Hymns That Inspire America
What a Friend We Have in Jesus!
"What a Friend We Have in Jesus" has long been associated with the United States of America. This is probably due in part to the fact that this country has a reputation for being the most generous nation in the world. After World War II, the United States and its people helped rebuild the very nations that attacked us. When countries-even those who were enemies of the United States-have experienced great national disasters such as earthquakes, floods, or famine, Americans have always been among the first to respond with aid. In Christian circles it may be the American missionaries who are the best known of the foreigners who go into the most remote parts of the Third World to bring help and hope.
Though many in the U.S. judge the country, its government, and its people as not coming close to the ideals set in motion by Christ, most of the world's people are still amazed by America's dynamic rush to help "the least of these." In hundreds of millions of minds, the U.S. has traditionally been viewed as a Christian country because of the compassion it has shown to those in need. So for many of those whose lives have been saved or altered by America's outreach and generosity, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" is the song that best defines their view of this country. Yet this old hymn was not written by an American; rather, it was composed in Canada by a man who was born in Europe.
One hundred and fifty years ago, two businessmen stood on a frigid Port Hope, Ontario, street corner as snow spit from a gray sky. In the midst of that bitterly cold day, a little man carrying a saw walked by. After the two friends watched the woodcutter pass, one of them observed, "Now there is a man happy with his lot in life. I wish I could know his joy!"
"He seems to be happy, all right," the other agreed. Then he added, "I know he is a very hardworking, honest man."
"If he is such a happy worker and honest too," the first businessman responded, "then maybe I should run after him and hire him to cut some wood for me. I am going to need some more to make it through the long winter months."
"Oh," came the laughing reply, "he would not work for you."
"And why not?" demanded the first man. "I would pay him a fair wage!"
"It's not that at all. You see, Joseph Scriven only cuts wood for people who cannot afford to pay anyone to cut it for them, or for those who cannot cut it for themselves. Scriven gives his work to the people in need and takes nothing for himself."
The man who exemplified Christian charity was born in Ireland in 1819. He did not have a life so charmed that faith came easily. In fact the woodcutter with the bright smile and gentle manner had suffered more heartache and woe than would hit most families in three generations. The son of a captain in the British Royal Marines, Joseph received a university degree from London's Trinity College in 1844. A man of great faith and determination, he quickly established himself as a teacher, fell in love, and made plans to settle in his hometown. Then tragedy struck. The day before his wedding, his fiancée drowned.
Overcome with grief, Scriven left Ireland to start a new life in Canada. He taught school in Woodstock and Brantford before establishing a home in Rice Lake. It was there he met and fell in love with Eliza Rice. Just weeks before she was to become Scriven's bride, she suddenly grew sick. Though the best doctors from across the area were called in, nothing they did seemed to help. In a matter of weeks, Eliza died. A shattered Scriven turned to the only thing that had anchored him during his life-his faith. Through prayer and Bible study he somehow found not just solace but a mission. The twenty-five-year-old man decided to take to heart Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount." He sold all his earthly possessions and vowed to give his life to the physically handicapped and financially destitute. It was a vow he never broke.
Ten years later Scriven received news that his mother had become very ill. The man who had taken a vow of poverty did not have the funds to go home and help care for the woman who had given him birth. Heartsick, feeling a need to reach out to her, Scriven first turned to prayer and then to words. In a letter to his mother, this friend of the friendless wrote the story of his life in three short verses he called "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Scriven who later said, "The Lord and I wrote the song together," shared the poem with a few acquaintances. One of them took copies to a music publisher. Within two years the little poem of inspiration had been published and coupled to a tune written by an American lawyer, Charles Converse.
"What a Friend We Have in Jesus" might have remained as obscure as Joseph Scriven if it had not been for the American evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Moody came across the song some two decades after it was written and believed it to be the most touching hymn he had ever heard. It was Moody, through his meetings, teachings, and books, who gave the song a national platform and probably created the impression that "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" had been written in the United States.
In the late 1800s American missionaries took the hymn to the four corners of the globe. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was one of the first American songs learned by many of those touched by these missionaries' work. Because of missionaries the song became so associated with the United States and its people that by the turn of the century many Eastern European immigrants sang "What a Friend" as they arrived at Ellis Island. Many of these potential Americans did not understand a single word of English, but in their hearts they believed the United States was a place where Jesus was everyone's friend.
The same thoughts and inspiration that Joseph Scriven wanted to give his sick mother in 1855, the idea that missionaries passed along in foreign lands for generations, and the hope that immigrants clung to as they arrived in the United States were adopted by millions of Christians during World War I and World War II. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was usually sung in American churches on the Sunday morning before a church member left for missionary service. This song, along with "Amazing Grace," was also the most common hymn played if that same man was lost in combat. Thus for tens of millions of Americans, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" became the spiritual reinforcement that got them through the most trying times of their lives. In the process the hymn had somehow grown beyond the autobiographical testimony of an Irishman, whose life had seen little but trouble and sacrifice, and into an anthem whose message was universal in moments of insecurity and doubt.
Ironically, Joseph Scriven drowned in a Canadian lake in 1886. While he did realize that the poem meant only for his mother's eyes had become meaningful to others, the man with the giving spirit did not live long enough to see "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" taken to every corner of the globe. Yet Scriven, who spent fifty years cutting wood and giving all he had to "the least of these," would have surely been pleased to know that his life's message, written in a poem, has inspired so many for so long.
This was another great book to research. During my days gathering material for this project I had the chance to speak to so many incredible songwriters. Listening to their stories was a remarkable experience. It was also a lot of fun to dig through old, dusty volumes in several different libraries. I think I was the first person to read some of the books I went through for this project in more than fifty years. All the stories stood out and I got chills writing about "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America," but I picked this standard for our online preview.