To learn how to play What A Friend, watch the video below (bottom of page)
What A Friend We Have In Jesus, written by Joseph M Scriven in 1855. Music by Charles C. Converse in 1868. I find it very interesting how many hymns were written that did not get music added until a much later date. It makes me wonder how they were first presented. Poetry? A different melody than the one we’re familiar with? A church reading/response that was spoken instead of sung? I’m probably showing my ignorance here, but learning always starts with ‘not knowing’. I’m pretty good with research, but some things are harder to find than others.
According to Cyberhymnal.org (a great resource, by the way!) Joseph wrote What a Friend for his mother. It was published without credit, and the truth of Joseph’s authorship did not become known for nearly 30 years. That’s a long time to not take credit for something!
My main memory of the song comes from Uncle Friel playing it. He put his own touch to the music, as he did with everything he played. When I play it, it’s in tribute to how I learned from Friel. Anything good about it, he taught me. Anything not so good, was due to my poor memory and individual style. I’ll always remember Friel as the best southern gospel pianist in south Georgia and north Florida. And I only limit that to make it sound believable. If you’ve ever heard him, you know he was simply the best. Anywhere. Friel always made it look effortless. Just sit down, touch the keys, and great music flowed out. If he didn’t know the song, it was slightly more difficult. First, someone would have to sing it for him. Then, usually while they were still in the first verse, he’d have it figured out, locked down, and sounding like he’d known it forever.
Going back to Joseph Scriven, this seems to be his only (or at least most known) hymn. What’s most amazing about these verses, is that he could maintain this faith in the face of devastating tragedy in his life. Just before his move to Canada in 1846, his fiancee drowned. On the day before they had planned to be married. After settling in Canada, he again found love, only to have her die just before their wedding.
Instead of being embittered, he made his purpose that of helping elderly in his community. And some years after, wrote “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” Faith like that is truly humbling.