Scriven, Joseph Medlicott (1819–86), preacher and hymn writer, was born 10 September 1819 at Ballymoney Lodge, near Banbridge, Co. Down, son of John Scriven, captain in the army and later churchwarden of Seapatrick parish church, and Jane Scriven (née Medlicott), possibly related to Joseph Medlicott, a Dublin attorney. His parents were married in Dublin in 1816. He had at least one sister and one older and one younger brother. All three brothers were educated at TCD; Joseph entered college in 1835 and left to attend the Military College, Addiscombe, England, intending to pursue a career in the East India Company, but was unhappy, and returned to take his BA degree in TCD in 1842. In his mid twenties he was engaged to be married; but the evening before his wedding, he was crossing the River Bann with his fiancée when her horse threw her into the water, and she drowned. Scriven derived some comfort from joining the Plymouth Brethren; he undertook several journeys, possibly as a missionary, and in 1845 emigrated to Woodstock, Canada West, to join friends from the sect who were settled there. After only two months, ill health forced him to return to Banbridge. Two years later he travelled again to Canada, and in the early 1850s moved to the Rice Lake area of south Ontario, to become tutor in the family of Robert Pengelley. He became engaged to Mrs Pengelley's niece, Eliza Roche, but in August 1860 she too died. It is said her death was caused by pneumonia that developed after Scriven baptised her by total immersion in a freezing lake in April.
Scriven was remembered locally as a pious and charitable preacher, almost saintly, whose innumerable good works and charities were carried out despite his own poverty and despondency, and generally performed in secrecy. He published a collection of hymns in 1869, which did not include the composition for which he is most famous, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’. This was apparently written to comfort his mother in Ireland when she became ill, and was first published in a Port Hope newspaper. It later appeared in a hymnal of 1865, but was not ascribed to Scriven until 1886. Set to an appropriately mournful tune composed by an American organ manufacturer, it was popularised by Ira Sankey, and has remained one of the best-loved of all hymns.
Scriven moved to a small cottage in Port Hope, but in 1886 was taken in by a friend who found him ill and alone. He drowned, most likely by accident, or as a suicide, during the night of 10 October 1886; his body was found in the tailrace of his friend's gristmill at Bewdley, and was buried in the Pengelley family burying plot, beside Eliza Roche. A monument was erected over his grave in 1920, and there are memorials to him in Seapatrick church and in Banbridge. A window in Dromore Church of Ireland cathedral was dedicated in April 2002 by a great-great-nephew of Scriven, Henry Scriven, assistant bishop of Europe. A play about Scriven, ‘The devil and Joseph Scriven’, written by Shane Peacock, was produced outdoors in 1999 and 2000 by the 4th Line Theatre, Peterborough, Ontario.