Joseph Scriven

10 September 1819—10 October 1886

JOSEPH MEDLICOTT SCRIVEN was born in Dublin … and was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. He also spent four years at Addiscombe Military College, near to London. He emigrated to Canada over forty years ago. His family is highly respectable, and his brother is a physician of standing, in Stephens Green, Dublin. The special reasons for his emigration are not known to his friends here, but it may have been his conversion. About 1850 he came to the neighbourhood of Rice Lake—10 miles from Port Hope, Ontario—and engaged as tutor in the family of Lieut. Pengelly. He at this time was a professedly religious man, having also embraced, to a large extent, the tenets of the Plymouth Brethren, though he did not belong to the body. He gathered a small Plymouth church at Rice Lake, and was for years a preacher on market and other days, in the streets of Port Hope. Like his Brethren he refused to join in the services of any of our churches—not recognizing them as such—and only when his peculiar tenets were questioned, was he liable to lose command of an otherwise smooth temper.

His benevolence, in accordance with his principles, was of the extreme kind. In one of the papers which he has left behind him, he says—“The wearing of gold and expensive clothes, made in the world’s style, is as much forbidden as stealing. If I spend five cents on some unnecessary thing for ornament, it costs that much money, and that money would buy something for a needy person. Again; the Scriptures, to which I have just referred, speak only of women’s clothing, but if a man wears cuffs, that are no part of his shirt, and only put on for ornament, if he wears studs, gold chains and clothing, of a more expensive kind than what would be durable and afford the same comfort, he is as much disobeying the word of God, as a woman who wears feathers, earrings, bracelets. If we would avoid unnecessary and unscriptural expense, there would be no need of asking the people of the world for money to carry on Christ’s work, or of getting up concerts, banquets and other unscriptural means of coaxing money from the people of the world, as though Christ needed to beg from Satan.”

When Mr. Scriven had means, his hand was open as day to the calls made upon him. He has been known to divest himself of his own clothing, in order to cover the nakedness and relieve the sufferings of destitute ones. He was always ready to minister in the sick chamber to the suffering, and fear of infectious disease was no hindrance. He established and managed a dairy, for over twenty years, at Port Hope, in order to afford support to a destitute widow. …

Mr. Scriven published a small volume of hymns, which was printed at Peterboro, Ontario. … Some of them—of which we give specimens—are not inferior in poetic power to this celebrated hymn.

Mr. Scriven resided for over thirty years between Rice Lake and Port Hope. Latterly his mind was much depressed, and he feared being left a burden on his friends. His health also was failing. A dark shadow rests on the closing days of his life, as will be seen in an extract from a preface to some thoughts of his, on various subjects, by his life long friend, James Sackville, at whose house he died.

He died on the 10th of August, 1886, aged sixty-six, and his body was interred in the family burying ground of Lieut. Pengelly. Some of the circumstances that cluster around Mr. Scriven's death are detailed in a preface to papers that he left, by his friend Mr. Sackville.

“His body was just worn down with toil, and his mind was wearied with failure and disappointment in his work during past years. In the end of his days he failed to trust God to provide for his bodily wants, and to resign himself to the will of God, and to wait patiently till the Lord’s time came to release him from the body, and to take him home to Himself.” Mr. Sackville, having heard of his illness, hastened to him, and found him “just prostrate in mind and body. His greatest fear appeared to be lest he should do anything to dishonour God, or bring reproach on the name of Christ. 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. Two scriptures I heard him repeat, during the last hour I was with him, ‘I am the the Lord’s’ and ‘I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.’”

Mr. Sackville brought him to his own house. “We left him,” he says, “about midnight. I withdrew to an adjoining room, not to sleep, but to watch and wait, and occupied myself with reading my brother’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 near by, lifeless and cold in death.” …

Mr. Scriven left a number of papers on religious topics, such as— “What Church etc.,” “The Church of God,” “Priesthood,” “The Ministration of the Spirit,” “Our Assembly,” “The Coming of the Lord,” “Discipline,” etc., etc., which have been published by Mr. Sackville.

by James Cleland
What a Friend We Have in Jesus (1895)

Featured Hymns:

What a friend we have in Jesus

Collections of Hymns:

Hymns and Other Verses (1869): PDF

What a Friend We Have in Jesus, ed. James Cleland (1895): PDF

Archival Resources:

Library and Archives Canada:

Related Resources:

Wilbur Tillett, “Joseph Scriven,” Our Hymns and Their Authors: An Annotated Edition of the Hymn Book of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Nashville: M.E. Church, 1892), p. 388:

“The authorship of a popular hymn,” The Pacific, San Francisco, CA (29 October 1903), p. 18: Google Books

Charles Nutter & Wilbur Tillett, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church (NY: Eaton & Mains, 1911), pp. 289-290:

The story of Joseph Scriven, and his world-loved hymn, What a friend we have in Jesus : with accounts of the dedication of a monument to his memory in Pengelley Cemetery, Rice Lake, on May 24th, 1920 : WorldCat

Programme at the unveiling ceremony of the monument to Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1920): WorldCat

Joseph Scriven, 1819-1886, Humanitarian: A Tribute (Port Hope, Ont.: Kiwanis Club of Port Hope, 1960): WorldCat

“Joseph Medlicott Scriven,” The 1940 Hymnal Companion, 3rd rev. ed. (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1962), p. 554.

Foster Meharry Russell, What a Friend We Have in Jesus (Belleville, Ont. : Mika Pub. Co., 1981): WorldCat

Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2000), pp. 812-814.

Jay MacPherson, “Joseph Medlicott Scriven,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

Hugh D. McKellar & Margaret Leask, “Joseph Medlicott Scriven,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:

Joseph Medlicott Scriven,