Joseph Medlicott Scriven Unsuspecting Hymnwriter

This is the day that … Joseph Medlicott Scriven was born in County Down, Ireland, in 1819.

He entered Trinity College, Dublin, intent on following a career in the army – like his father.

Poor health prevented this.

He fell for a lovely young woman, but on the eve of their wedding she accidentally drowned. He never recovered from the shock. The Irishman began to wander, hoping to forget his sorrow. At age 25, he finally settled in Canada, where he worked as a school teacher.

As a committed Christian connected with the Plymouth Brethren his faith led him to do menial tasks for poor widows and the sick. He often worked for no wages and was regarded by the people of the community as a kind man, albeit a bit odd.

He later fell in love again and planned to marry a wonderful Canadian woman. But again, tragedy struck. His new fiancée, Eliza Roche, died after contracting pneumonia.

“With failing health and meagre income … he became greatly depressed” (Companion to Baptist Hymnal, by W. Reynolds, page 422).

In 1855, a friend visited an ill Scriven and discovered a poem he had written for his ailing mother in faraway Ireland. Scriven didn’t have the money to visit her, but he sent her the poem as an encouragement. He called it “Pray Without Ceasing.” When the friend inquired about the poem’s origins, Scriven reportedly answered, “The Lord and I did it between us.”

Scriven never intended for the poem to be published, but it made its rounds, and was set to music in 1868 by musician Charles Converse, who titled it “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It has since become one of our greatest hymns.

And at the age of 67 Scriven was found drowned … “whether suicidal or accidental” no-one knows (10 August, 1886).

A monument is erected to his memory in Port Hope, where he lived and wrote his immortal hymn
What a Friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear;
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer …

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at

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