“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 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.” This poignant passage from Matthew’s gospel was what came to fifty-five year old poet James Montgomery’s mind as he traveled by carriage in northern England on a blustery winter day in 1826 – a winter hurricane aloof, as it were – prompting him to write, “The Stranger and his Friend”.
James wrote and published over 400 hymn texts, among them the LDS standards “Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire” and “The Lord Is My Shepherd”. He was the son of a Moravian minister who had died while on a mission to the Caribbean (“Moravian” was the name of a proto-protestant sect begun in Czechoslovakia one hundred years before Luther). In a letter to a friend a year later, James wrote, “Your sister mentions my little piece of the Stranger and his Friend. She will not feel less interest in it when I tell her that, except the first verse (composed in the dark in the coach on the morning that I set out from Sheffield to York), the sketch was written with pencil on a scrap of blank paper which I found in my pocket, while I was travelling alone in a chaise from Whitby to Scarborough, on that tempestuous Saturday, ten days before Christmas. These rough stanzas, so inspired by ‘vapours, clouds, and storms,’ on the wild and melancholy moors along that lofty coast, were afterwards painfully, yet pleasantly, elaborated, in my walks during the short stay which I made at Scarborough; and I shall never forget the accomplishment of the fourth verse, on the height of Oliver’s Mountain, on a gloomy, threatening afternoon, which naturally made me anticipate the horrors of such a night as is there described”
The first known musical setting of the text was about 9 years later (1835) by New York minister George Coles, who named the tune “Duane Street”, after the address of his church. The earliest surviving publication of this tune is in the 1844 publication by Benjamin Franklin White called “The Sacred Harp”, which was wildly successful and is still published and used today by Sacred Harp societies around the world. The Sacred Harp was an example of a “shape note” song book, a type of sacred folk singing popular in the camp meeting culture of the American frontier in the early 1800’s. Joseph Smith Sr. was a singing school master, a teacher of this style of note reading and singing. The description of the dedication of the Kirtland temple, with choirs stationed in the four corners of the sanctuary, echoes the Sacred Harp practice of forming a square to sing with the four parts in the four quadrants and the leader in the centre.
The publication date of White’s hymn book (which was advertised in the Nauvoo Neighbor) corresponds with the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph, although the text at least was known to John Taylor previous to this. While on his mission to England, he was involved in the1840 publication of the “Manchester Hymnal” which had no music, but included “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”. This British hymnal became the most influential source for later LDS hymnbooks published in Utah Territory. We don’t know for sure what tune these British saints used, but we know John Taylor sang a variation of George Coles’ tune in Carthage jail.
Fourteen years after the martyrdom, at the request of church historian WIlford Woodroffe, John Taylor wrote a memoir, Witness to the Martydom, in which he recalled singing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” on the 27th of June, 1844: “The song is pathetic, and the tune quite plaintive, and was very much in accordance with our feelings at the time for our spirits were all depressed, dull and gloomy and surcharged with indefinite ominous forebodings.” He had sung it of his own accord, but a bit later Hyrum Smith asked him to sing it again. John replied, “Brother Hyrum, I do not feel like singing,” but Hyrum persisted, replying, “Oh! never mind, commence singing, and you will get the spirit of it.” (John and Hyrum were part of a close circle: as a new convert in Toronto, John Taylor led a small group of saints among whom was Mary Fielding who became Hyrum Smith’s second wife after his first wife, Jerusha, died.)
Few hymns have such a powerful, specific story associated with them as “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”. It is of great interest to Latter-day Saints what Taylor’s rendition in Carthage Jail actually sounded like, and amazingly, we have a window into the answer to that question. When John Taylor became president of the church one project he promoted was the production of a hymn book with music. He launched a committee including Tabernacle Choir leaders Ebeneezer Beesley and George Careless to compile the new book. As part of the project, Taylor visited Beesley in 1886, just a year before President Taylor’s death, and sang “The Stranger” for him to write down, with the view to improve and harmonize it for the book. It was just in the early 2000’s that a descendant of Taylor discovered that dictation on the last page of Beesley’s Tabernacle Choir bass part book (when music was written out by hand, it was quicker to make separate scores for each part in the choir). Beesley’s son Frederick remembered, “Father was once called upon by President John Taylor to write down the melody of ‘A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,’ just as Brother Taylor had sung it in Carthage Jail on the day of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. This father did and then arranged the four parts, as we have the piece at present in our Latter-Day Saint Hymns.”
It wasn’t the 2/4 tune from the Sacred Harp, but a kind of lilting 6/8 variation which Beesley then further altered to arrive at the form we all know. I have prepared some audio samples for you to hear the original Duane Street tune, John Taylor’s 6/8 version and compare Coles’ tune with Taylor’s and Taylor’s with Beesley’s. Just for fun I combined all three. You can also listen to my 4-part harmonizations of the John Taylor tune on my website (the first entries on that page).
When I was in first year university, I made a “through composed” arrangement for my father to sing (meaning the piano accompaniment of each verse is unique and reflects the drama of the lyric). I remember well a few years later, the day before my wedding. I’m not sure what most men do the day before they marry, but I played a solo piano recital in the chapel across the street from the Cardston temple (this may have been a clue to my bride-to-be what was in store for her, marrying a musician). The program was crowned with a performance of my arrangement of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”. Later in graduate school, as an exercise for an orchestration course, I composed an expanded orchestral version of my setting (yet to be performed). A rough midi mockup can be heard here.