This week marked the bicentenary of the birth of Joseph Scriven.
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 Scriven is best remembered, 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 died by 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, a hundred years ago, on the centenary of Joseph Scriven’s birth, September 10th 1919, 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.”