A Woodcutter For the Poor

by Lindsay Terry

Lindsay TerrySong: "What a Friend we Have in Jesus"

Scripture: "We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves" (Rom. 15:1-7).

It is said that on the streets of Lake Rice and Port Hope, Ontario in Canada, a man could be seen walking along carrying a saw and a sawhorse. It is reported that one day a gentleman from across the street who observed him remarked to one nearby, "That looks like a sober man, I think I'll hire him to cut wood for me." The response came back, "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." That seemed to be the philosophy and the spiritual belief of Scriven, a devoted member of the Plymouth Brethren Church. He had a sincere desire to help those who seemed helpless.

Joseph was born on September 10, 1819, in Ireland. His parents had financial means enough to afforded a wonderful educational opportunity for their son, who was enrolled in Trinity College in Dublin. His college training was interrupted when he decided to join the army. His military career was short-lived due to health problems, so he returned to college and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

In this young man, Ireland had the prospect of a great citizen with high ideals and great aspirations He met and fell in love with a young lady who was eager to spend her life with him, but on the day before their wedding she was involved in a horrible accident at a lake in which she was drowned. Young Scriven never overcame the shock. Although a college graduate, and ready to embark on a promising career, he began to wander to try to forget his sorrow. At the age of twenty-five his travels took him to an area near Port Hope, Canada, in 1844, where he labored among the poor until his death at age sixty-six.

The doctrines and belief of the Plymouth Brethren church, led him to do menial tasks for poor widows and sick people. He often served for no wages, and was regarded by the people of the community as a kind man. He often shared his clothes with those less fortunate than himself, and did fix-up chores for the poor. Although he was highly regarded by the people of the community, he was considered to be eccentric. Yet, he fell in love again and planned to marry a wonderful young Canadian woman. Again, tragedy reared its ugly head. She died before they could wed, after contracting pneumonia.

Little did the town's people known that Scriven had any poetic gifts until a short time before his death. Joseph became ill and a friend visiting with him discovered a poem nearby that he had written to his mother in a time of sorrow, not intending that anyone else should see it. He had titled it "Pray Without Ceasing." The friend asked Scriven who had written the poem. It is reported that he answered, "The Lord and I did it between us." He was not able, financially, to go to see his mother, but he thought the poem would, perhaps, bring some comfort to her in her time of need..

No one knows for sure how the poem came to the attention of those who published it in a book entitled, "Hymns and Other Verses." Musician Charles Converse set the poem to music and titled the song, "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." It has since become what I consider one of the greatest hymns in the English language. It is one of the first songs that many missionaries teach their converts. In polls taken in the United States to determine favorite hymns, "What a Friend We Have In Jesus" is always near the top.

Another accident befell Scriven on an October day in 1886, and his body was pulled from Rice Lake near Bawdly, Ontario. In his memory the people in the nearby town of Port Hope erected a monument for a poor, unselfish, working man who gave most of his life and energy to help those who couldn't repay him. On the monument are inscribed these words from Scriven's famous song: "In His arms He'll take and shield thee. Thou wilt find a solace there."

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.

One of the overriding attitudes of Christianity can be wrapped up in one word: OTHERS. We come back to it again and again. Anything done for Christ must be done for others. Our true worship of God always leads us to those for whom Christ died, wanting to share with them His glorious message of hope and salvation.

Reflection: Prayer, as presented in this song, is the most powerful force available to Christians everywhere. Any person who neglects the opportunity to commune with God and to draw on His resources is limiting his happiness and prospects of success for the Savior.

Lindsay Terry has been a song historian for more than 40 years, being published
in a number of publications, including Pulpit Helps. He has also written
some 34 books and church training manuals.

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