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Stories and Hymns – Joseph Scriven memorialized in Port Hope

December 2023

Memorial Park, in downtown Port Hope, Ontario, is a popular gathering place. Complete with a playground for the children, a bandshell, the town’s cenotaph and plenty of open space for leisure, it also has something that looks quite out of place. What looks like a tombstone found in a typical cemetery, is actually a memorial stone dedicated to the memory a noted long-time resident of the town: Joseph Scriven.

Joseph Scriven was born in 1819 in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland. Immigrating to what was then Canada West in 1844, Scriven felt his calling was to serve the Lord in Canada. He took up residence in Port Hope and for the next 25 years, he set about performing hundreds of acts of Christian charity, giving the needy his clothing, money and his labour. He wrote the famous hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” originally written as a poem in 1855 to comfort his mother back in Ireland. Music to accompany the hymn was written in 1868 by Charles Crozat Converse.

As a song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” has been covered by an assortment of artists, including Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Ronnie Milsap, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Ike & Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Glen Campbell and Christian Music singer Paul Baloche.

Scriven also published a collection of 115 Hymns and other verses in 1869.

After a life of service to God and his fellow man, Scriven drowned on 10 August 1886, at the age 66. Circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery, with some believing that he was murdered and some believing it was a suicide. However, it seems likely that he accidentally drowned in the mill-pond on his property, Scriven was reportedly very ill with fever at the time of his death, and may have gone to the water to cool down or get a drink of water from the spring.

Joseph Scriven was buried in the Pengelley family cemetery, next to his late fiancée Eliza Roche, who died in August 1860 at the age of 22. The grave was unmarked for many years, until 24 May 1920, when a Scriven Memorial Committee arranged for the unveiling of a tall memorial stone.

The Scriven memorial in downtown Port Hope was originally situated at the corner of Ontario and Hope Streets. After a car knocked it over in 1941, the memorial was twice moved, first behind the library, then in storage in the town shed, before public complaints resulted in it being installed in its current location.

Joseph M. Scriven was the subject of a 45-minute documentary, released in 2011. The stories and Hymns of Cecil Frances Alexander and Joseph Scriven details the life of Joseph M. Scriven and his influence on popular hymns.

Sources: History and Heritage – Port Hope Tourism (visitporthope.ca), Port Hope History – Joseph Scriven, Joseph M. Scriven – Wikipedia, History and Heritage – Port Hope Tourism (visitporthope.ca), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_a_Friend_We_Have_in_Jesus.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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