Joseph M. Scriven

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Joseph Medlicott Scriven, (10 September 1819 – 10 August 1886) was an Irish poet, best known as the writer of the poem which became the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus".[1]


Joseph Scriven was born in 1819 of prosperous parents in Banbridge, Ireland. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. At the age of 25, he decided to leave his native country and migrate to Canada. His reasons for leaving his country seem to be two-fold: the religious influence of the Plymouth Brethren upon his life estranging him from his family. His fiancée accidentally drowned in 1845, the night before they were to be married.[2] The grief-stricken young man moved to Canada.

In 1855, while staying with companion Mr. James Sackville, he received news from Ireland of his mother being terribly ill. He wrote a poem to comfort his mother called "Pray Without Ceasing". It was later set to music and renamed by Charles Crozat Converse, becoming the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus".[1] Joseph did not have any intentions nor dream that his poem would be for publication in the newspaper and later becoming a favorite hymn among the millions of Christians around the world.[3]

About 1857 he moved near to Port Hope, Ontario where he again fell in love and was due to be married, but in August 1860 the young woman suddenly fell ill of pneumonia and died.

He then devoted the rest of his life to tutoring, preaching and helping others.

In 1869 Scriven published a collection of 115 Hymns and other verses which did not include "What a friend".[4]

Ironically, Joseph Scriven died in a watercourse. To this day, no one knows for sure if his death was an accident or a suicide. He was in a serious depression at the time. A friend reported, "We left him about midnight. I withdrew to an adjoining room, not to sleep, but to watch and wait. You may imagine my surprise and dismay when on visiting the room I found it empty. All search failed to find a trace of the missing man, until a little after noon the body was discovered in the water nearby, lifeless and cold in death."[5]


A tall obelisk was built upon his grave with the words from the song and the following inscription:

This monument was erected to the memory of Joseph Scriven, B.A., by lovers of his hymn, which is engraved hereon, and is his best memorial. Born at Seapatrick, Co. Down, Ireland, Sept.10, 1819, emigrated to Canada 1844. Entered into rest at Bewdley, Rice Lake, August 10, 1886, and buried here. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

A plaque can be found on the Port Hope-Peterborough Highway with the following inscription:

Four miles north, in Pengally's Cemetery, lies the philanthropist and author of this great masterpiece, written at Port Hope, 1857. The composer of the music, Charles C. Converse, was a well-educated versatile and successful Christian, whose talents ranged from law to professional music. Under the pen name of Karl Reden, he wrote numerous scholarly articles on many subjects. Though he was an excellent musician and composer with many of his works performed by the leading American orchestras and choirs of his day, his life is best remembered for this simple music so well suited to Scriven's text.

From an article published in the Banbridge Chronicle by the late J.Harris Rea, who was a well known local historian.

Joseph Scriven, described as one who lived the Christian life of service to his fellows, was born at Ballymoney Lodge, Banbridge and baptised on the 10th. of September 1819. His baptismal entry is recorded in Seapatrick Parish Church, Banbridge, Co Down N Ireland, where his father, Captain John Scriven of the Royal Marines was twice Church Warden. His mother was Jane Medlicott, sister of a Wiltshire Vicar, the Rev.Joseph Medlicott. Joseph Scriven was Baptised by Mr.Leslie, and the entry was initialled by the Rev.Jame McCreight, then Curate.

There is now a monument on Downshire Place, put up by Banbridge District Council and recently a stained glass window was dedicated to Scriven, the dedication being carried out by Bishop Henry Scriven, who was then Bishop of Europe and is the great-great-grandnephew of Joseph Scriven. Joseph had two brothers—George born 1821 and John born 1823—and one sister Catherine Anne Mary born 1825.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" - Today's Christian
  2. 101 Hymn Stories written by Kenneth W. Osbeck
  3. Tongan book "'Ē ke u 'eleli afe mai!" written by Siupeli Taliai
  4. Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  5. Christian History Institute
  • Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Hymn Writers of the Church. "Scriven, Joseph". Retrieved 2007-01-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Bailey, Albert Edward (1950). The Gospel in Hymns. New York: Charles Scribner's sons. pp. 405–406.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • J.Harris Rea. "Joseph Scriven". Retrieved 2007-02-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links