Special Arrangement of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"

A look at music in worship and evangelism.

LEROY EDWIN FROOM, General Conference Field Secretary

While participating in the Seminary Extension School for the English-speaking workers of the Inter-Ameri­can Division, held last summer at the Carib­bean Training College in Jamaica, B.W.I., I was greatly impressed by the soulful singing of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." This was because of an effective descant arrangement. (A "descant" is a melody in counterpoint, sung along with, and higher than, the original melody. It is a paralleling melody, with varia­tions of the musical air.)

This particular descant was rendered as a sort of vocal obbligato. In one stanza it was sung in unison by the women's voices while the men carried the regular air in unison. In an­other stanza the song leader would simply di­vide the congregation into two parts, using the center aisle as the dividing line. The resultant groups blended in a moving chorus that lifted the soul. (The group not carrying the descant sang in four-part harmony.)

Inquiry at the college brought the informa­tion that this form of the hymn had been sung for years on the island, but had not been put into print. Upon request, the vocal teacher, Olive Edwards, wrote out the score, which was edited by Harold A. Miller, and is now pub­lished in accordance with the promise made in a recent issue of THE MINISTRY.

There are rich possibilities here for wider use. This arrangement should become popular for choirs and choruses, and even congregations, in the various lands of earth, wherever the story of Jesus our Friend is sung. Now a word as to the origin of the original hymn, knowl­edge of which greatly enhances interest on the part of the listener.

Origin of the Hymn

Joseph Scriven, of Dublin, Ireland, author of the words of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," was born in 1820. He was a graduate of Trinity College of that city, and was a young man of training and culture. He was engaged to be married to a young woman he had long known and deeply loved. But his fiancee was drowned just a day or two before their wedding day. Joseph's life plans were shattered, and he was plunged into deepest sorrow. But this tragic loss led him to consecrate his life to God. And out of this sad experience came a new sense of his dependence upon Christ. In 1845, when he was only 25, he migrated to Canada, finally settling at Port Hope on Lake Ontario, where he lived the rest of his busy life.

Now in 1845 life was not as easy in Canada as it is today. Scriven lived with different families, sometimes as a guest and sometimes as a teacher. His heart was deeply touched by the hardships of the poor. So he made up his mind to dedicate his life to helping others. Though a man of culture and refinement, he chose humble tasks that would serve the unfortunate and needy, giving his means and often his clothes to help those more needy than he. He was a true philanthropist, a real friend of the poor, gladly ministering to those unable to pay for his services. His heart was full of brotherly kindness and sympathy, though he himself was a lonely man.

By some he was called eccentric, but to him nothing was too much trouble for bed-ridden unfortunates. One afternoon he was walking down the streets of Port Hope dressed as a plain working man and carrying a saw and sawbuck, on a mission of mercy.

A resident of the town, seeing him, asked a friend, "Do you know that man's name, and where he lives? I want some wood cut, and I find it difficult to get anyone to do that sort of work faithfully."

"But you can't get that man," was the reply. "That's Mr. Scriven. He won't cut wood for you."

"Why not?" queried the gentleman.

"Oh, because you are able to pay for it. He only cuts wood for poor widows and the sick."

(See PDF for the Music)

Thus it was that he came to be known as "the man who saws wood for people who are unable to pay."

The only communication Scriven had with his family in Dublin was by slow-traveling let­ters. In 1857 his mother became gravely ill. A great sorrow had come into her life, and Joseph was far away. He could only write in his en­deavor to comfort her. So he enclosed some in­spiring verses he composed just for her, to renew her strength and dispel her fears. These were the now-familiar words:

"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 Saviour, 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."


Knowledge of the existence of this poem re­mained a secret until a friend, sitting up with Scriven during an illness, happened to come across a manuscript copy of the words. He questioned Mr. Scriven concerning them, and Scriven answered that he had composed them years before to comfort his mother in a time of special sorrow. A little later another neighbor asked if it were true that he had composed the hymn, and he replied humbly, "The Lord and I did it between us."

One sad day his body was found near Rice Lake, where, evidently, he had accidentally drowned. No one ever knew just how it hap­pened. But he was so highly esteemed in the community that the townsfolk erected a monu­ment in memory of this friend of the poor.

When the words were first published is not known, but they floated around in the religious press until the gospel composer, Charles C. Con­verse, picked up the stray poem and set it to a simple but appropriate tune. With this tune for wings the hymn flew around the world, adding to the devotional spirit, and inspiring faith in prayer in millions of church services, prayer meetings, and revival services.

The following historical episode will illus­trate how it turned one man to Christ. Back in the days when telephones were new, a man in the mining regions of Lake Superior was con­scious of his spiritual needs, but he was fighting those convictions. Desiring to test the telephone in an office where it had been newly installed, he put his ear to the instrument and was startled to hear four little children singing sweetly and clearly,

"What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs to bear."

The very unexpectedness of the song, and the mystery of the phone, sent home the message to his heart, and he then and there accepted Christ as his Saviour.

The circumstances by which the hymn was circulated are these. When Ira D. Sankey, Moody's song leader and soloist, returned from England in 1875, he was associated with P. P. Bliss in the publication of Gospel Hymns, No. 1. After the compilation was completed, Sankey picked up a paper-covered Sunday school hymn­book, published at Richmond, Virginia, and

(Continued on page 42)

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LEROY EDWIN FROOM, General Conference Field Secretary

June 1955

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