What a friend we have in Jesus

with CONVERSE,
MANOR HOUSE

Manuscripts. This hymn of prayer was written by Joseph Scriven (1819–1886). Scriven is known to have distributed at least three manuscript copies of the hymn among his circle of influence. Scriven spent the last years of his life in the home of James Sackville, near Rice Lake and Port Hope, Ontario. In a letter from Sackville to Methodist hymnologist Charles Nutter or Wilbur Tillett, 8 Jan. 1887, Sackville indicated, “The hymn ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ was never published by the author in any book or paper. He sent one copy to his own mother and handed another copy to my mother about the year 1855; and until very recently his most intimate friends did not know that he was the author of it.”[1] As late as 1903, one manuscript was still in the possession of the Sackville family[2]; its current location is unknown.

Edward S. Caswell published a facsimile of a third manuscript copy in Canadian Singers and Their Songs (1919 | Fig. 1), and he gave a detailed description of its origin:

Through the kindness of Mrs. A.M. Tremaine, of this city [Toronto], the Editor was permitted the use of a slight M.S. book of poems of Joseph Scriven, author of “What a friend we have in Jesus,” on the inside of the back cover of which the poet had inscribed what without doubt would seem to be the first draft of his famous hymn. This little paper-bound book, comprising ten pages of poems written by his own hand, was given by the author to Mrs. Tremaine’s father, the late John Charles Benett, of Brantford, in the early 50s. Scriven was then living in that city, where for a time he conducted a private school for children, of which school Mrs. Tremaine in her early childhood was a pupil.

The hymn as reproduced here, it will be noticed, not only differs in some of the lines from the version in use to-day, but is lacking eight lines of the latter. There would seem to be no doubt that it is the hymn as originally composed by the author. As beyond question the best-known piece of Canadian literature, it is well worthy of a place in this collection (pp. 9-10).

 

Fig. 1. Edward S. Caswell, Canadian Singers and Their Songs (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 1919).

 

As Caswell noted, this version of the text contains only 16 lines, versus the longer published version of 24 lines, thus suggesting this was an early draft. The last quatrain here includes a couple of notable lines, “Are we cold and unbelieving,” and “Here the Lord is still our refuge.” The present location of this MS is unknown. Scriven taught in Brantford in the early 1850s before moving to Clinton, Huron County, in 1855, not arriving in Port Hope until ca. 1870, so the Sackville MS is likely the latest of the three. Biographer Foster M. Russell notes another earlier MS, written ca. 1846 during a trip to Damascus and sent to Dublin;[3] the location of this MS is unknown.

Published versions. Some sources have suggested the hymn was first printed in Dublin, from the copy Scriven sent to his mother, but no such early printing has been identified. The hymn is sometimes erroneously reported as appearing in J.B. Packard’s Spirit Minstrel (1857). The first confirmed published appearance of the hymn was in H.L. Hastings’ Social Hymns Original and Selected (Boston: H.L. Hastings, 1865 | Fig. 2), unattributed, in three stanzas of eight lines, without music.

 

Fig. 2. H.L. Hastings’ Social Hymns Original and Selected (Boston: H.L. Hastings, 1865).

 

Only five years later, it was set to music in its familiar form by Charles Converse (1834–1918) in Silver Wings (Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1870 | Fig. 3). The tune is usually named after the composer, CONVERSE. In this printing, the composer is named “Karl Reden,” a pseudonym Converse used, being his name rendered into German (“Reden” means “to speak”). Curiously, Converse credited the text to the “Genevan Presbyterian Church (of Brooklyn) Collection,” a privately printed collection which is not known to have survived.

 
silverwingscolle00bost_orig_0102a.jpg

Fig. 3. Silver Wings (Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1870).

 

Biographer Foster M. Russell asserts Converse learned of Scriven’s hymn while speaking to a salesperson who was visiting the Burdette Organ Company in Erie, PA, where Converse worked. According to the story, the salesperson had the text in his shirt pocket, clipped from a New York newspaper; he showed the text to Converse, who was intrigued enough to immediately find an organ and craft a melody.[4] This fanciful story (“The sounds came, as with a deaf Beethoven, out of the air … Scriven with his words had touched him to the core of musicology”) would be compelling if it were true, except Converse was living in New York in 1870 when his tune was published; he did not move to Erie until 1875.

The hymn was more broadly popularized through its inclusion in Ira Sankey’s Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (Chicago: Biglow & Main, 1875 | Fig. 4), except Sankey had mistakenly attributed the hymn to Horatius Bonar (1808–1889). Bonar denied writing the hymn, so his name was removed from subsequent editions, until Scriven was finally credited in Gospel Hymns No. 5 (1887).

 

Fig. 4. Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (Chicago: Biglow & Main, 1875).

 

In the British version of this series, the hymn first appeared in Later Songs and Solos. Many years later, Sankey provided an interesting account of his experience with the hymn in My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns (1906):

Until a short time before his death it was not known he had a poetic gift. A neighbor, sitting up with him in his illness, happened upon a manuscript copy of “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Reading it with great delight and questioning Mr. Scriven about it, he said that he had composed it for his mother, to comfort her in a time of special sorrow, not intending that anyone else should see it. Some time later, when another Port Hope neighbor asked if it was true he composed the hymn, his reply was: “The Lord and I did it between us.”

Returning from England in 1875, I soon became associated with P.P. Bliss in the publication of what later became known as Gospel Hymns No. 1. After we had given the completed compilation to our publishers I chanced to pick up a small paper-covered pamphlet of Sunday-school hymns, published at Richmond, Virginia. I discovered this and sang it through, and determined to have it appear in Gospel Hymns. As the composer of the music was my friend C.C. Converse, I withdrew from the collection one of his compositions and substituted for it, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Thus the last hymn that went into the book became one of the first in favor.

As published in the small Richmond hymnal, the authorship of the words was erroneously attributed to the great Scotch preacher and hymn-writer, Dr. Horatius Bonar. We were in error, also in assigning the words to him. Some years afterward Dr. Bonar informed us that he was not the author, and that he did not know who wrote it. It was not until six or eight years after the hymn first appeared in our collection that we learned who the author really was (pp. 296-297).

The Richmond collection mentioned here is probably The Voice of Praise (Richmond: E. Thompson Baird, 1872), which was co-edited by Converse (Karl Reden), where “What a friend we have in Jesus” appeared at no. 11, text credited to Bonar, tune credited to C.C. Converse.

Alternate tune. Some hymnals, especially in England and Ireland, use MANOR HOUSE, composed by Frederick G. Carter, who was a member of the committee for the 1960 Irish Church Hymnal (Fig. 5); the tune was written for that collection. The editors of the Companion to Church Hymnal (2000) called Carter’s tune “a fresh, effective and eminently congregational tune that is well suited to the text,” whereas with CONVERSE they were less kind, saying, “not much can be done to relieve the dull boredom of this tune, which is all too typical of gospel tunes of the period.”[5]

 

Fig. 5. Church Hymnal with Accompanying Tunes (Dublin: APCK, 1960), excerpt.

 

Analysis. The text of the hymn is thought to be a reflection of some of Scriven’s life experiences. While still living in Ireland, his fiancée tragically drowned in the River Bann, and after he had moved to the U.S., another fiancée, Eliza Catherine Roach, died of pneumonia (1860). As stated in many commentaries, he wrote the hymn to comfort his mother in a time of sorrow.

Scriven’s hymn does not directly quote any particular Scripture passage, but it carries many scriptural ideas. The Tremaine MS (Fig. 1) is headed “Pray without ceasing,” which is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5:17. The original Gospel Hymns printing (Fig. 4) quotes Proverbs 18:24, “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (KJV). J.R. Watson connected this hymn with Psalm 55:22, “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved,” and 1 Peter 3:12, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers” (KJV).[6]

Albert Bailey, in The Gospel in Hymns (1950), offered this measured assessment of Scriven’s text:

The rhymes are monotonous … it is what might be called doggerel. But if repetition is not a virtue, it is good teaching. Our criticism is made harmless by the tremendous service the hymn has rendered. Any unlettered person can understand it; the humblest saint can take its admonitions to heart, practice prayer, find his load more bearable and his spiritual life deepened.[7]

The editors of the Companion to Church Hymnal (2000) likewise saw strengths and weaknesses:

The hymn has sometimes been criticized for being overly self-centred and for saying little about Jesus, other than that he is a faithful and sympathetic friend. But it clearly has a special place in the affections of many people. One reason may be its emphasis on the value of prayer in adversity—the injunction “take it to the Lord in prayer” occurs no less than four times.[8]

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
25 July 2019
rev. 12 Aug. 2019


Footnotes:

  1. Charles Nutter & Wilbur Tillett, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church (NY: Eaton & Mains, 1911), p. 289.

  2. “The authorship of a popular hymn,” The Pacific, San Francisco, CA (29 October 1903), p. 18.

  3. Foster Meharry Russell, What a Friend We Have in Jesus (Belleville ON: Mika Publishing Company, 1981), pp. 37-38.

  4. Foster Meharry Russell, What a Friend We Have in Jesus (Belleville ON: Mika Publishing Company, 1981), pp. 74-76, citing the papers of Ernest and Fred Clarry of Millbrook, Ontario.

  5. Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2000), p. 813.

  6. Richard Watson, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Companion to Hymns & Psalms (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1988), p. 329.

  7. Albert Bailey, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” The Gospel in Hymns (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), p. 496.

  8. Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2000), p. 813.

Related Resources:

“The authorship of a popular hymn,” The Pacific, San Francisco, CA (29 October 1903), p. 18: Google Books

Ira Sankey, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns (1906), pp. 295-297: Archive.org

Charles Nutter & Wilbur Tillett, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church (NY: Eaton & Mains, 1911), pp. 289-290: Archive.org

Edward S. Caswell, Canadian Singers and Their Songs (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 1919), pp. 9-10, 128-129: Archive.org

The story of Joseph Scriven, and his world-loved hymn, What a friend we have in Jesus : with accounts of the dedication of a monument to his memory in Pengelley Cemetery, Rice Lake, on May 24th, 1920 : WorldCat

Albert Bailey, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” The Gospel in Hymns (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), pp. 495-496.

“What a friend we have in Jesus,” The 1940 Hymnal Companion, 3rd rev. ed. (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1962), p. 266.

Foster Meharry Russell, What a Friend We Have in Jesus (Belleville ON: Mika Publishing Company, 1981).

Richard Watson & Kenneth Trickett, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Companion to Hymns & Psalms (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1988), pp. 329-330.

Scotty Wayne Gray, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), pp. 269-270.

Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2000), pp. 812-814.

Carl P. Daw Jr., “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 470-472.

“What a friend we have in Jesus,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/what_a_friend_we_have_in_jesus_all_our_s