In the vast canvas of historical figures, some remain hidden in the background, their tales whispered among only a few. Joseph Scriven is one such name. His life was a complex tapestry of faith intertwined with profound sadness.

Early Life of Humility and Service

Born in Ireland on September 10, 1819, to an affluent family. He grew up as a noble man with a heart of mercy, always looking to help the destitute. A story is told of him where a man looks at him carrying a wood saw and a sawhorse, “That looks like a sober man,” the man exclaimed. “I think I’ll hire him to cut wood for me.” The response from the other man was, “That’s Joseph Scriven. He wouldn’t cut wood for you because you can afford to hire him. He only cuts wood for those who don’t have money enough to pay.” Joseph was a devoted man of the Plymouth Brethren Church. A man of high aspirations who was regarded with favor among all those he met. He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin.

Tragedy Strikes

While still in Ireland, he got engaged to be married to his childhood love. He had great hopes of a family who would serve the Lord together. Tragedy struck his life as his bride-to-be accidentally drowned the night before their wedding. She fell from her horse while crossing a bridge over the River Bann. Joseph arrived seconds later only to find her knocked out, drowned in the river. Her death was swift. He described his sorrow this way: “The bottom of my world seemed to disappear.”

A Man Aquinted with a Heavy Heart

This led to a life of depression, sorrow, and devotion. Like so many others who wrestle with God emotionally, he held his head above water and continued to walk with Jesus and serve the Lord. He wandered the land to ease his pain and traveled across the Pacific. He became a leader of a Plymouth Brethren fellowship and started a school for orphans in Canada. He would often read the Bible to railway construction workers who were building the Grand Trunk Railway across the Canada West. He was known to all for his selfless service, his continued battle with physical ailments, and his heavy heart.

Unrelenting Storms of Life

In 1857, at the age of 38, he moved near Port Hope, Ontario where he fell in love again with the 23-year-old aunt of a young child he was tutoring. Her name was Eliza. They were promptly due to be married. His pain was briefly abated with the renewed prospect of a family. But in August 1860 his fiancée fell ill with pneumonia and unexpectedly died.

Even through this, Scriven continued to serve all those who were in need. He was known for never turning down anyone who needed help. He was often sick with bodily ailments. These plagued him his whole life. But he was devoted to walking with the Lord. Even though he was a man with deep spiritual wounds, he never stopped groping for his confidence that Jesus was a friend who would never leave him.

One day a close companion was visiting and happened across a poem on Joseph’s bedside table. He asked him who wrote it. Joseph said, “The Lord and I did it between us.” The poem was titled “Pray Without Ceasing.” He wrote it for his mother, believing the poem would bring some spiritual comfort to his mum, who lay ill in Ireland. He had not intended that anyone else should see it.

“Take Me Home”

Later in life, he was very ill with a fever and had been brought to a friend’s home to recover. This friend observed Joseph prostrate on the ground, imploring God for something. Soon his friend realized that he was asking Jesus to take him home. His companion was not overly alarmed as it was typical for Joseph to break down in such ways. Later that night, it was very hot. Joseph may have gone outside to cool down, or to get a drink of cold water from the spring. His friend reported, “We left him about midnight. I withdrew to an adjoining room to watch and pray. You may imagine my surprise and dismay when upon visiting his room I found it empty. All searches failed to find a trace of the missing man until a little after noon his body was discovered in the nearby river, lifeless and cold in death.”

It was never determined whether his death was accidental or a suicide. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

The poem entitled “Pray Without Ceasing” was soon changed to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It became one of the most popular Christian hymns of all time.

What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful,
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Are we weak and heavy-laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.

Blessed Savior, Thou hast promised
Thou wilt all our burdens bear;
May we ever, Lord, be bringing
All to Thee in earnest prayer.
Soon in glory bright, unclouded,
There will be no need for prayer—
Rapture, praise, and endless worship
Will be our sweet portion there.

Are You Weak and Heavy-Laden?

Amidst life’s darkest storms, the story of Joseph Scriven stands as a testament to the enduring faith of a man acquainted with loss and a man who held Jesus’ hand until the end. You’re not alone in your struggles, and like Joseph, you too can find peace and purpose amidst the pain. Hang on. Joseph’s life encourages us to look beyond our sorrows and see the broader tapestry of life, where faith, service, and love intertwine to bring comfort and hope to our souls. I know it is hard, but take it to the Lord in prayer and pray without ceasing.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    5 replies to "Selflessness and Sorrow: The Unknown Life of Joseph Scriven"

    • C Michael Patton

      Hey HC,

      I agree that suicide is an incredibly selfish act. I have experienced it in my family, and it touches me. However, I do have an understanding of the point that people can get to, even as Christians. I watched it happen for three years. Again, I’m certainly not saying it’s OK, or we should follow the example, or that it’s not giving into Satan. I just feel for the guy. I don’t know whether he did it either. My assumption is that he may have tried to follow in the footsteps of his child, his love, and died like she did. People who lose somebody in a certain way, often fantasize about going in the same direction. However, I’m not saying that this is a guy we should emulate in that. He was a great guy in a lot of ways, but I don’t post this so that people will try to follow his example. I post it mainly for those who are broken and find some commonality is even good people suffer from depression, and, possibly, given to their sorrows.

      Suicide has hurt our family beyond belief. It is a darkness that will never leave. It is a death like none other in the black hole. Somebody must get into two finally pulled the trigger is horrible to imagine.

    • HC

      agreed

    • […] Selflessness and Sorrow: The Unknown Life of Joseph Scriven […]

    • Shari

      In your response to HC, you wrote how suicide has hurt your family beyond belief. I haven’t experienced that so I realize I can only imagine the everlasting grief. No ifs, ands, or buts about the deep sorrow & darkness such an act brings. I’d like to add though that people who’ve committed suicide have at times been hurt beyond belief by their family or their lack of one. HC, yourself, & others probably don’t truly know the depths of pain (including loneliness) another human might feel to end their life w/suicide, not always as a selfish act, but as a “pain beyond belief” act.

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