Joseph Medlicott Scriven

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Joseph Medlicott Scriven was best known for writing the beloved hymn, What A Friend We Have In Jesus. He is also credited as the first Brethren preacher in Ontario, Canada, arriving in 1845.

He was born on Sept. 10, 1891 in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland to John Scriven and Jane Medlicott Scriven. He attended Addiscombe Military College near London, England 1837-1839, preparing for service in India. For reasons of health, he withdrew and in 1842, he received a B.A. from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. It was here that he was introduced to the Brethren, of which his parents had been converted to earlier.

In 1845, his fiancee accidentally drowned the night before their wedding. Soon after, he joined PB friends in Woodstock, Ontario in Canada, and taught there. The assembly there sided with Raven in 1889, and active today as PBCC in two locations, with a nearby school.

Scriven remained in Woodstock until ca. 1852 when he relocated to Brantford. The assembly in Brantford is known to have existed as early as 1851, presumably in the home of a schoolteacher named Edwin Wilcox Fear (1816-1895). While in Brantford for three years, Joseph conducted a private school, presumably alongside Br. Fear, and preached throughout the district. While staying with his friend James Sackville in 1855, he received news from Ireland of his mother being very ill, and he wrote a poem for her, "Pray Without Ceasing", and this is what was renamed later by Charles Crozat Converse as What A Friend We Have In Jesus.

Later that year, he relocated to Huron County, near Clinton where he read the Bible frequently to men building the Grand Trunk Railway to Goderich. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, of which much of this article is based, quotes that Scriven was a "big man, of pleasant countenance", and "deeply respected locally for his charity, lack of concern for his own needs, and adherence to truth".

He moved in 1857 to Bewdley, near Port Hope, into the home of a retired naval officer named Robert Lamport Pengelly, as a tutor for the children. Joseph became engaged romantically to Robert's niece, Eliza Catherine Roach, but she became ill with pneumonia, and died in August of 1860, his second and final engagement to end in tragedy. He distributed tracts and poems of his own throughout the neighborhood, and was affiliated with presumably the Port Hope Meeting Room, unless he started an assembly in Bewdley.

In the late 1860's, or early 1870's, Joseph relocated once more to a cottage in Port Hope. He preached in the streets, as well as in the taverns where workmen had their lunch, and was noted for spending great amounts of time especially among the poor.

"For years he tended the cow of a Port Hope widow and carried the milk to her customers; he sawed wood for those who could not pay; he sold his watch, brought from Ireland, to replace someone’s lost cow; and more than he could well spare he gave to the needy."

In Scriven's final days, he became ill and was brought into the home of a friend named James Sackville, and one night he fainted or fell near Sackville's grist-mill, near a spring where it is presumed he was fetching a drink of water. A friend, probably Mr. Sackville, 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." This quotation is from his Wikipedia article.

He was buried in the Pengelly burial ground in an unmarked grave between Eliza Roach and Commander Pengelly. In 1920, Sir Robert Laird Borden, Newton Wesley Rowell, and William Lyon Mackenzie King donated funds to construct a monument over his grave, the idea of "his future biographer" Lewis Frederick Clarry, and it was unveiled by the Premier of Ontario, Ernest Charles Drury.


Joseph Scriven wrote more than 116 hymns, 115 of which he published as Hymns and other verses in 1869, printed by James Stevens of Peterborough, Ontario.

This volume does not include What A Friend We Have In Jesus, which was first published in 1865 in Horace Lorenzo Hastings' Social hymns: original and selected, with Charles Crozart Converse's tune, later popularized by Ira David Sankey. It was first ascribed to Scriven in a later revision of Hastings' in 1886.

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