Joseph Medlicott Scriven is best known for his world-famous hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’. As an exemplary Christian, he led a tragic but inspiring life, right here in Port Hope, Bewdley and the Rice Lake area.
Scriven was born at Ballymoney Lodge, Banbridge, County Down, Northern Ireland, on September 10, 1819, son of Captain John Scriven of the local Seapatrick Parish. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin (eventually obtaining his BA degree) and Addiscombe Military Academy near London. While at the Academy, he came under the influence of the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist sect which rejected established churches. Rather, they believed in the ‘priesthood of all believers’, and a lifetime of Christian service to others.
While on a pilgrimage to Damascus, Syria, he wrote to his ailing Mother, a two verse poem, which he titled, ’Pray Without Ceasing’. We know this poem as the start his famous hymn.
For a time, he was a private tutor for the Pengelly family located north of Rice Lake. While engaged to Mrs Pengelly’s niece, Eliza Roche, Scriven encouraged her to have a full immersion baptism, which was performed in April of 1860 in Rice Lake. After developing pneumonia, Eliza died . Joseph Scriven was so grieved by this tragedy that left teaching.
He spent the last twenty five years of his life with winters spent in Bewdley and the summers in Port Hope. Here he performed hundreds acts of Christian charity, giving the needy his clothing, money and his labour. He was often seen walking the streets of Port Hope carrying a saw and sawhorse. He cut wood for the destitute, delivered milk for his landlady and cared for the sick without payment. He could quote scripture for any occasion and he even preached on Walton Street, Port Hope’s business thoroughfare.
It was in the Sackville home in Bewdley that he wrote the words to his famous hymn. Through some unusual circumstances, his hymn was published abroad and in the Port Hope Evening Guide, just before his death in 1886. Joseph Scriven died at the Sackville home under mysterious circumstances.
He and his fiancé are buried in the Pengelly Cemetery overlooking Rice Lake. To us, he leaves a legacy of one of the world’s most beloved hymns and the example of a lifetime of Christian service.