What a Friend We Have in Jesus

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses… let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” –Hebrews 12:1.

I’m sure you are familiar with this wonderful hymn; churches have been singing it for decades and it is a beloved favorite to many Christians. However, do you know the story behind the writing of this hymn?

Joseph M. Scriven was born at Ballymoney Lodge in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland. He was the son of John and Jane (Medlicott) Scriven. His father was a Captain with the Royal Marines in Ireland and a member of the local Seapatrick Parish Church. Joseph attended Trinity College in Dublin and graduated in 1842.

His future was filled with hope and promise, and in the spring of 1844, he returned to his home outside of Dublin, engaged to his childhood sweetheart. However, on the day before they were to be married, his fiancé rode out to meet him on the banks of the river Bann and in a terrifying moment, her horse was startled. She was thrown headfirst into the waters unconscious. Her body was being taken out of the water by the time Scriven arrived and he was close enough to look into the face of the girl he was to marry the next day. He later said, “The bottom of my world just seemed to disappear. Wherever I looked after that in Ireland, I always was reminded of the wonderful day I had looked forward to that never had occurred.”

Emotionally shattered, he turned to God for consolation and guidance, and soon left Ireland for Ontario, Canada in 1845. He would spent the rest of his life in the small town of Port Hope. There, he devoted his life to the Lord’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, assisting widows, the sick, and the poor, and developed a reputation in the community as “a living light of charity and faith.” Among the townsfolk, Scriven was talked about for “never denying a request for help,” and he became known as “the Good Samaritan of Port Hope.”

He was always seen walking the streets carrying a sawhorse and saw, helping those who could not pay nor reimburse him in any way. During this time, Scriven also began tutoring the children of the retired British Sea Captain, Robert Pengelley. While serving the Pengelley family, he soon met and fell in love with Pengelley’s niece Eliza Roche. The two were to be married in the spring of 1854.

Yet, only weeks before the wedding, tragedy struck once again as Eliza Roche
became ill with pneumonia. She eventually died at the young age of 23 despite Joseph’s vigilant care. Heartbroken again by the loss of a woman he loved, he found strength once again by looking to the God who he considered his closest friend. The following year, he would write a now-familiar poem to his mother back in Ireland describing this sustaining friendship:

What a Friend we have in Jesus, / All our sins and griefs to bear. / What a privilege to carry / Everything to God in prayer. / Oh, what peace we often forfeit, / Oh, what needless pain we bear, / All because we do not carry / Everything to God in prayer.

Scriven could have turned his back on God, but by his faith he found strength in God. And now, his words have echoed for over a century as a testimony of the peace he found, peace not as the world gives, but the peace of the Lord (John 14:27). By his faith, people are still encouraged and impacted by him today. So, “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations… let patience have her perfect work…” (James 1:2, 4a).

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