“I’ll Be a Friend to Jesus”

"Then all the disciples forsook Him, and fled. And they that had laid hold on Jesus led Him away…" (Matt. 26.56-57)

     INTRO.: A song that expresses the aspiration of being a friend to Jesus who is such a Friend to us, rather than forsaking Him, is, "I’ll Be A Friend To Jesus" (#121 in Hymns for Worship Revised, and #207 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Johnson Oatman Jr. (1856-1922). Some of his other well known hymns are "Count Your Blessings," "Higher Ground," "The Last Mile of the Way," "Lift Him Up," "No, Not One," and "Sweeter Than All." The tune (A Friend) for "I’ll Be A Friend To Jesus" was composed by John Wesley Dennis, who was born on Oct. 8, 1866, at a farm near Lebanon in Laclede County, MO, to Jasper and Caroline Dennis. His parents were members of the church of Christ and reared their six children in a God-fearing home. The date of John Wesley’s baptism is not known, but it probably came early in life.  Attending the schools available in rural Missouri in the late 1800’s, he found that his educational opportunities were scarce. However, he had a thirst for knowledge. Early in life he became interested in music and took his first lessons at a singing school taught by J. R. Frazier at White Oak Pond in July of 1884, where he learned to read and write music.

     On Oct. 17, 1886, Dennis married Miss Elizabeth Lowrance, daughter of Dr. S. S. Lowrence, a physician of Lebanon who was also a Christian.  To this union were born four sons and four daughters. John Wesley taught his first singing school in 1887 at Competition, MO. About 1891, the Dennises, with their first four children, moved to Decatur in Wise County, TX, where he continued his music teaching and studied further in nearby Ft. Worth under such men as Horatio Richmond Palmer, author of "Yield Not to Temptation," and Anthony Johnson Showalter, composer of the tune for "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Dennis’s first song was produced in 1901. As early as 1904, he became involved in the publication of songbooks and continued this work for many years in association with others such as G. H. P. Showalter, long-time editor of the Firm Foundation, and Rufus Henry Cornelius, author of the song "O I Want To Meet Him."

     The Dennises remained in Wise County until 1905 when, with three more children, they moved to the Delhi community, south of Sayer in Beckham County, OK, where Dennis bought eighty acres to begin farming again and their last child was born. They continued at Delhi, where he taught music and wrote songs as well as farmed, until 1920, when they moved to Erick, OK, a few miles northeast of Delhi. Here, he spent the rest of his life engaged mostly in music work, conducting music schools in his own home, although he did some auctioneering also. In 1922, while getting ready for one of his singing schools, he contacted Oatman, who died later that year, and asked him for some poems that his students could set to music. Among the poems that Oatman sent was "I’ll Be A Friend To Jesus." When Dennis saw it, he immediately decided to provide a melody for it himself, and after working on it for two years, first published it in 1924. Sometimes Dennis is listed as the author; it may be that he did some arranging of the text, but it is more likely that this is simply an error. Following a lengthy illness, he died from complications of diabetes in 1947 at Erick.

     Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared in the 1943 Standard Gospel Hymns edited by Tillit S. Teddlie; the 1938/1944 (New) Wonderful Songs edited by Thomas S. Cobb; the 1952 Hymns of Praise and Devotion edited by Will W. Slater; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; and the 1978 Hymns of Praise edited by Reuel Lemmons.  Today it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 (Church) Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; and the 1999 Into Our Hands edited by Leland R. Fleming; in addition to Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat. In 1952 the copyright was renewed by the R. E. Winsett Music Co., which is now part of the Sacred Music Trust owned by Ellis J. Crum, editor of Sacred Selections.

     This hymn focuses our attention on the desire that we should have of being a friend to Jesus.

I. Stanza 1 talks about the time when Jesus was arrested, tried, and forsaken by His disciples
"They tried my Lord and Master, With no one to defend;
Within the halls of Pilate, He stood without a friend."
 A. The trial of Jesus was part of the suffering that led up to His death for us: Mk. 14.53-55
 B. He stood without a friend to speak for Him or comfort Him while receiving unkind and unjust treatment: Lk. 22.63-65
 C. Then in the halls of Pilate to be condemned: Jn. 19.12-16

II. Stanza 2 says that we should determine to be His friends even when the world turns against Him
"The world may turn against Him; I’ll love Him to the end.
And while on earth I’m living, My Lord shall have a friend."
 A. The world may turn against Him because He came to His own and His own received Him not: Jn. 1.11
 B. However, those who understand that He is the divine Son of God who gave Himself for the world will want to love Him to the end: Mk. 12.29-30
 C. Therefore, as long as we live on earth, we must strive regardless of the circumstances never to be ashamed of Jesus: Mk. 8.34-38

III. Stanza 3 tells us that we become His friends by doing what He may bid us
"I’ll do what He may bid me; I’ll go where He may send.
I’ll try each flying minute To prove that I’m His friend."
 A. A true friend is not one who just mouths words of friendship but who demonstrates by his actions that he is a friend; so to be friends of Jesus, we must keep His commandments: Jn. 14.15, 15.14
 B. This means going where He may send to share the gospel with others: Mk. 16.15-16
 C. Hence, we need to remember each flying minute that the world will hate those who follow Christ, but we must determine to serve Him no matter what and be willing to suffer for His sake: Jn. 15.18-21

IV. Stanza 4 says that if we are friends of Jesus, we must tell others about our Friend
"To all who need a Savior, My Friend I recommend;
Because He brought salvation Is why I am His friend."
 A. Jesus came to be our Savior: Lk. 2.11
 B. Thus, like the healed demoniac, friends of Jesus, who have experienced His salvation, will want to tell others what great things the Lord has done for them: Mk. 5.19
 C. So we tell others that there is salvation in none other than Jesus Christ: Acts 4.12

     CONCL.: The chorus underscores the importance of being a friend of Jesus.
"I’ll be a friend to Jesus; My life for Him I’ll spend.
I’ll be a friend to Jesus, Until my years shall end."
Certainly, I must never boast nor brag about being a friend of Jesus, because, like the apostles at His betrayal and arrest, I can in a moment of weakness depart from Him too. Yet, ever recognizing this possibility, it should still be my aim and goal throughout life that "I’ll Be A Friend To Jesus."


2 thoughts on ““I’ll Be a Friend to Jesus”

  1. I have such fond memories of Dennis’ son E.O. singing “I’ll Be a friend to Jesus” in our church in Del City, Ok where many of his family members continue to worship.

  2. I can’t believe you knew my Uncle Edison! My grandmother was Ottie Caroline Dennis Galbraith, E.O.’s older sister. I just happened upon this website and entered the song title. I live in Lubbock, TX. Please contact me.


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