Joseph Medlicott Scriven was born of prosperous parents in Banbridge, Northern Ireland, on September 10, 1819. His parents were John and Jane (Medlicott) Scriven. He was the second son of four boys and two girls.
He entered Trinity College of Dublin in 1835, but decided on an army career in service to India. He became a cadet at Addiscombe Military College, Surrey, England, in 1837 and was there two years. Due to poor health, he abandoned the military career and returned to Trinity College, where he received his B.A. degree in 1842.
While in College, he and his parents were converted to Plymouth Brethren beliefs. The movement began at Dublin twenty years earlier, and spurned organized meetings and religious hierarchy and denominationalism. The meetings were informal and unstructured. By 1845 the movement had spread to England where they were called “the Brethren from Plymouth” and Switzerland. George Muller was a prominent member in Bristol.
In Ireland his fiancée was accidentally drowned the evening before they were to be married in 1844. Soon afterward, at the age of 25, he immigrated to Canada. His primary reason was because of the influence the Plymouth Brethren had on his life which had estranged him from the family. The drowning of his wife-to-be initiated the drastic changes.
He taught school for a while at Woodstock and Brantford in Ontario. In 1851, he was 29 and working as a laborer. His religious affiliation was with the Church of England. He was living East Zorra, Ontario, Canada (about 100 miles west of Niagara Falls, in a farming community.
In 1855 he lived in Huron County near today’s town of Clinton. He went frequently to read the Bible to the men working on the Railway. He was a big, pleasant man, and respected for his lack of concern for his own needs in efforts to help those in need, and his firm grasp of the truth.
In 1857 he served as a tutor of the family of Lieutenant Pengelley, a retired naval officer. We became engaged to Miss Eliza Catherine Roche, Pengelley’s niece. Just before the wedding day, she became ill died of pneumonia in August 1860. After that tragedy, Scriven completely consecrated his life and fortune to Lord Jesus. He took the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 seriously, seeking to live a life in service to others. He had limited possessions, but would share even the shirt he was wearing, if needed to help others. He never turned away anyone that needed help. While there, he gathered together a Plymouth Brethren congregation, winning converts through his preaching and lifestyle, becoming a spiritual advisor to many families.
Around 1870 he left the Pengelley’s residence for a cottage in Port Hope. He was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and devoted his time to doing chores and work for people who were physically handicapped and financially destitute, taking no pay for his labors. For years he not only milked the cow for a poor widow woman from Ireland, he also carried the milk to her customers. He sold his precious watch from Ireland to replace another person’s lost cow. His family on hearing of his generosity to others, being concerned for his well-being quit sending him his stipend and instead sent necessities of life, hoping he would use them. Once they found he only gave them away as well, they quit sending anything at all.
He was seen one afternoon walking down the street in Port Hope, dressed in plain working man clothes and carrying a saw horse. One of the residents saw him and wanted to hire him to cut his wood, saying he had a hard time finding someone sober to do it. His friend told him that Mr. Scriven would not cut wood for him because the man could pay for it. Mr Scriven would work for those that were poor widows and sick people!
Nothing was beneath his dignity if he could do it without compensation and without observation for the least of Christ’s disciples. He was known as “the Good Samaritan of Port Hope.”
No one knew that he possessed a poetic gift till shortly before he died, when a friend came to visit him while he was sick. While tending to him he saw the poem and asked about it. It had been written for his mother during a time of special sorrow, and he had not intended anyone else to see it. Some time later he was asked if he had written the hymn and in modesty, Scriven replied, “The Lord and I did it between us.”
In 1869, a small collection of his poems was published. It was called Hymns and Other Verses.
In 1871, he was living with a milkman and his wife in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. He was 57 and a laborer. His religious affiliation was Presbyterian.
Later in 1886, because of failing health, meager income, and fear of becoming physically helpless, he became somewhat despondent. His friend, James Sackville, found him in his cabin quite ill and took him to his house to help him get better. One hot night in 1886, he crept away unnoticed, probably to get a drink from the nearby spring. Hours later his body was discovered in Sackville’s spillway to the grist mill just a few feet from the spring. He might have fainted or fallen into the water at Rice Lake, Ontario, Canada, in August 10, 1886. He was 66 years old.
In 1919, a monument was erected to his memory on the Highway which runs from Lake Ontario, four miles south of where he was buried in Port Hope, Ontario. It stands as a tribute to the “philanthropist and author of this great masterpiece.” He was a little known Irish-born immigrant to Canada whose hymn of the comforting friendship of Jesus is known all over the world.
Ancestry (Provo: Utah, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2011), www.ancestry.com accessed May 25, 2013: Corinna STOUT family tree by “wwwsuzi”; 1851 and 1871 census record.
Hezekiah Butterworth, The Story of the Hymns or Hymns that Have a History (New York: American Tract Society, 1875), pp. 425, 426.
Canadian Headstone Photo Project (Montreal, Quebec: Silent Web), www.CanadianHeadstones.com, accessed May 26, 2013, “Scriven, Joseph Medlicott”
Dan Graves, “How Did Joseph M. Scriven Come to Drown?” Christianity.com (Salem Web Network, 2013) http://www.christianity.com accessed May 26, 2013
Jay Macpherson, “Scriven, Joseph Medlicott,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto, 2000) accessed May 26, 2013.
Charles S. Nutter and Wilbur F. Tillett, The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church: an Annotated Edition of The Methodist Hymnal (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1911), pp. 434, 435.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymns Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1996), January 10.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982), pp. 275, 276.
J. Harris Rea, “Joseph Scriven: Author of the hymn, What A Friend We Have in Jesus” Banbridge Chronicle, http://countydown.x10.mx/html/joseph_scriven.htm accessed May 26,2013.
Ira D. Sankey, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns and of Sacred Songs and Solos (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Sunday School Times Company, 1907), pp. 333-335.
Lindsay Terry, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” Today’s Christian, July/August 2004, Vol. 42, No. 4, p 16.
This article was split away from an article that Darren Glenewinckel wrote, later expanded by Faith Macomber. The sources they used were as follows:
Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1983)
Richard W. Adams, “Joseph Medlicott Scriven” The Cyber Hymnal, (Des Moines, Iowa: TheIowa.Net, 1996-2012) http://www.hymntime.com, photo of Joseph Scrivner.
Reynolds, William J, Companion to Baptist Hymnal. (Nashville, Tennessee. Broadman Press, 1976), p. 238, 287, 422.
W.J. Limmer Sheppard, D.D., Great Hymns and their stories (Manchester, London: The Religious Tract Society) pp. 57-58.