Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Behind the writing of many of our best-loved hymns are stories of trouble: personal tragedy, ill health, early death, or conflict. And when we are in trouble, it seems, we are more likely to look to the Lord than when all is going well. As the verse says, “the Lord is close to those who are broken-hearted.” And for some who were able to express their thoughts in words, the result has been some of our greatest hymns of comfort and hope. The hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus was written by a man who twice lost his own best friend to an early and tragic death.
Joseph Scriven was a young man who seemed to have it all. He had wealth, a devoted family, education, and a pleasant life in his native Ireland; and, he was in love and about to be married. But the night before the wedding, there was an accident. Scriven’s fiance was thrown from her horse into a river, and she drowned. Those who knew him say that he never recovered from the loss. It soon came clear to him that he could not stay in Ireland. There were too many memories and he had to get himself out of his despair. So he immigrated to Canada where he worked as a tutor in Port Hope, Ontario. There, he did come out of his despair enough to fall in love again. And then tragedy struck again.
Not long before the wedding, his fiance became very ill, and then, quite suddenly, died. Again he was left alone. Scriven never did marry. In fact, he became somewhat of a loner, even a bit odd, some thought. At first, people who didn’t know better picked on him because he was different. He could not keep a steady job, but just worked here and there as he was able. And he was never able to afford to own his own home. He just lived with whatever friends would let him stay for a while. And, this man who had so tragically lost his best friends, became a helpful friend to anyone in town who was in need.
It was said he was the handyman for anyone who couldn’t afford to pay him– the poor, the elderly, the handicapped. For anyone who needed help he would fix things, cut wood, or run errands. If they needed money, he would give them money (if he had it), and he would give them food if he had any on hand. He would even give away the winter clothes off his back. Even though he was odd, he gained the respect of all who knew him. After his death, one of the local townspeople said, “If ever there was a saint on earth, it was Joe Scriven.” He became know as the ‘good Samaritan of Port Hope.’ Along with his good deeds, he would tell everyone who listened about the love of Jesus.
Scriven had left Ireland in 1845 when he was 25 years old. He never returned. In 1855, ten years after he left, his mother became ill and was dying. Scriven was not able to afford the trip back to see her, but he wrote a poem to comfort her and sent it along in a letter. After her death, the poem was found in her papers. The poem had been separated from the letter, so no one knew who wrote it. The poem was copied and passed around, and eventually found its way to Richmond, Virginia where it was put to music and became the popular hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody started using this hymn in his crusades, and soon people all over the world were singing it. But still, no one knew who wrote it.
Thirty one years after his mother’s death, and sixteen years after his poem was put to music for all the world to sing, Joseph Scriven himself was ill and on his deathbed. Friends took turns caring for him, and in one of the long night watches, one of the friends started paging through an old scrap-book. There, he found an old handwritten copy of the popular song. He looked at the dates on some of the other items on those pages, and he started thinking about it and putting two and two together. Finally, he asked Scriven about the poem. “Did you write this?,” he asked. “Yes I did,” admitted the modest man, “I wrote it many years ago for my mother. I didn’t intend anyone else to see it.”
This hymn, which is now among the most popular, was written for the comfort of one person only, and kept hidden for years by its author. And yet, its appeal is so broad that it crosses all denominational lines and appears in almost every hymnal. It makes it in the top ten of every survey of best-loved hymns, and it has been recorded by dozens of singers. Many missionaries have said that this is the first hymn that they teach new converts, so simple is its message, and so profound in its deep dependence on Jesus in prayer.
Scriven wrote; “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear,” and he had some huge ‘griefs’ to bear in his own life. Yet through it all, he maintained his friendship with that greatest friend of all, Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. “Can we find a friend so faithful,” he wrote, “who will all our sorrows share. Jesus knows our every weakness, take it to the Lord in prayer.”
John 15:13-15 — (Jesus said), “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my father, I have made known to you.”
Psalm 34:18 — The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
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. –Joseph Scriven