It was not a very popular hymn when it was first published in the mid-nineteenth century. The words seemed trite and the poetry was not very good. The music was certainly not church music, and few thought it would be around for long.
The words were never even intended for publication. His mother was dying in Ireland and he didn’t have the money to cross the ocean and see her, so he wrote her a poem to bring her comfort—a poem she never saw.
His entire life had been one tragedy after another. He had been engaged twice, but both of his fiance’s had tragically died, one the day before the wedding. He spent his time chopping wood for the poor and caring for the sick, but he found no fulfillment in his life. He battled depression for years until one day they found his body floating in a river.
The music was inspired by a man who suffered from alcoholism. His wife had left him and he wandered the streets selling anything he could find for liquor. He was only 37 years old and living in a slum when he fell in a drunken stupor and fatally hit his head.
Out of these two sad, broken, and tragic lives come one of the most beloved and popular hymns of all-time, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Joseph Scriven’s life started with great potential, but multiple tragedies left him scarred and wounded. He had lost everything and when the news came that his dear mother was at the point of death, it was more than he could bear. He remembered his mother’s unfailing faith and he knew that she had a friend in Jesus. He wrote the words we know so well, ostensibly to comfort his mother, but they may have been his own cry for faith as he was “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care.”
The trials and temptations of his life had led to trouble everywhere. But deep down in his soul he knew that he had a precious Savior who was still his refuge. Yes, he too had a friend in Jesus.
The music for this most beloved hymn is not church music, it is American Folk music that was inspired by the “Father of American Music,” Stephen Foster. Charles Converse who is credited with the music simply adapted a Foster tune. The great American composer who gave us such classics as “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Swanee River,” died penniless and alone as a result of his alcoholism. He too, had many sins and griefs to bear.
Isn’t it amazing how God can use two sinful and broken lives to give us such hope and comfort? Out of the depths of these two anguished souls come one of the most uplifting and encouraging reminders of God’s faithfulness and love. In the midst of this long and protracted Pandemic that continues to cast a shadow of darkness and doubt, we find the promise that “In his arms he’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there.”