BEFORE I started writing this series, I didn’t realise that there is a sort of hymn snobbery. Growing up in an evangelical C of E church (Christ Church, Beckenham, Kent) we sang a wide range of hymns. However now that I try to find some favourites on YouTube, for example today’s choice, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, it is evident that they are never performed by cathedral and top church choirs, but more by gospel groups and pop singers. The reason for the divide seems to be the English Hymnal, which was first published in 1906.
Its editors were the clergyman and writer Percy Dearmer and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and their mission was to produce ‘a collection of the best hymns in the English language’. They appear to have dismissed works which they judged to be sentimental or of lesser quality. Some hymns were given different tunes by Vaughan Williams, either written by himself or collected from folk sources. The updated New English Hymnal (1986) is used by most cathedral choirs, and you will certainly not hear them giving The Old Rugged Cross.
Whatever the experts and the High Anglican churches think, What A Friend We Have In Jesus is much loved. In a 2013 BBC poll to find the nation’s most popular hymn, it came 19th out of 100. (Number 1 was How Great Thou Art, also considered too sentimental for the English Hymnal).
It was written by Joseph Scriven, who was born in 1819 of prosperous parents in Banbridge, Northern Ireland. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1842, he fell in love with a Banbridge girl and they became engaged. The day before their wedding in 1843 his bride-to-be was crossing a bridge over the River Bann on horseback when she was thrown, and she drowned in full view of her fiancé waiting for her on the other bank.
Scriven then adopted some of the teachings of the Plymouth Brethren, which may have strained relations with his family. In 1845, aged 25, he migrated to Ontario, Canada, where he lived among Plymouth Brethren and tutored to make his living.
In 1855, he received news from Ireland that his mother was gravely ill. He could not afford the trip back to see her, so he wrote a poem entitled Pray Without Ceasing to comfort her and sent it with a letter. After her death, the poem was found in her papers. It had been separated from the letter, so no one knew who had written it. The poem was copied and passed around, and years later, in 1868, it was set to music by Charles Crozat Converse (1832-1918), an American lawyer who also composed hymn tunes. Now known as What a Friend We Have in Jesus, it became popular but remained anonymous.
In about 1857 Scriven was living in Port Hope, Ontario, when he fell in love for a second time, with a girl named Eliza Roche. He was 37 and she was 20. It was necessary for her to be baptised into the Plymouth Brethren before her marriage and this service, which included full immersion, was conducted in Rice Lake in April 1860, with the ice barely gone. Eliza, who was already seriously ill with tuberculosis, was thoroughly chilled and developed pneumonia. She died on August 6, 1860.
Scriven remained unaware that anyone but his mother had seen his poem. He never married. He did not have a steady job, but worked here and there as he was able. He could not afford a home of his own but stayed with a series of friends. He took to sawing up wood for the stoves of the needy and did odd jobs for anyone who needed help. He would not accept payment. He would even give away his own clothes. He also preached on street corners, sometimes being pelted with fruit and vegetables, and on at least one occasion being arrested.
By 1886, when Scriven was 66, his health was failing and he feared being a burden on his friends, who took turns to look after him. One day his long-time friend James Sackville found a copy of Pray without Ceasing and asked Scriven if he had written it. Scriven replied, ‘The Lord and I wrote it between us.’
Sackville wrote later: ‘His body was just worn down with toil, and his mind was wearied with failure and disappointment in his work. The one desire and prayer of his heart seemed to be expressed in the words which he was heard to speak a few days before his departure, “I wish the Lord would take me home”. His confidence in the Lord, as to his own personal safety, and the bright prospect of future glory, were firm and unshaken, to the end.’
Sackville took him to his own house. He wrote: ‘We left him about midnight. I withdrew to an adjoining room, not to sleep, but to watch and wait, and occupied myself with reading my brother’s [Scriven’s] writings, until about 5 o’clock in the morning. You may imagine my surprise and dismay, when, on visiting his room, I found it empty. All search failed to find any trace of the missing one, until a little after noon, the body was discovered in a water [a millpond] nearby, lifeless and cold in death.’
The date was August 10, 1886. No inquest was held. Scriven was buried next to his second fiancée and at last he was given the credit for the hymn he had written.
During the First World War it was reworded as When This Lousy War Is Over, as seen here in a clip from Oh! What a Lovely War (1969).
Alan Price borrowed the melody for his song Changes, which was used in the 1973 film O Lucky Man!
and in the 1987 VW ad directed by David Bailey and featuring Paula Hamilton which is widely perceived as having launched a new era in car advertising.
There are many great performances of the hymn on YouTube. I love this one in which Rodney Jantzi plays a reed organ in a cemetery. The instrument is said to be portable – I suppose anything is if you have enough people to carry it.
Here is Cliff Richard in Newcastle in 1968.
Here is the US Heartstrings Cello Ensemble, featuring players aged 13 to 17, and here the hymn gets the bluegrass treatment from the Purple Hulls, identical twins Katy Lou and Penny Lea Clark from Texas, with their brother Ben Clark on guitar.
Finally, having been introduced to Michael Eldridge by a reader after last week’s hymn, It Is Well With My Soul, here he is with some of his family.
A revised New English Hymnal is due to be published this year, promising 185 new entries. I wonder if What A Friend We Have In Jesus will be among them?
I’d like to acknowledge the Port Hope History website where I found many of the details about Joseph Scriven, and my friend Helen Oliver who helped me with the church music section.