An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Joseph Scriven

Oct 5th, 2011 | By | Category: Sermons

Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 5th October 2011

‘we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.’ Hebrews 4:15

Born in Banbridge, Co Down on September 10th 1819 and baptised in the local Seapatrick Parish Church, where his father was churchwarden, Joseph Scriven came from a comfortable Protestant background.  His father was an officer in the Royal Marines his mother the daughter of a Wiltshire vicar.  The young Joseph was sent to military college in Surrey for two years from 1837 until 1839 on the assumption he would go into service with the East India Company, but withdrew through ill health.  He then went to Trinity College, from where he graduated in 1842.

Scriven’s life might have followed a conventional 19th Century middle class course were it not for two events in his life.  He became engaged to a local girl and  they were due to be married in 1844. On the eve of their wedding, she was crossing the Bann on horseback when the horse slipped on the bridge and she fell into the river and drowned.

The heartbreak of that moment combined with his adoption of the beliefs of the growing Brethren movement, to which his family had earlier converted.

Scriven emigrated to Canada in 1845 to join Brethren friends at Woodstock, Canada West and later moved to Brantford.  In 1885 he moved to Huron County and in 1857 to Bewdley near Port Hope.  He lived a quiet and private life, working as tutor for a number of families.

Scriven joined a local Brethren assembly and sought to live out his life according to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.  Having enjoyed a comfortable life in his youth, he spent much time in hard physical service to those less fortunate, taking on tasks like sawing wood for those unable to cut their own logs—a task that was vital to survival in the bitterly cold Ontario winters.

The heartbreak of his Banbridge years was to be repeated. In 1857, he became engaged a second time, but his fiancée Eliza Roche, died in 1860 after a three year battle against a lung illness.  It was in 1857 that Joseph Scriven wrote, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’, it was written as a poem to offer comfort to his mother who was ill back in Co Down.

Scriven’s life seems to have been very solitary. He was a good and generous neighbour. One of his neighbours recalled Scriven’s simple Christianity, ‘I remember the times when one of the families lost their cow. They were dependent on that cow for much of their living. Mr Scriven expressed his sympathy and desire to help out, but regretted that he had no money, so offered his watch for the family to sell’.

Joseph Scriven was known as a local Brethren preacher, and in 1869 published a collection published a collection of his writings called ‘Hymns and Other Verses’, which, thanks to the Internet, can still be read.  The book was written in two parts, the first part was ninety-four hymns, ‘to be sung’ wrote Scriven, ‘in the assemblies of the children of God on the first day of the week, and on other occasions when two or three are met together in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’.  The hymn by which we remember Scriven,  ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ was not among those ninety-four hymns, it  first appeared in a local newspaper but seems to have been published anonymously; an action that would have been entirely consistent with Scriven’s self-effacing personality

When the great evangelist Ira Sankey included the hymn in a collection he was publishing in 1875 it was attributed to the Scottish hymn writer Dr Horatius Bonar. It was not until shortly before Joseph Scriven’s death, when the hymn had been around for a decade that Scriven was discovered to be the writer. By this time the hymn had gained huge popularity, but he had never come forward as its author.

A short time before he died, Scriven lay ill, being cared for by James Sackville a neighbour, when Sackville found a hand written copy of the hymn in a drawer he was searching for Scriven. He read the words to Scriven and Scriven admitted having written them, ‘the Lord and I did it between us’, he told his neighbour.

Joseph Scriven lived the closing years of his life in poor health, poverty and depression, no one can be certain of what happened at the end on August 10th 1886.  It was a hot night and whether Scriven had gone to drink water at a nearby spring and slipped and fell into the lake, or whether he committed suicide, could never be ascertained.  One of his friends said, ‘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’.

His grave was left unmarked for years, but on September 10th 1919, there was a pilgrimage of clergy went to visit it.  They joined hands, surrounding the grave and sang the words of the hymn that had come to mean so much to so many people.  The following year, a memorial was completed and a crowd of six thousand gathered for its dedication.  The Ontario premier, EC Drury was among those who spoke at the occasion, ‘He did not build a railway or amass a fortune. But he did more than that; he contributed a thought that will outlive railroads and fortunes. It will go on enriching the lives of men, when other things of material nature have crumbled and perished’.

Joseph Scriven believed Jesus shared in our every hurt and grief through the suffering he endured for us. There is a Greek word used about Jesus in the Gospels which we translate as compassion, but literally means having a feeling in one’s guts. Scriven captures that feeling in his hymn. He is writing against the background of the bereavements and the disappointments of his life; he is not talking about abstract things, he is expressing feelings that he would have known deep inside.

Because of what Jesus has done for us, Joseph Scriven believes we can call on him, ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’, he says. We are not left alone, God is there, God is with us.

Scriven describes the depths of human experience: a lack of peace, pain trials and temptations; discouragement; sorrow; weariness; desertion and betrayal. Scriven knows about the low points in life, the times when we don’t feel like talking to anyone, the times when life itself can seem pointless and empty: Joseph Scriven says that Jesus is there to help us through these griefs, but he can’t help if we won’t let him.

‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’, Scriven tells us and we find it difficult. When we are hurt and angry, when we can’t make sense of anything, it is very difficult to think about saying prayers. We may even feel that God has turned his back on us, isn’t that the very feeling that Jesus expresses as he hangs dying on the Cross? Jesus in the depths of his despair knows our every feeling.

Joseph Scriven’s hymn is about those moments in life when we can put no more than two or three words together, those times when we feel so numb that we cannot manage anything more—God is there it says, God will help.

Hurt and sorrowful, weary and battered, left alone—we can be at the very lowest point of life and even at that point we can find hope and triumph, ‘in his arms he’ll take and shield thee, thou wilt find a solace there’.

A life of disappointment, bereavement and obscurity, if it had not been for his neighbour James Sackville, Scriven may have died without anyone ever knowing who wrote the words of the hymn; the fact that we know about his disappointments and his sorrow brings the hymn to life; his words are written from the heart.



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  1. I very much enjoyed your sermon on Joseph Scriven and wondered if I may use some of the content as I am preparing a ‘service of song’ this coming Sunday. I have tried to send an email but have been unsuccessful. Yours in Jesus Christ Philip

  2. Sorry the email was not working, I have been away for a few days. I should be delighted for you to use whatever you wish from the Scriven sermon.

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