Every time I hear the hymn “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” I cannot help but think of the prophet Joseph Smith. Shortly before he was killed, his good friend (and future president of the Church) John Taylor sang this hymn for him.
On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, the little group of brethren sat silent and disconsolate in the jail. One of the men asked Elder Taylor, who had a rich tenor voice, to sing to them. Soon his voice was raised: “A poor wayfaring Man of grief hath often crossed me on my way, who sued so humbly for relief that I could never answer nay.” Elder Taylor recollected that the hymn “was very much in accordance with our feelings at the time . . .” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith)
In an uncommon hymn form, “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” tells a chronological story based on a well-known passage of scripture.
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:40)
Through the eyes of an anonymous narrator, we see a man of sorrows whose path seems to cross ours at moments of greatest need. We see him starving, thirsty, in a storm, wounded by robbers, and finally imprisoned and sentenced to death. In each situation, the narrator picks up the man and makes great sacrifices to meet his needs. The final verses are the touching climax and moral of this song-story:
In pris’n I saw him next, condemned
To meet a traitor’s doom at morn.
The tide of lying tongues I stemmed,
And honored him ’mid shame and scorn.
My friendship’s utmost zeal to try,
He asked if I for him would die.
The flesh was weak; my blood ran chill,
But my free spirit cried, “I will!”
Then in a moment to my view
The stranger started from disguise.
The tokens in his hands I knew;
So many great hymns capture the joy and triumph of the gospel, but very few address the topic of Christian charity with such compassion and clarity. Few people understood the sentiments of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” as well as Joseph Smith. From the time of his First Vision, he was persecuted for the name of Christ and the doctrine which Jesus Himself had given him. He endured beatings, tarring and feathering, and was driven across the United States with his followers. Like other servants of the Lord, he was not perfect, but he gave all he had and all he was to do the will of God. At the age of 38, his life was taken at the hands of a mob.
I occasionally wonder whether I would be able to give as he gave in the cause of Christ. However, when I hear “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” I realize that the small deeds of love near the beginning of the song were necessary steps for the narrator to become willing to give his life to save another. As we do small good in the world, we become accustomed to giving of ourselves so that when greater needs arise, we are able to give what is required. And every act of kindness toward our fellow men is an expression of love for the Lord.
This article was originally published in January 2008. Minor changes have been made, including the addition of the video.