Thousands have been cheered in time of trouble, and so led nearer to Christ, by this sweet and simple hymn; for very few hymns have been more widely published or more frequently sung. The author was born in Dublin in 1820, and came to Canada when he was twenty-five. There he lived a useful life until his death in 1886. The young lady to whom he was to be married was accidentally drowned on the eve of their wedding day. This led him to consecrate his life and fortune to the service of Christ. Though a graduate of Trinity College and a man of refinement, he chose humble duties. One afternoon he was seen walking down the streets of Port Hope, where he lived, dressed as a plain workingman and carrying a saw-horse and a saw on his mission of help. A citizen, noticing that a friend recognized him, said:
“Do you know that man? What is his name and where does he live? I want some one to cut wood, and I find it difficult to get a sober man to do the work faithfully."
“But you can't get that man, ”was the reply.” That is Mr. Scriven. He won't cut wood for you."
“Why not?” queried the gentleman.
“Because you are able to pay for it. He only saws wood for poor widows and sick people."
Until a short time before his death it was not known that he had a poetic gift. A neighbor, sitting up with him in his illness, happened upon a manuscript copy of ”What a friend we have in Jesus. ”Reading it with great delight and questioning Mr. Scriven about it, he said that he had composed it for his mother, to comfort her in a time of special sorrow, not intending that anyone else should see it. Some time later, when another Port Hope neighbor asked him if it was true that he composed the hymn, his reply was; ”The Lord and I did it between us."
Returning from England in 1875, I soon became associated with P. P. Bliss in the publication of what later became known as ”Gospel Hymns No. 1. ”After we had given the completed compilation to our publishers I chanced to pick up a small paper-covered pamphlet of Sunday-school hymns, published at Richmond, Virginia. I discovered this and sang it through, and determined to have it appear in ”Gospel Hymns. ”As the composer of the music was my friend C. C. Converse, I withdrew from the collection one of his compositions and substituted for it, ”What a friend we have in Jesus. ”Thus the last hymn that went into the book became one of the first in favor.
As published in the small Richmond hymnal, the authorship of the words was erroneously attributed to the great Scotch preacher and hymn-writer, Dr. Horatius Bonar. We were in error, also, in assigning the words to him. Some years afterward Dr. Bonar informed us that he was not the author, and that he did not know who wrote it. It was not until six or eight years after the hymn first appeared in our collection that we learned who the author really was.