Some of our best-loved hymns were written in times of great sadness. Our story today is a perfect example…the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. Writers of such hymns found great comfort in the loving arms of Jesus during times of great sorrow and stress; they wanted to share with others how grateful they were that Jesus is THE source of comfort and caring and renewal when we are in our greatest need.

This hymn was written by Joseph Scriven originally as a poem; but, its meaningful lyrics have spoken and brought comfort to so many in their times of great need.

Joseph Scriven was born on September 10, 1819, in Ireland. He was fortunate that his parents had the financial means to provide education options for him, and he graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with a bachelor’s degree. With his high ideals and academic achievements he could look forward to success as an Irish citizen. 

While still a young man he was engaged to be married to a lady whom he had know and loved for a long time. The date was set for the wedding and all the preparations were in place. Then tragedy struck!  On the day before the wedding, his fiancee traveled on horseback to meet him. Joseph was waiting on the other side of the River Bann when he saw her start to cross the bridge and then fall off her horse—he witnessed her drowning as he stood helplessly watching from the other side.

Joseph plunged into the deepest sorrow. Yet, this sad experience showed him how much he depended upon Christ for relief of his sorrow. His grief was so great that he left Ireland in 1845 and sailed to start a new life in Canada, leaving behind his beloved mother and friends. 

He settled in Port Hope, Canada, where people there highly regarded him for his helpfulness and kindness as they got to know him. He worked among the impoverished widows and sick people and often served for no wages. He even shared his clothes with those less fortunate than he was. He taught school and tutored the children and paid for his board by doing various other chores, like cutting wood. During his time teaching at Woodstock and Brantford (Canada), he met Eliza Catherine Roche, who was a relative of one of his students. The two fell in love, and once again Joseph was engaged to be married.  

Before the wedding could take place, a full immersion baptismal service was performed. Eliza, who was already ill with consumption, developed pneumonia and died four months later on August 6, 1860, just a few days before their set wedding date. She was buried in the nearby  family cemetery.

Again, Joseph Scriven was heartbroken; yet, he leaned on his faith in God. He devoted much of his time to prayer and Bible study. It was through his study of the Sermon on the Mount that he made a vow of poverty. He sold all of his earthly possessions and vowed to devote his life to the physically handicapped and financially very poor. This was a vow he never broke. He served with the love and compassion of Jesus and preached the Gospel everywhere he went.

The Port of Hope Journal reported that “Scriven became a familiar sight around Port Hope, a big man with bushy white hair and full white beard, carrying a sawhorse 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.”

Around 1855 he was advised that his mother was very ill, but he did not have the funds to make a journey back to see her. He asked the Lord to give him the words to comfort her. Along with a letter that he wrote to her, he included the story of his life in the three verses that would become the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” (Note: The original title of the poem was Pray Without Ceasing.)

Years after mailing the poem to his Mom, Joseph Scrivner became ill. When a friend came to visit him, he went through some of Joseph’s papers and discovered the poem. He was very impressed to learn that his friend had written the words to this hymn. When his friend asked him about it, Scriven replied, “The Lord and I together wrote the song.” One of his friends sent a copy of the song to a music publisher, and it was coupled to a tune written by an American lawyer, Charles Crozat Converse. 

Two decades later in 1875 American evangelist Dwight L. Moody came across the song and expressed that he believed it to be the most touching modern hymn that he had ever heard! Moody and his song leader, Ira D. Sankey, gave the song a national platform with their many crusades and in the hymn book Sankey’s Gospel Hymns Number 1.

Ironically, Joseph Scriven drowned in a Canadian lake in 1886. He was buried next to Eliza Roche in the Pengelley family cemetery. His obituary read, “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 years.”

Joseph Scriven—who was so deeply experienced with grief, but had also great faith—did not live to see his song carried to every corner around the world. The citizens of Port Hope, Ontario, erected a monument on the Port Hope-Petersborough Highway to this humble man who led a life of sadness and obscurity.


When war loomed on home-fronts in America during World War I and World War II, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” became the most often played and sung hymn (along with Amazing Grace) as young men were sent off to war or when these same men were memorialized after loss of life in battle. The hymn is like an anthem of hope during times of trouble, grief, insecurity and doubt.


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.

 A fourth stanza from Scriven’s original poem was excluded in the final version of the hymn:

Blessed Savior, Thou hast promised

Thou wilt all our burdens bear.

May we ever, Lord, be bringing

All to Thee in earnest prayer.

Soon in glory bright unclouded 

There will be no need for prayer.

Rapture, praise and endless worship

Will be our sweet portion there.