How Did Joseph M. Scriven Come to Drown?

Dan Graves, MSL

How Did Joseph M. Scriven Come to Drown?

To this day, no one knows for sure if Joseph Scriven's death was accident or suicide. He was in serious depression at the time. A friend reported, "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."

Joseph Scriven died on this day, August 10, 1886. His tale would hardly seem to warrant a page in church history were it not for one fact: he is the man who wrote a hymn that must rank among the ten best-known and most-beloved of all time. That hymn is "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

Joseph needed a friend in his troubles. Born in Ireland in 1820, his prospects seemed favorable. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and engaged to be married. Then tragedy struck. His fiancé drowned on the evening before their wedding. This was the first of many misfortunes that led him to consecrate his life and property to Christ's service.

He adopted some of the teachings of the Plymouth Brethren. There is a suggestion that this strained relations with his family. At any rate, he migrated to Canada, where he taught and tutored to make his living.

Again he became engaged, to Eliza Roche. Once again tragedy struck. Shortly before the couple were to marry, the girl became ill and died. One can hardly estimate Joseph's shock and depression.

He joined the local Plymouth Brethren and assisted their elderly members. His own sorrows seemed to make him more aware of the suffering of the poor and weak and he attempted to live out the Sermon on the Mount, giving or lending to anyone who asked and sympathizing with all who were more unfortunate than himself. He sawed wood for the stoves of the physically handicapped and comforted the poor and mentally distressed.

Joseph wrote his famous hymn in 1855 to comfort his mother who still lived in Ireland. He did not seek to be noticed for it, and his authorship was only discovered by accident shortly before his death. Ira Sankey added a tune to the words.

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.

His last years were plagued by ill health, skimpy finances and depression.

Bibliography:

  1. Covert, William Chalmers and Laufer, Calvin Weiss. Handbook to the Hymnal. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936.
  2. Haeussler, Armin. The Story of Our Hymns; the handbook to the hymnal of the evangelical and reformed church. St Louis: Eden Publishing, 1952.
  3. "Joseph Scriven." http://www.cyberhymnal.org.
  4. Barrows, Cliff. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Crusader Hymns and Hymn Stories. Chicago, Il: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 1967; p.39ff.

Last updated July, 2007

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