Joseph M. Scriven originally wrote the words to the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus to comfort his ailing mother in Ireland. Several years later in 1865, at a friend’s insistence, he published the poem anonymously in Horace Hastings’ collection “Social Hymns: Original and Selected.” A music publisher paired the poem with Charles Converse’s melody, and Ira Sankey popularized the hymn by publishing it (still anonymously) in his well-known collection, “Sankey’s Gospel Hymns Number One” in 1875. Sankey again published it in “Song of Pilgrimage” in 1886, this time crediting Scriven. Sankey’s colleague, American evangelist Dwight Moody, further spread Scriven’s song of praise across North America.
Nowadays a sentimental favourite, What a Friend We Have in Jesus is sung regularly by Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Baptist choirs and congregations across North America, in Scriven’s native Ireland, and as far away as Japan, Indonesia and India.
The hymn has even influenced young rock stars, for example The Band’s Garth Hudson, who played organ in his Anglican church as a youth; and Elvis Presley, with his roots in gospel.
What a Friend was recorded as early as 1902 on a Berliner Gram-o-phone 78-rpm disc by Albert Pearce, and in 1905 (Columbia wax cylinder) and 1908 (78-rpm disc) by Canadian star tenor Henry Burr. The Edison Mixed Quartet (1913, wax cylinder) and Frank Milne (piano roll) also made early recordings.
The hymn proved popular for home listening, especially during the strain of war and economic hard times, people deriving comfort from its refrain “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” There was humour too ‒ during World War I, Converse’s score was sung to “When This Bloody War is Over.”
While the hymn is usually given a gospel treatment, it has also been performed as jazz, blues, big band, country, bluegrass, contemporary Christian music, even reggae.
In the 21st century, What a Friend continues a mainstay of country and Christian music, performed by such lights as Faith Hill (notably, at Aretha Franklin’s funeral), Alan Jackson, Amy Grant, Brad Paisley, Ronnie Milsap, Ashley Cleveland, Charlie Daniels, John Tesh, and reggae artists Christafari. Versions by Bart Millard and by Ricky Skaggs with Steven Curtis Chapman made the Christian music charts, and gospel queen Aretha Franklin’s recording charted posthumously on Billboard’s Hot Gospel Songs.
In the mid to late 1900s, What a Friend was performed or recorded by some of the biggest stars the music world has known: Pat Boone, Glen Campbell, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Mahalia Jackson, The Jordanaires, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Willie Nelson, Odetta, Dolly Parton, Cliff Richard, B.J. Thomas, Ike and Tina Turner, and Hank Williams.
Scriven’s lyrics are sometimes sung to other melodies by William Bolcom, Cecil Forsyth, and James Edmund Jones.
On television, What a Friend We Have in Jesus has been used in religious programming and in “The Waltons,” “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “House,” “Matlock,” “Gilmore Girls,” and “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show.” On film, it is heard in “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Oh! What a Lovely War,” “Footloose,” and the Norwegian film “Trollhunter.”
With its popularity lasting over 160 years and counting, What a Friend We Have in Jesus is a much-loved fixture of Christian music. It is Hymn No. 457 in the Lutheran Hymnal.
Joseph Scriven (1819 – 1886), born in Ireland, was educated at Dublin’s Trinity College. A teacher, he moved to Canada in his 20s, settling near Port Hope, Ontario, where he devoted himself to helping the less fortunate. A book of his hymns was published some years after his death.
Charles Converse (1832 – 1918) was an American lawyer and composer of hymns.