Two Poor Wayfaring Men of Grief

167 years ago today, Joseph Smith, first prophet of the LDS Church, was murdered by a mob in a jail in Carthage, Illinois. 

As he and a few friends sat in a room in the jail, awaiting what they knew to be an imminent ambush, Joseph asked John Taylor, who would later become the church’s third president, after Brigham Young, to sing his favorite song for him.  The song was “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” which is about a man who keeps coming across a humble, suffering stranger throughout his life; the narrator keeps helping the stranger, regardless the sacrifice involved, until the end of the song, when the stranger is revealed to be Jesus Christ, who then offers salvation to His faithful friend. 

The song may have comforted Joseph in two ways.  He probably identified with the singer, who , like Joseph, had undergone almost constant adversity in a life devoted to serving Jesus.  Joseph also likely found some measure of peace in the fact that his difficult life was only a shadow of the suffering the Savior endured, as the song describes. 

In the video above, the opening audio dramatizes the scene in Carthage Jail where Joseph asks John to sing the song a second time.  The song lyrics begin at 1:45; the video up to that point shows the events leading up to the assassination, and from there depicts the murder itself.  Starting at 3:30, the rest of the video shows a montage from a couple of different videos of scenes of some of the many hardships Joseph endured in life. 

This page from an official LDS web site summarizes the suffering and oppression that characterized Joseph’s life, which culminated in that jail being stormed by armed enemies when he was only 38 years old. 

I don’t write this just to parrot some expected statements about his importance to the LDS Church, but because my life has genuinely been touched by his.  In his First Vision, I find an inspiring example of the spiritual journey, a universal archetype, and one I can certainly relate to.  It marked the second most important paradigm shift in human history. 

And in his steadfast service, ambitious preaching, self-improvement, new scriptures and revelations published, and unwavering loyalty in the face of an entire adult life filled with sacrifice and scorn, I see the modern world’s best model for coming closer to God. 

That, ultimately, is why I love Joseph Smith.  The life of this American prophet, himself a poor wayfaring man of grief, has continually led me to try to draw nearer to and to better love and serve that ultimate poor wayfaring Man of grief, Jesus Christ.  For that, Joseph will always have my deep gratitude and respect.

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7 comments on “Two Poor Wayfaring Men of Grief

  1. Yes, the paradigm that Joseph’s experience changed was the idea that Prophecy is dead. That’s what Christian ministers had taught for centuries, Yet there were many who yearned for knowledge directly from God.

    And now, we all have that promise, that we can have that direct contact. The only mediator we need for that now is Jesus. But to share Eternal Life with him requires some ordinances, and discipleship. It was never an easy, or a thing to be take lightly, to be a Disciple.

    When I first read Joseph’s testimony, it touched me so deeply that reading the different stories he told about the First Vision hasn’t changed that a little bit. I know from experience, that I am an unreliable witness. I may forget a most important thing telling about an incident, which I would only realize much later. I can so easily identify with him; how his understanding of what happened that day developed from being centered on his own forgiveness into a larger theme. I’ve been there, although not being called as a Prophet, but still, my understanding of what happened in 1979 has developed.

    Sorry for going on so long, but I have just re-read Rough Stone Rolling…

  2. Bingo on the paradigm shift, and my experience withthe first vision is the same. I’ve only shared it with a few pople for whom it was brand new, and even though none of them have acted on the feeling and been baptized, they always recognize that this is a story whose straightforward plainness–yet earthshaking boldness–makes it a tale of elemental resonance.

  3. I was actually at Carthage this year for the commemoration of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. It was a small service and didn’t really delve too much into the first vision but they had an amazing tenor that sang “a poor wayfaring man”. After having visited Liberty jail and read some of the writing’s of the Prophet from there and then being in Carthage on the anniversary I was deeply touched and reminded of how much the Prophet did for us. We watched a play in Nauvoo where the performing missionaries depicted a scene from when the people of Nauvoo heard about the Prophets murder and I was again reminded of the deep love and devotion that Heavenly Father has for us to send us a Prophet and restore the priesthood and again speak to us through a prophet. It really is an amazing thing to behold. And it all started because of a faithful little boy of 14 who wanted to know the truth. I am eternally grateful to him. Thank you for posting this!

  4. He should have not removed his garments and drank that bottle of wine with his brother. He might have been better protected from the bullets wearing garments. Also, he should have had a better weapon than that pepper box pistol. He only hit two, maybe three attackers. A heavy revolver might have sent them running back down the stairs when it boomed out.

  5. Troy, I appreciate all serious contributions here, but I’m sure you can see how the tone of your comment comes off like this: “I know things that I bet you don’t know, so my cynicism counts for more than your faith.” Such an attitude, if that accurately reflects your position, gets pompous and tiresome.

    None of the things you mention are secret, or have any material bearing on what you might call a simplfied, faith-building version of the events. For example, you dwell on the fact that the Prophet had a gun and used it–that hardly demonstrates that he wasn’t a prophet, if such is your thesis.

    Hope I haven’t put words in your mouth, though.

  6. I apologize for my pompousnous and for being tiresome. I just have a problem with the “faith-building” stories that we hear all the time about our perfect leaders. By guilding them we teach a lie. I think it more important to keep history real, and not gloss over the ugly in the narratives of church history. Please feel free to delete my posts.

  7. Thanks, Troy. No hard feelings. Of course, I don’t think that what some might call “faith-building” history is a lie or unreal, just a focus on the most important true things for certain times, places, and goals. That doesn’t mean that other facts are dangerous or should be ignored–and I don’t think they are–just that not everything is appropriate at all times and places. A seminary class is not the same as a discussion between professional scholars, for example. Why should they be?

    I won’t delete your posts–I think they’re meant in an honest and friendly spirit. My philosophy is that, while reverence and respect are virtues, no fact can be offensive. You’re welcome here any time.

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