Higher Than I #10: What a Friend We Have In Jesus

Higher Than I

What A Friend We Have In Jesus is the ninth track of the Clayton Church worship album, Higher Than I, which was officially launched on Sunday 1 May. It is the final article of this entire series since the final track Wonderful Cross was written up first.

Album Tracks/Index

  1. Praise to the Lord Almighty
  2. Higher Than I
  3. Blessed Assurance
  4. Great is Your Love
  5. You Are 
  6. How Majestic
  7. I Desire
  8. Breathe on Me
  9. What A Friend We Have In Jesus (this article)
  10. Wonderful Cross
  11. Summary / One Month Review

Official Links

Song Background / Original Hymn

What A Friend We Have In Jesus was originally written by the Irish poet Joseph Scriven, originally in 1855. Whilst Scriven was born in Ireland, he left at the age of 25 to migrate to Canada. This move was triggered by both the religious influence of the Plymouth Brethren which caused an estrangement between him and his family, and the fact that his fiancée tragically drowned on the eve of their wedding. Whilst staying with a friend, Scriven received news from Ireland that his mother was quite sick. To comfort her, he wrote a poem called Pray Without Ceasing. It was only years later in 1868 that a music score was developed by Charles Crozat Converse and the work became known as What A Friend We Have in Jesus. Scriven had no idea that what he wrote originally for his mother would go on to become published in the local newspaper, let alone a globally renowned hymn that touches millions of believers today. Another guy, William Bolcom composed another tune for the hymn which would also go onto having many different versions with different lyrics developed in multiple languages. The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal notes, “In spite of the fact that this hymn, with its tune, has been criticized as being too much on the order of the sentimental gospel type, its popularity remains strong, and the hymn retains a place in modern hymnals.

The following lyrics are part of the original hymn. As a hymn, it was verses only, sung after one another.

Verse 1
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!

O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.

Verse 2
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged
Take it to the Lord in prayer!

Can we find a friend so faithful,
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness
Take it to the Lord in prayer!

Verse 3
Are we weak and heavy laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Saviour, still our refuge
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee
Thou wilt find a solace there.

 

Each verse has two parts which provide an overall question and answer type of flow. The common repeated stanza that persists throughout all the verses is “Take it to the Lord in prayer”. Thus, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, troubles, discouragement, sorrows, weaknesses, sins, griefs and pain – bring them all to Jesus, our Lord in prayer. One of the interesting things about the hymn, is that even though it was written in the 1800s, the majority of the language and grammar used has persisted and remains modern today; the one exception to this is the last half of the final third verse, where language like “thee” and “wilt” reflect older style English.

2015 Clayton Church Modernisation

Our effort to modernise this hymn was fairly limited and unambitious. Whilst we dropped off the third verse, a new chorus was constructed and developed to introduce the song. Our keyboardist along with our worship director helped to refine the lyrics and melody, but largely, the chord progression provides a harmonic complementary effect to the regular familiar tune/chords of the verses. The words are simple and echo the same sentiments as the song as a whole – focusing on Jesus our Blessed Saviour, who gave us the promise of salvation. In accepting His promise, we acknowledge that He takes and bears our burdens which we lay at the feet of the cross.

Whilst, the second half uses “Thee” just as the original words did, the whole approach and perspective of the chorus is completely different to the original song. This is most obvious in the use of “You” in the first half of the chorus which is the only instance and change to the overall tone and perspective of the song which is otherwise written in the third person. The second half of the chorus however returns to the same tense/perspective of the overall song, making reference to actions “we” take.

Blessed Saviour
The promise given to us
You have taken our burdens to bear
May we ever, Lord
Be bringing all to Thee
Our most honest and earnest prayer

Now, if I were to try and tweak these lyrics now, with the opportunity to fine-tune and ensure a complete fit and consistency across the entire song, I might come up with these alternate lyrics:

Blessed Saviour
Redeemer and our friend
Our burdens, we no longer bear
May we ever, Lord
Be bringing all to Thee
Our most honest and earnest prayer

In this alternative, I replaced the phrase “The promise given to us” because the language and point of it creates inconsistency in terms of the style and content of the song. Instead, I simply extend the exhortation of our blessed Saviour as our redeemer and our friend. The third line is also tweaked to simplify the language and rephrase in the same style of the song. The same sentiment remains though: We no longer bear our burdens, because of His promise to us.

The song arrangement deviates from the hymn by starting with this new chorus, which helps to lead us into the hymn. Having the chorus inserted in between the verses creates more musical diversity and thus, the repetition of the chorus increases the song length which was trimmed as a result of dropping the third verse. The resultant work and moderately flowing rhythm helps to differentiate this 2015/2016 version from the 130 year-old hymn.

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