel Songs and Ira Sankey’s volumes of Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs. In the 20th century, it appeared in standard hymnals across denominations, like the Baptist Hymnal, The Methodist Hymnal, and The Presbyterian Hymnal.
New arrangements and covers by popular artists
The timeless lyrics and melody of “What a Friend” have inspired countless new arrangements and covers over the decades. Famous gospel performers like Mahalia Jackson and Tennessee Ernie Ford released acclaimed versions.
In more recent years, artists as varied as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and Amy Grant have all put their unique spins on the classic hymn.
The song even crossed over into popular music charts when Connie Smith’s cover peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1965. On Spotify, various recordings of the hymn have over 63 million cumulative streams to date.
Enduring popularity to the present-day
“What a Friend” remains one of the most recognized and sung hymns today, over 150 years after its original publication. According to recent data, it was the 5th most searched for hymn on Google in the past 12 months.
In churches across America, it is still included as a congregational favorite in many denominations, from Southern Baptist services to Catholic masses. Beyond religious contexts, its message of finding comfort and strength in friendship continues to resonate in pop culture.
For example, the hymn was beautifully sung in a key scene in the popular 2018 film Boy Erased.
For over 150 years, the hymn ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ has reminded believers that God is always near to provide comfort, aid, and refuge. Though originally penned to encourage a sick friend, Joseph Scriven’s humble lyrics have gone on to touch millions globally.
The compelling melody paired with Scriven’s sincere words have cemented the hymn’s status as one of Christianity’s most cherished and widely-known. Its timeless message will continue providing encouragement and hope to future generations in times of need.