An Old Favorite Worth Remembering

An Old Favorite Worth Remembering

When I was a little kid in Sunday School, up to about age 7, I learned and loved all the Sunday School songs, like “Jesus Loves Me,” “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and so on. But when I turned 8, I started to learn hymns. The cute little songs were for littler kids. I had grown up enough to sing longer songs, hymns with more than one verse. 

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My favorite hymn in my childhood was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” In my mind’s eye, I always saw the picture of Jesus sitting in a garden with children talking with him, the picture my mom had in her Sunday School classroom. I didn’t really think about the words of the song, just that Jesus was my friend. That was a comforting thought.

I played a fun piano arrangement of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” for the postlude last Saturday evening at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. The overall theme of the service was learning to pray. In the Gospel reading, Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, and he responded by teaching them to pray what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer.”

I had a good time selecting music for last weekend, knowing the service would be all about prayer. For the prelude, I played a sequence of prayer songs:

Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying [Ken Medema]
O Lord, Hear My Prayer [Taize Community]
Kum Ba Yah [African Melody]
Hear Our Prayer, O Lord [George Whelpton]
The Lord’s Prayer [Albert Hay Mallotte]

The style of each prayer song was completely different, ending with what I think is the most dramatic prayer song ever written. Anyone who listened to the prelude at all would have to know that the service would be about prayer.

For the postlude, I knew that “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was as much about prayer as it was about friendship. A recurring phrase throughout all three verses of the hymn is “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is one of the songs I wrote about in my book, HYMNS OF PEACE AND COMFORT, the second book in my Talking with God through Music series. The author of this hymn, Joseph M. Scriven (1820-1886), certainly had a lot of things to take to the Lord in prayer. Here’s his story in an excerpt from the book.


Joseph Scriven wrote this hymn as a poem for his mother who was going through a rough time in her life. This poem comforted her. She shared the poem with a friend, who decided to have the poem published anonymously so that others could be comforted by the same words.

Scriven knew about hard times. His fiancée had drowned in a lake the day before they were to be married. In his grief, he immigrated from Ireland to Canada in hopes of beginning a new life. Several years later he fell in love again and was planning to get married. But this time, his fiancée contracted tuberculosis and she died before they could marry.

Scriven was a very religious man who focused his life on trying to live as instructed by the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). He shared all his possessions with the needy and lovingly performed menial tasks for the poor and physically disabled. With no regular income, he had no home of his own and lived with others as they would have him. Many of his neighbors disapproved of his eccentricities and were critical of his working for the underprivileged.

Shortly before Scriven died, a neighbor was sitting up with him and came across the original hand-written version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” He was excited to find it and asked Scriven about it. Scriven explained that he’d written it for his mother and had not intended it to be read by anyone else. That’s the first that any of his neighbors knew about his poetry. Another neighbor later asked him it if was true that he had really written it, and his response was, “The Lord and I did it between us.”

The primary message of this hymn is: Life is rough. Take it to the Lord in prayer. God will understand and will comfort you. 

Fortunately, Scriven started the poem with the words “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” That provides all the comfort we need to get through the trials of this life. Our friend Jesus will help us.

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