Love. Death. Faith. Those three words have been the basis of many poems, songs, and hyms throughout the years. One young Irish immigrant by the name of Joseph M. Scriven had a profound and life altering time with each one of those subjects. In fact, it was the combination of all three of those circumstances that ultimately created the poem that was turned into one of the most beloved hymns of all time.
Joseph M. Scriven was born in 1819 in County Down, Northern Ireland, to Captain John Scriven and Jane Medlicott, whose wealth afforded him the luxury of a college education. He began Trinity College in Dublin at the age of sixteen and several years later earned a Bachelor’s degree.
During his early twenties, many changes were on the horizon for Joseph. Among them, he had new prospects for a career with his degree–teaching and tutoring. Also, he had discovered and developed a relationship with God through the beliefs and teachings of Plymouth Brethren, a church and congregation that focused, “on the individual’s direct relationship with God and the emphasis this placed on personal responsibility. They met in simple meeting rooms for the Lord’s Supper and to join in prayer and preach the Gospel” (Plymouth Brethren Christian Church). Finally, he was in love and engaged to be married.
Then severe tragedy struck.
“At age twenty-five, Joseph Scriven decided to leave his native country so he could migrate to Canada. He left due to a twofold reasoning; the religious influence of the Plymouth Brethren and the accidental drowning of his fiancée the night before the scheduled wedding.” (Glenewinkel, Darren).
During the mid 1840’s Joseph Scriven settled in the Woodstock/Clinton area in Canada and began working as a teacher and private tutor to earn a living. Also, he once again began meeting the Plymouth Brethren group that was near where he lived in town.
Over the course of several years, he was asked to privately tutor Theodore Robert Pengelley, the ten year old son of Robert Lamport Pengelley and Lydia Eliza Emily Roche. While working for this family, he lived with them for the next five years.
It was during this time that he had the pleasure to meet and get to know Mrs. Pengelley’s niece, Eliza Catherine Roche. Over time, their affections for each other grew and they became engaged in 1859.
Before their coming nuptials, Miss Roche wanted to be baptised with full water immersion. Port Hope History provides more details surrounding that time:
“It was conducted in Rice Lake in April 1860, with the ice barely gone. Eliza, who was already seriously ill with consumption, was thoroughly chilled by the experience, developed pneumonia, weakened over a four-month period and died on the 6th of August 1860. She was buried in the little cemetery beside the Pengelley chapel.”
Her death changes Joseph Scriven’s life forever. He has now suffered the loss of two fiancée’s and at the age of thirty-nine, dedicates the rest of his life to not only being a bachelor, but to servanthood in the name of Jesus Christ.
He takes up residence with a widow in the town of Port Hope, Canada, providing for her the rest of her life. Also, he lives barely above poverty level, giving everything he has to all those in need. And, every chance he can, he preaches the Gospel not only in a little church, but in the streets of town.
And finally, he writes poems and hymns. He began one such poem with these words: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and grief to bear!”
Once he finished this poem he titled, ‘Pray Without Ceasing,‘ he made two copies. He gave one copy to the widow, Margaret, he lived with. He sent the second copy to his mother in Dublin, Ireland, because she was in ill health and he thought those words would comfort her.
And indeed they did!! It is believed that probably through his mother the poem was made public, because Mr. Scriven worked so hard to be humble and not bring any attention upon himself. All that was needed now was a musical accompaniment.
Composer Charles Crozat Converse,”wrote the music inspired by the poem,’Pray Without Ceasing’ for what became the hymn ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus.’
During the remainder of his years, he suffered from ill health and poverty, and yet he still always put the needs of others before his own. At the age of 66, he passed from this earthly life into the waiting arms of his Friend and Savior, Jesus!! Amen!
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer! (Hymnary.org)
All the glory to God,
Author’s note: If you would like to know more about this amazing man, I highly encourage you to check out http://porthopehistory.com/jmscriven/ where a lot of the information was provided for me in regard to writing this blog. I could not include all of it, and there are even a few pictures, too!! I promise you won’t be disapppointed! 🙂
Glenewinkel, Darren. “What a Friend.” Preparing for Eternity.org. Web. 26 September 2019. http://preparingforeternity.org/hymn_stories/what_a_friend.shtml
Image of “Pray without Ceasing” by my bible. https://mybible.com/covers/715om
“Joseph Scriven.” http://www.cyberhymnal.org.
Plymouth Brethren Christian Church. Factual history and origins of the church fellowship and community. Web. 26 September 2019. http://www.plymouthbrethrenchristianchurch.org/about/
Port Hope History. org. “Joseph Scriven, 1819-1886.” Web. 26 September 2019. http://porthopehistory.com/jmscriven/