One of our best-known and most-sung hymns must be What a friend we have in Jesus, yet its author, Joseph M. Scriven, is not so well known or remembered as many of the other hymn-writers of the nineteenth century. His life-story is interesting, filled with variety and punctuated by great poignancy.1
He was born almost exactly 200 years ago, on 10th September 1819 in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland, the second child of John Scriven, a captain in the Royal Marines, and Jane Medlicott. The family moved to England in 1826, and then to Dublin in 1834 where Joseph attended Trinity College. In the tradition of his family, the army was his choice and he entered the officers’ training facility at Addiscombe Military Seminary in Croydon.2 After two years he resigned, finding that he was physically unfit to be a soldier. He returned to Trinity in Dublin to study and he received his BA degree in 1842. He also began associating with some brethren in an early assembly of Christians in Dublin.
With his good educational background, he found work as a tutor. In 1843 he became engaged to be married, but a terrible tragedy struck. His fiancée fell from her horse while crossing a bridge over the river Bann and drowned the day before they were to be married, while he stood helplessly watching on the other bank.
Two years later, aged 25, he emigrated to Canada on the ship Perseverance. He lived at Woodstock, Ontario, but illness made him return to Ireland after only two months. He became a tutor in the Bartley family in Plymouth and, in 1846, went with them on a trip to the Middle East. It is said that there he wrote a rough draft of a poem, later to be called Pray Without Ceasing, with the first line, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’. He also fell in love with a Miss Falconer but, again, this prospect of companionship and marriage was frustrated for someone else stole her heart.
He returned to Ontario in 1847, to the Woodstock and Clinton area, where he began teaching in a school and met with believers in a recently formed assembly. There in Huron County he often went to read the Bible to the labourers constructing the Grand Trunk Railway from Clinton to Goderich, ‘getting small thanks for his pains’, it is said. He distributed poems and tracts of his own, including some Hymns which he had printed for this purpose. Said to be ‘a big man, of pleasant countenance’, he was deeply respected for his charity and unselfishness.
In 1850 he became tutor to the ten-year-old son of a retired naval officer, Robert Pengelley, and his wife, Lydia Roche. He lived with them for the next five years. Here he first met Eliza Roche, Mrs Pengelley’s niece, and nine years later they became engaged when she was 22. Almost unbelievably, another great sadness lay ahead. Eliza, seeking fellowship in the assembly, was baptised in April 1860 in Rice Lake while ice still partly covered it. Already ill with consumption, she developed pneumonia, and although carefully nursed by Joseph and others, she died on 6th August 1860. She was buried in the little cemetery in Bewdley.
Before this, Joseph had left the Pengelleys and gone to live with James Sackville’s household in Bewdley. In effect he became a member of that family and paid his way by cutting wood and doing other chores. He usually spent the winter there and contributed much to the work of an assembly recently begun at that time. During the summer months he moved to Port Hope, where he boarded for twenty-two years with a widow called Mrs Margaret Gibson. Her husband had been a milkman, and she still kept a cow or two. She was crippled with arthritis, so Joseph milked the cows and carried the milk to her customers. He preached in the streets and to workmen in the taverns in simple language and in a quiet, unassuming way. Some of them dismissed him as ‘only old Joe’, and he was often pelted with rotten fruits and vegetables, but this never deterred him.3
He became a familiar sight around the township of Port Hope, a big man with bushy white hair and full white beard. He went about offering to cut wood for those who were unable to cut their own, refusing any payment for it. He gave away to any needy person what he could more readily have used for his own comfort. When a cow belonging to a poor family was lost, he sold the watch he had brought from Ireland to buy another one for them. His family in Ireland stopped supporting him financially when they found he gave it all away. Once he was given money to pay his way to Toronto to attend a religious gathering, but he gave it to someone in distress, and walked from Port Hope to Toronto. The testimony of one lady from that time is, ‘I never knew another person who was as constant a Christian. He would keep only what he barely needed for his necessities, though pressed to take more. He desired not honour or any worldly thing, but wished to be free to serve his master with a pure conscience in a humble way’. He took seriously the instructions of the Lord Jesus in Matthew chapters 5 to 7 and lived by them.
In 1884 Joseph Scriven returned to the Pengelleys in Bewdley to be a tutor to the first four of their sons. He lived in a very small basic cabin, but a year or so later he took ill and became deeply depressed. His friend, James Sackville Jnr., took him into his house to care for him.4 His greatest fear in these days was dishonouring God, or bringing reproach on the name of Christ, but his confidence in the Lord and the prospect of future glory were unshaken. During his last days he often repeated, ‘I am the Lord’s’, and, ‘I will never leave thee nor forsake thee’.
His death occurred under strange circumstances. Late one night Mr Sackville left him and waited in another room, spending the time reading some of his writings. At about 5am he went to check on his friend and to his utter dismay he found his bedroom empty. Some hours later, on 10th August 1886, he was found drowned in the deep mill pond near the house. No one knows what happened. He was buried in an unmarked grave beside Eliza Roche, the young lady he had hoped to marry in 1860. A granite memorial stone was eventually put in place in 1920 and still stands in Port Hope, Ontario.
Joseph Scriven wrote several hymns and other short papers with the titles The Church of God, Priesthood, The Ministration of the Spirit, Our Assembly, The Coming of the Lord, Discipline, all published by James Sackville. It was he who discovered What a friend we have in Jesus. One night he was looking through Scriven’s papers and asked him ‘Who wrote this?’ Scriven replied, ‘I wrote it. The Lord and I did it between us. Many years ago my mother was going through a time of great sorrow and I wrote it to comfort her’. He had not included it in a collection of 115 hymns he had published in 1869, but after his death it came to light in a copy of The Port Hope Guide, a local newspaper which had been used to wrap a parcel sent to New York. It quickly attained widespread popularity. The composer Charles Converse wrote its beautiful and appropriate tune. Ira D. Sankey stated that wherever he had sung it, it was a greater favourite than any other. It has been called ‘beyond question the best-known piece of Canadian literature’.
Although the other hymns written by Scriven are almost unknown, very few hymns have become as well known as this one, and found such an affinity with so many Christians worldwide. In 1920 it was said that over 50 million copies of it were known to have been made. For over 100 years now it has been sung with its characteristic tune: quietly in lonely homes in times of sadness, harmoniously in vast congregations in times of rejoicing, appropriately in prayer meetings far and near; by children too, able to relate to its simple yet profound truth. It has been the request of criminals on the scaffold and of soldiers on battlefields. It has brought encouragement and strength to many different people in all of life’s varied experiences and situations.
Material for this article has been abstracted from www.porthopehistory.com/jmscriven which is gratefully acknowledged. See also Jack Strahan’s Hymns and their Writers Vol 1, pp. 185-188, Gospel Tract Publications, Glasgow, 1989, pp. 185-188.
A training facility for army officers of the British East India Company, 1809-61.
He also taught a few boys at this time, among them A. F. Willis (1859-1929).
Son of James Sackville referred to earlier.