Joseph Medlicott Scriven was born Sept. 10th, 1819, at Ballymoney Lodge, Banbridge in County Down, Ireland. His father, Captain John Scriven, desired Joseph to train for a career in the military, but the Lord led differently, and he studied at Trinity College in Dublin. Here heard the gospel and was converted to full faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1842 he graduated from Trinity and became engaged to his sweetheart. Their wedding was set for the summer of 1844, but his fiancée tragically drowned the night before the ceremony.
Grieving and needing a fresh start, 25-year-old Joseph sailed to Canada and settled in Port Hope, Ontario. Here he taught school and tutored privately. Burdened to help the poor and afflicted, Scriven put his heart into the work of caring for others and became known as the “Good Samaritan of Port Hope.” Not content to minister only to the afflicted’s physical needs, Scriven could often be found publicly preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Of his generosity, it is said a man of Port Hope once saw Scriven with a sawhorse and saw, and asked another, “Do you know that man? What is his name, and where does he live? I want some one to cut wood, and I find it difficult to get a sober man to do the work faithfully.”
“But you can’t get that man,” was the reply, “That is Mr. Scriven. He won’t cut wood for you.”
“Because you are able to pay for it. He only saws wood for poor widows and sick people.”
Many saw his intensely giving nature as odd, but he was well loved and respected for his willing spirit.
In time he became engaged again, this time to Eliza Roche of Port Hope, Ontario. Sadly she became ill, and though Joseph faithfully nursed her during three years of lingering sickness, her condition worsened, and she died. Scriven carried his grief for the remainder of his life, but rather than devote his heart to bitterness; he allowed the Lord to draw him nearer to himself. Finding great comfort in the promises and peace of God, Scriven was able to relieve the pain of others, his life illustrating the power of God as seen in II Corinthians 1:3-4, which says:
“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.”
In 1857 Scriven received word from Ireland that his mother was ill. Wishing to comfort her but unable to be at her side, he wrote “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and sent it to her along with I Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” Scriven never intended the lines for publication, so his copy lay undiscovered for nearly 30 years when his faithful friend and neighbor, Jack Sackville, found it among his papers. One evening in 1886, Jack, reading the lines with delight, asked, “Where did this come from? Who wrote it?”
Scriven replied, “The Lord and I did it between us.”
Shortly after this discovery, Scriven departed from this life and was laid to rest by his love, Eliza. A memorial has since been erected, inscribed with the lyrics of “What a Friend.”
In 1875 Ira Sankey came across this poem which had now been set to music by Charles C. Converse. After singing the song, Sankey determined to include it in his “Gospel Hymns” volume. Removing a selection to make room for this addition, in time, Sankey found “the last hymn that went into the book became one of the first in favor.”
What a privilege to carry
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear –
Ev’rything to God in prayer!
Have we trials and temptations?
Is their trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged:
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
Can we find a friend so faithful,
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our ev’ry weakness –
Are we weak and heavy laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Saviour, still our refuge, –
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? –
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.
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