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.