The theme of this year’s camp is of great importance – friendship. The Bible has much to say about the blessings and ingredients of true friendship, as well as providing examples such as David and Jonathan. One of my favourite hymns is concerned with friendship – ‘what a friend we have in Jesus’. It was written by the Irishman Joseph Scriven (1819 – 1886). Scriven left his native country at the age of 25 to live in Ontario, Canada. In 1855 he received news that his mother was seriously ill and composed a poem which he called ‘pray without ceasing’ in order to bring her comfort and cheer. Some years later a friend discovered the manuscript along with other poems and fragments in Scriven’s house and was greatly impressed. He sent it to a publisher although Scriven had never intended it to be read publically. It was first published 10 years after its initial composition in H.L. Hastings ‘Social Hymns, Original and Selected’, by which time music had been added and the name changed to ‘what a friend we have in Jesus’
Scriven led something of a tragic life. In 1843, the day before he was due to be married his fiancée drowned. It was this event that prompted him to move to Canada and make a fresh start. It would also seem that this event was the catalyst which brought Him to Christ as he sought solace in the Bible and prayer. Scriven once again found love in Canada, and once again providence intervened. Weeks before he and Eliza Roche were to be married, she caught pneumonia and died. As bitter as these experiences were, they taught him to have great sympathy for others. After the death of Eliza he devoted his life to preaching, and helping the poor and handicapped. Sadly, he struggled throughout his days with ill health and depression. He died in the same circumstances as his first fiancée – drowning in a lake aged 66.
‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ is a hymn for the lonely, the suffering, the disenfranchised, the tired, and the guilty. It is a hymn designed to encourage spiritual pilgrimage on a difficult journey. The music to which it is set has an appropriately haunting yet optimistic feel. Whatever hardship comes upon us, ‘we can take it to the Lord in prayer’. Jesus Christ is our high priest, our refuge and friend who sympathises with us and aids us in our distresses. Scriven could write these words of hope because they had been forged on the anvil of his own personal pain. We too will pass through seasons of pain, and Christ will prove Himself to us as He did to the hymn writer.
What a friend we have in Jesus, the best of all friends.