The information contained in this review is printed with permission from the author and publisher: Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Hymns that Inspire America, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003).
The great American evangelist Dwight L. Moody incorporated this song in his sermons, writings, and teachings. This caused many people to believe that the song is an American hymn. Not so. It was written by an Irishman in Canada.
One Hundred fifty years ago two businessmen stood on a Port Hope, Ontario street corner as a little man carrying a saw walked by. One of the businessmen said, “Now there is a man who is happy with his lot in life. I wish I could know his joy. Perhaps I can get him to cut my winter’s supply of wood.”
“I know that man. He would not cut your firewood. He cuts wood only for the financially destitute and for those who are physically handicapped and cannot cut their own firewood.”
That young woodcutter was named Joseph Scriven. Son of a captain in the British Royal Marines, Joseph was born in Ireland in 1819. After receiving his university degree from Trinity College in London, 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 scheduled wedding, his fiancé drowned.
Overcome with grief, Scriven left Ireland to start a new life in Canada. He established a home in Rice Lake, where he met and fell in love with Eliza Rice. Just weeks before she was to become Joseph Scriven’s bride, she suddenly grew sick. 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 found not just solace, but a mission. The twenty-five year old Scriven took a vow of poverty, sold all of his earthly possessions, and vowed to give his life to the physically handicapped and financially destitute.
Ten years later Scriven received word that his mother had become very ill. The man who had taken a vow of poverty did not have the funds to go home to help care for her. Heartsick, and feeling a need to reach out to her, he wrote the story of his life in three short verses he called “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Later, Scriven said, “The Lord and I together wrote the song.” Several of his friends got a copy and one of them carried a copy 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.
Two decades later the great American evangelist Dwight L. Moody came across the song and believed it to be the most touching modern hymn that he had ever heard. It was Moody who gave the song a national platform and caused so many to think that the song had been written in America.
Ironically, Joseph Scriven drowned in a Canadian lake in 1886. He did not live to see his song carried to every corner of the globe.
– James Q. Salter