The hymn was penned in 1857 by Joseph Scriven, of Canada, for his widowed mother, Jane Medlicott Scriven of Ireland (she was 70 at the time). She was going through a particularly sorrowful time of illness in Dublin, and he could not come to her side due to financial constraints. He never intended anyone would see it, but a friend saw it scribbled on scratch paper while tending him when he was ill, and it was published soon afterwards. It was titled, “Pray without Ceasing.”
In 1875, Ira Sankey had just returned from England and was working with Philip Bliss on a new song book called, Gospel Hymns, No. 1. After the completed work was delivered to the publisher, Mr. Sankey picked up a small pamphlet of Sunday School hymns that had been published in Richmond, Virginia. Since Charles Converse was a good friend, Mr. Sankey took one of his tunes and put the words with it and name it: “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” It was the last hymn to be added to the book, but it became the first as a favorite.
To change the focus of the song off of Prayer, the last verse was omitted:
Blessed Saviour, Thou hast promised Thou wilt all our burdens bear
Mr. Sankey had published the words using the credit given to them in the pamphlet to the Scottish preacher and hymn writer, Horatius Bonar. Years later, Dr. Bonar told Mr. Sankey that he never wrote the words, and he did not know who did. The actual writer became known 8 years after its publication!
Hezekiah Butterworth, The Story of the Hymns or Hymns that Have a History (New York: American Tract Society, 1875), pp. 425, 426.
Jay Macpherson, “Scriven, Joseph Medlicott,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto, 2000) accessed May 26, 2013.
Charles S. Nutter and Wilbur F. Tillett, The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church: an Annotated Edition of The Methodist Hymnal (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1911), pp. 434, 435.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymns Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1996), January 10.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982), pp. 275, 276.
J. Harris Rea, “Joseph Scriven: Author of the hymn, What A Friend We Have in Jesus” Banbridge Chronicle, http://countydown.x10.mx/html/joseph_scriven.htm accessed May 26,2013.
Ira D. Sankey, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns and of Sacred Songs and Solos (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Sunday School Times Company, 1907), pp. 333-335.
Lindsay Terry, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” Today’s Christian, July/August 2004, Vol. 42, No. 4, p 16.
This article was split away from an article that Darren Glenewinckel wrote, later expanded by Faith Macomber. The sources they used were as follows:
Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1983)
Reynolds, William J, Companion to Baptist Hymnal. (Nashville, Tennessee. Broadman Press, 1976), p. 238, 287, 422.
W.J. Limmer Sheppard, D.D., Great Hymns and their stories (Manchester, London: The Religious Tract Society) pp. 57-58.