‘I’m a Stranger, I’m a Pilgrim’

We sang this in sacrament meeting a few weeks ago (listen here):

1. I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger
Cast upon the rocky shore
Of a land where deathly danger
Surges with a sullen roar,
Oft despairing, oft despairing,
Lest I reach my home no more.

2. Misty vapors rise before me.
Scarcely can I see the way.
Clouds of darkest hue hang o’er me,
And I’m apt to go astray
With the many, with the many
That are now the vulture’s prey.

3. O my Father, I entreat thee,
Let me see thy beck’ning hand;
And when straying, may I meet thee
Ere I join the silent band.
Guide me, Father, guide me, Father,
Safely to the promised land.

It’s not the most cheerful hymn in the book, but I suppose that’s why I like it. Many of our hymns express an optimistic certainty — ‘I Know That My Redeemer Lives,’ ‘I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go,’ ‘We Are Marching On to Glory,’ etc. Those are appropriate and wonderful, and they express the faith and desires of many members. But sometimes, some members (namely me) feel they ‘scarcely can … see the way’ and are ‘apt to go astray.’ True, at times I feel like I am ‘enlisted ’til the conflict is o’er’ (although ‘happy are we’ is pushing it even at the best of times) — but just as often I feel like a pilgrim and stranger with those damned vultures looking over my shoulder. Rather than church being just a mutual righteousness appreciation program, it might also be a place where we bring our doubts and fears before God and each other and ask for help. As Elder Wirthlin said,

The Church is not a place where perfect people gather to say perfect things, or have perfect thoughts, or have perfect feelings. The Church is a place where imperfect people gather to provide encouragement, support, and service to each other as we press on in our journey to return to our Heavenly Father.

If we are all convinced of our own solid righteousness, can we offer that ‘encouragement, support, and service?’ I’m not sure we can, and I’m not sure we’re always well equipped to deal with admissions of uncertainty and moral struggle. The hymn indicates that we ought to be.

Garrison Keillor said,

‘I used to think that faith…was sort of like a building block, and you put all these blocks together, and you build a house, sort of like the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender. It’s a matter of just giving up, and leaving that house and just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude, maybe that’s…all you need.’

At times, I can identify with this sense that faith is less an impervious shelter and more something I take with me as I go along, vulnerable but filled with hope and gratitude — hope in God’s promise to help me along, gratitude for the help I’ve received so far. I don’t argue that this is the ideal model of faith for everyone, but there are good, faithful people in the church who don’t have that solid confidence emanating from their faith and possibly never will.

I’m glad we have this hymn in our book. Some of us need the chance to lament our own doubts and fears and the intense need for divine help to keep it all together.


  1. Wow! Thank you. I needed that.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever sung that hymn before, Norbert. Thanks for the post. I wholeheartedly agree that faith (for me, at least) is something that I just take with me as I go along. I’ve often wished I could be like Sister So-and-so with this marvelous big stone faith structure around her. My faith is strong – I don’t doubt that HF’s there and He lives — but it’s like a little gem inside of me that is small and quiet and goes where I go.

    And thanks for mentioning gratitude and hope. They’re my favorites.

  3. Thank you, Norbert.

    Another thing your post implicitly demonstrates is that we have a lot of hidden gems in our hymnal. I think some of the less popular ones are the very best ones.

  4. Thanks, Mark. I actually thought about this being the start of a series called ‘Hymns We Never Sing,’ but I thought people might write and say, ‘WTFH? We sing that every week.’

    Plus we have a skinnier hymnbook.

  5. This really is a hidden beauty. I wish each ward and branch had someone who could highlight the less often sung hymns in Priesthood and Relief Society, at least, and bring songs like to the attention of more members. I understand that many congregations are limited by not having a skilled pianist or organist, so it’s easy to get in the rut of singing the same few dozen hymns in an eternal round, but it’s really nice to hear and contemplate ones like this. Thanks, Norbert, for sharing it.

    I, for one, would love a series highlighting hymns we never sing.

  6. Researcher says:

    Can I state the obvious?

    This song is hard to play and harder to sing.

    For one reason and another, I haven’t been getting the hymn numbers ahead of time so I can practice and I’m living in dread of the day that I show up to church and am supposed to play one of “these songs” for the opening hymn.

    Beautiful thoughts, though. Throughout my life I’ve often felt like a stranger in a strange land. (Think Exodus, not Heinlein.) I don’t think there are any vultures on my rocky shore, though.

  7. Norbert,

    Your thoughts remind me why this is one of my favorite passages in the Book of Mormon:

    …and our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.

  8. I, for one, would love a series highlighting hymns we never sing.

    Well, here are a few to start with. :)

  9. I’d love to listen to hymns we never sing. The problem with singing the hymns we never sing is, when the chorister has an epiphany and includes one in the program, no one sings– no one knows it and not enough of the congregation can read music. In one ward I attended, the chorister actually had an unknown hymn played first and sang a verse for us before we all sang. At least for me, that was pretty helpful.

  10. #8 – Nice, Kaimi. I forgot about that post. Now, if Norbert took those suggestions and actually did posts on each of them . . .

  11. It would be interesting to know a little more about the history behind this hymn.

    The phrase “I am a pilgrim, I am a stranger” comes to us from the New Testament, and appears in a lot of Appalachian music. Before that it is thought to have appeared in African American spiritual music. A similar gospel tune was made famous by Johnny Cash:

    Then recorded by others, such as the Byrds, and has gone on to become a bluegrass standard.

    Do we know to what extent Hans Henry Petersen was influenced by these American sources? Or was he simply sourcing Hebrews and/or 1st Peter?

  12. Once I mentioned to our ward chorister how much I liked “The Morning Breaks,” and the following Sunday she made it the opening hymn. Okay, you never, EVER want this hymn sung by your ordinary mortal congregation. It was so painful, I wanted to cry. Leave that one to the Tab choir.

    That said, there are plenty of other wonderful hymns that we never sing and I wish we would. (Just not “The Morning Breaks.” Please. Never again.) Unfortunately, there aren’t many good venues for ordinary mortals to learn new hymns. Our ward choirs are supposed to be familiarizing the rest of us with these hidden gems, but even if you have a ward choir to speak of, hearing a song once isn’t enough for most people to feel comfortable singing it. It’s a problem.

    Of course, I’m of the opinion that our congregations should sing more and talk less.

  13. By the way, I enjoyed this post very much. I second Ray’s comment. ;)

  14. Researcher does point out one difficulty with “I’m a Pilgrim . . .” Leroy Robertson, bless his heart, sprinkled it liberally with dissonant chords and accidentals, and a lot of “off-beat” movement, by the basses mainly. So, organists of the church, get practicing.

    And if they’ll play it at tempo and loud enough, it’ll drown out the off-key singers, and help us all the muddle our way through.

    Someone long ago talked about how to teach a new hymn to the congregation, including organists playing the music for prelude/postlude, choirs or other ensembles performing, etc.

    The only problem is, you need an organist and some singers to make that happen. And not every ward/branch has them.

  15. Actually, Ardis’s post at Keepapitchinin this morning suggests a solution. Have the unfamiliar hymns played/sung by choirs during the passing of the sacrament!

  16. Thank you for your excellent post.

    There are so many wonderful hymns that are in our book that are rarely sung in our meetings.

    One of those hymns not often utilized (which ironically escapes me now) was sung when I was in San Diego at a priesthood leadership meeting. President Boyd K. Packer was the presiding authority.

    He commented on how much he loved the hymn and lamented that it was not sung more. The phrase he used to describe hymns such as these: “They are located in the sealed portion of the hymnbook.” I have never forgotten that statement.

  17. #14 – Just to avoid dispersions toward Ardis by those who will read the comment and not the linked post, she didn’t suggest that solution. :) It is a very interesting post.

  18. To be fair to organists and congregations around the church, the 1985 hymnbook did away with the classification of hymns for congregation and choir (and got rid of most the women’s voices, men’s voices and men’s choir hymns) from the 1948 hymnbook. The result was that a substantial number of hymns that are beyond the ability of a normal congregation are now “expected” to be sung by them. The problem with the old method was that there weren’t enough ward choirs, and we didn’t sing often enough, and we sang stuff from other sources, so huge numbers of the choir hymns were never heard back then.

    The only solutions: more singing and fewer speakers. One sacrament meeting each month with nothing but music and short (< 3 minutes) introductions to the hymns. Music lessons in YM/YW–both vocal and instruments.

    If it was Pres. Packer, the hymn was likely “I Wander Through the Still of Night.” In the 1948 hymnbook and, presumably, in the original text, it was “I Wander Through the Stilly Night.” The name alone was enough to drive people away, and the schmaltzy music didn’t help.

  19. Dispersions, aspersions, whatever. :-) I should have read my comment before I posted it. Ardis didn’t suggest the “solution”–it popped into my demented (and, today, befuddled) mind as I read this post while thinking about hers.

  20. Larry the cable guy says:

    Occasionally a BYU class will feature not only an opening prayer, but also a hymn. This was rare in my experience, but in one particular zoology course that was heavy on ornithology, “I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger” was always the song of choice.

    And I’m apt to go astray
    With the many, with the many
    That are now the vulture’s prey.

    Can’t recall a single time singing that one since then however.

  21. Did anyone else read the lyrics and have a certain melody made popular by Meredith Brooks a few years back pop into their head? It sorta works…except the stanzas are too short.

  22. #18 – Aspersions. How did I type dispersions? Yikes.

  23. Thanks for bringing us this post. This lovely hymn is rarely used, not because it can’t be sung, but because it’s a really challenging accompaniment for most or our pianists and organists what with its modulations and many accidentals. As the chorister in my ward, I have one excellent organist and am determined to use it.

  24. I agree with Rebecca J. I’ve always loved “The Morning Breaks,” so a couple of years ago when I was choosing and playing the music, I selected it as one of the hymns. The singing was so horrible I could hardly make it through the hymn. What’s up with “The Morning Breaks”?

    On the other hand, every congregation can sing “Behold A Royal Army” with spirit and enthusiasm.

    And in Norbert’s and Mark B’s honor, I’ll play “I’m a Stranger, I’m a Pilgrim” for prelude music this Sunday. (But not to be sung.) I’m headed over to the piano right now for a date with Leroy J. Robertson (bless his heart:-) ).

  25. Okay. I just went through the piece. After about five times through, it is fairly smooth, at the top of the tempo range. Of course, moving over to the organ provides another layer of complexity for those of us who are trained pianists and only playing the organ out of desperation.

    While playing, I realized that we have Stake Conference this weekend, so no one will be having prelude music played in their honor on Sunday. Sorry. I know you’ll both be soooo disappointed.

  26. Researcher, thanks for the thought. This is quite hard to sing. Our ward music leader has been stretching us with rest hymns, having the ward quartet (instead of choir) do a verse for everyone first, then we hit it. Very cool.

    I’m not really suggesting it be sung more often, though … I just like the words.

  27. I remember singing The Morning Breaks at the beginning of a memorable stake conference in New York in November 1985. It worked really well then–chalk it up to Manhattan artistic exceptionalism, maybe. Or maybe my mind was sufficiently tied up in knots that morning that anything would have sounded good. Or, maybe we didn’t sing it at all, but it came up in a talk, and I’m just wishing we had sung it. Who remembers stake conference 20 days after, much less 20 years later?

    We tried it a year ago at our district conference and it wasn’t good. Sadly. An absolutely wonderful text (go Parley Parker!) and moving (in two senses) music.

  28. I do like this hymn. It’s an interesting choice given that there are several other traditional hymns by the same title, and this one is sobering. Maybe too sobering. Like Psalm 88, it just doesn’t brighten your day. To over-generalize, I think most Mormons want hymns that are “uplifting” so this one gets overlooked. And it’s one of the very few that admit to our sinfulness (“Lead Kindly Light” is another, but I guess it puts the sin in the past tense in verse 2).

  29. The Morning Breaks is a beautiful hymn, but none of those George Careless settings that split up the penultimate phrases into two-part textures sound very good with a mediocre congregation. Its other difficulty is that the range extends higher than most other hymns, and stays in the higher area of that range for a greater percentage of the time, resulting in screeching from the untrained. In the choir section of the old book, however, it was even higher, by a whole tone.

    I’m a Pilgrim is not one of my favorites. The chromaticism seems a little excessive and mannerist, maybe a little too close for comfort to the barber-shop style. For me, Robertson succeeded much better with classics like We Love Thy House, O God; Upon the Cross of Calvary; and Great King of Heaven.

    Has anyone ever noticed how the first half of Great King of Heaven is just a triple time version of Let Earth’s Inhabitants Rejoice? Don’t know which one he wrote first.

  30. Bill, you’re right about the chromaticism–I think that might be part of why I like it. At least it’s *interesting*. Better a little jarring and schmalzy than endlessly I, IV, V. Anybody besides me old enough to remember the older version, with a different ending for the last verse?

    It probably says a lot about me that this has always been one of my favorite hymn texts, and I copied it into my journal when I was 9.

  31. Researcher says:

    Thanks for the explanation, Bill (28). While I wouldn’t say our congregation is “mediocre,” it is small with few trained singers, which could explain why a hymn I remember from my childhood as being a good old classic (“The Morning Breaks”) did not work. At all.

    I’ve never noticed that about “Great King of Heaven.” Around here, we’re more interested right now (to be honest) in the fact that “The Hamster Dance” is a triple time “Oo-da-lally” from Disney’s Robin Hood.

    And so culture dies one bit at a time.