A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief is well-known as a favorite of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He asked John Taylor to sing it in Carthage Jail shortly before his death, and then asked him to sing it again. The scene is moving—a psalm in preparation for death, a memorial of an impending martyrdom.
The lyrics are from the poem The Stranger and His Friend by James Montgomery, which in turn draws inspiration from Matthew 25. As we sing the song, we take the place of the narrator and meet the stranger ourselves, a poor wandering man, lost and humbly seeking aid.
I had not pow’r to ask his name,
Whereto he went, or whence he came;
Yet there was something in his eye
That won my love; I knew not why.
In each verse, the stranger is found in need. Taking the place of the narrator as we sing, we give the stranger bread, of our scanty meal. We raise him up and fetch him water. We take him in, out of the storm. There are only a few hymns written in the first person, and even fewer that place us inside an external narrative. This is not a song about how Christ cared for the needy. It’s about us, and our need to do what Christ does.
And yet, even as we seek to lift others, a blessing returns back to us. The stranger gives back a crust of bread and it becomes manna to [our] taste. He fills the cup and returns it, and we sing “I drank and never thirsted more.” As he sleeps in our own bed, the floor we sleep on becomes “as Eden’s garden.” The service we gave without thought of reward multiplies and blesses our own lives far beyond the original gift we gave. As King Benjamin taught:
ye should do as [God] hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you. (Mosiah 2:24)
Not only do we receive blessings as we serve others—our own wounds are healed as well. From the fifth verse:
… he was healed.
I had myself a wound concealed,
But from that hour forgot the smart,
And peace bound up my broken heart.
Service to others heals wounds, alleviates trials, and strengthens us. This is something I understand conceptually, but often forget to apply in the hour of need.
This hymn does not focus on Christ’s life, teachings, or atonement as many others do. Rather, it emphasizes the Christ-like ideals we hope to find in ourselves—charity, service, kindness, and selfless love. As I sing this song, I am led to ponder my own desires. Would I give so freely to a stranger? Would I recognize the needs of someone who “often crossed me on my way?” Would I invite someone in out of the storm? Or am I, perhaps, too absorbed in my own activities to take notice? Am I too busy being myself to be like Christ?
We could stop after the first five verses and have a wonderful song about service and the blessings that it brings. The last two verses, though, really drive home the divine mandate we have to serve our fellow man. I like to imagine them as heard by Joseph in Carthage Jail. Take a moment to really read them.
In prison 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;
The Savior stood before mine eyes.
He spake, and my poor name he named,
“Of me thou hast not been ashamed.
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not, thou didst them unto me.”
Imagine Joseph, hearing these words shortly before his death. Imagine the comfort it gave to a man who had suffered so greatly in restoring the gospel of Christ. Then, consider what it can mean for us. Christ himself taught that when we care for God’s children, we are serving God himself. Service to others is not just something we do to be like Christ; it is an integral part of our relationship with Christ. Just as Joseph came to know his Savior, we can know him too.
The poor, wayfaring man reminds us that our goal is not just to become like him; in the end and along the way, we seek to know Him. What a wonderful blessing!