Julian's account of J. Scriven:
Joseph Scriven. Mr. Sankey, in his Life and Sacred Songs, 1906, page 279, says that Scriven was born in Dublin in 1820, was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and went to Canada when he was 25, and died there at Port Hope on Lake Ontario in 1886. His hymn "What a Friend we have in Jesus" (Jesus our Friend) was, according to Mr Sankey, discovered to be his in the following manner: 'A neighbour, sitting up with him in his illness, happened upon a manuscript of 'What a Friend we have in Jesus'. Reading it with great delight, and questioning Mr. Scriven about it, he said he had composed it for his mother, to comfort her in a time of special sorrow, not intending anyone else should see it'. We find the hymn in H.L. Hastings' Social Hymns, Original and Selected, 1865, no. 242, and his Songs of Pilgrimage, 1886, no 1291, where it is attributed to "Joseph Scriven, cir. 1855". It is found in many modern collections.
Scriven's hymn in 'Spiritual Songs' is No. 306. "What a Friend we have in Jesus". It is the first time it has been included in the Little Flock Hymn Book.
An account of the hymn in 'Sing Them Again' by M. Guthrie Clark, M.A. published March 1955 by Henry E Walter, Ltd, Central Buildings, Bath Place, Worthing, and London, W.C.1:-
The origin of our hymns is a very interesting line of enquiry full of unexpected discoveries and joys. Hymns have been written for all sorts of purposes. Some, like the hymns of Frances Alexander, were written especially for children to help them learn the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments. Some, like George Mattheson's masterpiece, were written to express the author's convictions and longings in connection with them. Some, like Baring Gould's "Onward Christian Soldiers" were written for a specific act of worship. Some, like Toplady's hymn, arose out of some peculiar circumstance of life. Some arose spontaneously out of a devotional hour with the Saviour and were written down almost at His dictation. The hymn now before us falls into the last category. It came to Joseph Scriven in his last illness as he thought of his mother whom he had to leave behind. We may say it arose from a Christian's desire to explain his own secret with a view to helping someone else who was very dear to him. Not long before Scriven was called Home, he was visited by a neighbour who saw it written on a sheet of paper which lay on a table at his bedside. "Are you the author of this lovely poem?" asked the visitor. "The Lord and I did it together" was the reply. What a lovely explanation of the origin of this moving hymn, and maybe of most hymns, "The Lord and I did it together". Do not these words let us into a great secret of christian living? What needless pain we bear because we try to do it on our own, and things go wrong, and we give way to self pity. Do you remember what was said of Joseph in prison? Whatsoever was done there, he was the doer of it! Joseph is a type of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You may be surprised to know that this hymn arose out of a tragedy, though there was a long space of time between the actual tragedy and the completion of the hymn. There is not a great deal of information regarding Joseph Scriven, but such as we have I must give you, because I feel sure that this story will touch some readers very deeply, and may lead them in the path in which Joseph Scriven was led. It is a hymn for sufferers of all kinds, but specially for those who have had to face mysterious happenings, which have been permitted in their lives, and that are hard to interpret.
Joseph Scriven was born in Ireland in 1820 and lived there for the first 25 years of his life. Sometime in 1845 he emigrated to Canada, as many another Irishman has done, seeking his fate in the New World. He died in 1886 at the age of 66, after a varied life filled with difficulties such as many a settler has known. He was brought to Christ as a result of losing his bride-to-be on the eve of their marriage. She was accidentally drowned a few hours before they were to be joined in holy matrimony. What an indescribable grief! How easily it might have led him in the opposite direction to unbelief and bitterness and hardness of heart. I always think of this when I come to the last lines of verse three: "In His arms He'll take and shield thee; Thou wilt find a solace there".
It appears that the hymn was written a long time before it was seen by anyone save himself and his mother. It was written to comfort his mother in a time of great sorrow, and we can imagine what it meant to her after her son had died. How many hearts it has comforted since, no one knows but the Lord.
The subject of the hymn is the friendship of Christ, which is a very precious one, especially to the lonely and those in need. I remember an open-air service in South London where this hymn was sung at the close. On the other side of the main road stood a young man who had just come to London to work, and he listened wistfully to all that was said and sung. The meeting over, he was approached by a worker, who asked him some questions in the strain, "Did you follow the address?" etc. But it seemed to mean nothing to the stranger until at last the young evangelist said, "Do you want a Friend?" "Do I want a friend? I should think I do. I have just came up to London and don't know a soul". And a friendship began that night which will never end.
Turning to the hymn itself we note that there is a haunting refrain eight times repeated, "Take it to the Lord in prayer". "Everything to God in prayer" comes first; and then detail after detail for ever afterwards, "Take it to the Lord in prayer"
"Take it to the Lord in prayer". We can summarize the three verses as follows: 'our sins', 'our sorrows', 'our sighs'. Are we facing 'dispeace', 'discomfort', 'distress'? The same remedy suits every malady. The wording takes the form of question and answer, and everyone who searches his heart with these interrogations will soon find the solution. The note of intimate fellowship is seen throughout, fellowship between Christ and His friends. The Saviour carries our sins and knows our weaknesses and shields our hearts. Simplicity rather than profundity characterises this beautiful hymn which will ever be a favourite with children and all in need. Is there anything in the hymn which a child cannot understand? No words need explanation here! How easily this hymn might have been lost in oblivion if that single piece of paper had been inadvertently destroyed. Isaiah 48:18. Proverbs 18:24. Matthew 11:28.
Extract from "The Days of my Pilgrimage", by A.F. Willis.
"Our education was not neglected and for about two years our teacher was one whose name has come before the attention of the public in late years — -Joseph Scriven, author of the well known hymn, "What a Friend we have in Jesus". He taught us in our home, two or three other children coming in to share his instruction. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, he was nevertheless a humble christian man, his one desire to spread the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and few then living in Port Hope and its vicinity did not have the question of their soul's salvation put to them by him. His home while he was teaching us was with an old woman, Mrs Gibson by name, who lived nearby and eked out a scanty living by keeping cows. He often delivered the milk for her when she was crippled with rheumatism.