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“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”

Knowing a little of someone’s life story adds a depth of meaning to and appreciation of what they write. Such is true of the story of the hymn writer of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Knowing a little of someone’s life story adds a depth of meaning to and appreciation of what they write. Such is true of the story of the hymn writer of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Irishman Joseph Scriven, born in 1819 and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland experienced great loss early in his adulthood when his fiancée drowned the night before their wedding. Turning to the principles of the Plymouth Brethren, an Anglo- Irish evangelical group whose founders were known for giving away their considerable fortunes to tenants and the needy, Joseph donated his worldly possessions to the poor in Ireland before immigrating to Canada.

Afterward at his teaching post in Port Hope, Canada, he became engaged again and just before the wedding his bride became ill with pneumonia and died. In 1855 his mother became ill in Ireland and Joseph penned this poem to encourage and comfort her.

I can’t imagine he depth of his loss and pain. His whole life had been devoted to caring for the sick and needy. Out of one man’s own personal, deep loss, the church is given this simple hymn. Charles Converse put the words to music in 1868. [A random fact, showing its ’popularity – every year 23 million Japanese sing this old hymn, about 20% of the population.]

Knowing the pain behind these words puts a whole new meaning to this hymn for me.

What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry, ev’rything to God in Prayer.
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry, ev’rything 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.

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.

A beautiful offering for others is borne out of deep pain and loss. Isn’t this what Jesus was talking about with the grain falling into the ground and dying in John 12:24?

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Gail Seidel

Gail Seidel served as Mentor Advisor for Spiritual Formation in the Department of Spiritual Formation and Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and as an Adjunct Professor in the D Min in Spiritual Formation in the D Min Department at Dallas Theological Seminary. She has a BA in English from the University of Texas, a Masters in Christian Education from Dallas Seminary and a D Min in Spiritual Formation from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is a contributor to the textbook, Foundations of Spiritual Formation, Kregel Academic. She served as co-director for Christian Women in Partnership Russia with Entrust, an international church leadership-training mission. She and her husband Andy live in Fredericksburg, Texas. They have 2 married children and 6 wonderful grandchildren--Kami, Kourtney, Katie, Mallory, Grayson, and Avery.

3 Comments

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    Sharifa Stevens

    I had no idea that this was
    I had no idea that this was the story behind the song. Thank you for sharing this with us, Gail. I am sooo sad to hear how this song was forged, though! What profound, compound losses.

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    Gail Seidel

    you are right
    You are right Sharifa, it makes me sad too. In fact, the pain he experienced is almost more than one person should have to bear.It made me want to honor his story and his hymn.

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    Least among the Gentiles

    This is truly inspiring!
    Thanks for posting the inspiring story behind this hymn and may the Lord comfort many souls thru this song!

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