8. John Lyon: Poet for the Lord

By T. Edgar Lyon

Thomas E. Lyon, “John Lyon: Poet for the Lord,” in Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons, ed. Donald Q. Cannon and David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center, 1985), 213–33.

John Lyon: Poet for the Lord

Thomas E. Lyon

Thomas E. Lyon was chairman of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Brigham Young University when this was published. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Utah in 1963 and completed PhD studies at UCLA in 1967 with a specialty in Latin American Literature. He has taught at UCLA, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He came to Brigham Young University in 1972 and directs service programs in Mexico and Guatemala. He is currently chairman of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He and his wife, Cheryl Larsen Lyon, are parents to five children.

“It is rare that Death lays his hand upon one who, without special official position in the Church, was so widely known personally or by reputation as Father John Lyon.”[1] At Lyon’s death in 1889 his name was widely known by most Latter-day Saints: his sixteen-year tenure as territorial librarian, superintendent (secretary, recorder) of the Endowment House for thirty years, theater and poetry critic for the Deseret News, composer of many early LDS hymns, author of the first book of poetry published by the Church, all made him well known in the nineteenth-century Church. The twentieth century has forgotten most of his writing and has allowed his name to slip into dusty catalogs and files, if not into dark anonymity.

John Lyon was born in the gray slums of old Glasgow, Scotland, on 4 March 1803, to Janet McArthur and Thomas Lyon.[2] Years earlier Thomas had ceremoniously forsaken the family farm in nearby East Kilbride, gone “a ‘soldiering” to the romantic West Indies and returned ailing, to eke out a poverty existence in urban Glasgow. Janet carried on a small handweaving enterprise but was never able to save more than enough to buy cotton or wool yarn for the next project. Young John, the only surviving child of four children, was needed to help with the heddles, shuttle, and loom, attended only one and a half years of formal schooling as a youth, and was barely able to read a few simple words. When John was eight, his father died of asthma; a few years later his mother began seeing another man. John, at age seventeen, in disaccord with his future stepfather left the dingy, two-room tenement forever. He took employment as an apprentice weaver but also delighted in bare-knuckled boxing in the shabby bars of decaying Glasgow.

In 1824, John suffered from frequent dizzy spells. The doctors of the Royal Infirmary proceeded to bleed a pint of blood from him every other day. Getting no better from this “cure,” he visited another doctor who advised him to leave Glasgow and take up residence in any town “six miles from the sea; drink plentifully of sweet milk, and take all the fresh air morning, noon and night.”[3] John left his hometown and almost by chance took up residence in Kilmarnock, twenty-one miles southwest of Glasgow. He had never been so far from home but confidently rented a loom, began weaving, and never again complained of dizziness or prolonged ill health. In the 1820s Kilmarnock bustled with industry, and Lyon prospered at the loom. The town also bustled with young lasses, and in 1826 John married sixteen-year-old Janet Thomson, daughter of one of the “established” families in the community.

In Kilmarnock John joined in verbal debate with some college students and soon realized that he would have to learn to read and write. He enrolled in night classes and after three years pronounced himself literate. Like many weavers he debated and argued politics while at the loom, and in the evening he read poetry, particularly the sentimental works of Robert Burns. Although he was from nearby Ayr, Burns had published his first poems in Kilmarnock in 1786, and the local intelligentsia considered him a kindred spirit, if not a native son. Lyon read and pondered Shakespeare and Cervantes; he also kept abreast of current happenings, now joyously reading of them firsthand in the county newspapers.

From 1826 until 1849, Janet bore twelve children. She and the older children learned the weaving business and were able to assist in keeping the family loom working as many as sixteen hours a day. Prices for woven blankets, paisley and worsted shawls, bonnets and outerwear, all of which John and Janet wove, had fallen sharply in the 1830s so the entire family had to cooperate to earn sufficient for food. In economic straits, John decided to try his inexperienced hand at writing for the county newspapers. He visited historical sites in the region, chatted with local eccentrics and covered current news stories. Paganini played in Kilmarnock in 1831, and John reported his concert. In 1832 Lyon championed the cause of the poor in the passage of Britain’s first major reform bill; his report on poverty in Ayrshire was read in Parliament and published in the London Times. He worked for at least eight different shortlived newspapers, contributing articles, canvassing for new subscriptions, penning an occasional original poem, collecting bills, securing advertising, adding a few meager pence to the family income from each endeavor.

Three major themes emerge from his early years: (1) a vital concern for the poor (likely learned and felt from his own young years): (2) a fetish-like admiration for the “self-made man” who had risen above what birth or circumstance might dictate; and (3) a fascination with those who maintained deep religious conviction, particularly the “Covenanters,” the “Cameronians,” the “original Seceders,” and especially Thomas Chalmers and the 480 ministers who in 1843 finally dissented and formed the Free Church of Scotland. These three concerns united in 1843 when William Gibson, a Mormon from nearby Paisely, came to Kilmarnock to preach a new “restored” religion. The LDS faith had only been expounded for four years in Scotland and counted few members; the general religious fervor of the 1840s had broken traditional barriers and allowed many incipient groups to win new members from established Presbyterianism. John Lyon attended Gibson’s first preaching meeting in Kilmarnock and quite naturally engaged in debate; after six months of study he became the first “convert” in Kilmarnock, on 30 March 1844. William Gibson tersely recorded, “This evening I baptized the first two [people] John Lyon, [Sen.], and Ivy Thomson.”[4] Years later, John recalled the moving movement when he truly felt the newfound truth:

How sweet the Gospel message came,

When first I learn’d its light and pow’r;

‘Twas all the anxious heart could claim,

It and the Scriptures were the same:

I was a “Mormon” from that hour![5]

Janet had just given birth to her ninth child on 27 March 1844 and could not be baptized into the Church until 4 May, with her oldest son, Thomas. As the other children developed a testimony of the Church, those thirteen years and older also received baptism at the hands of one of John’s newfound friends.

John now became a lion for the Lord, dedicating as much time to preaching as to newspapering and weaving. He and Elder Gibson held scores of public debates throughout Ayrshire, challenging the Presbyterian church and “all other takers.”[6] Local ministers hired the services of Alexander Robertson, an early Mormon convert from Paisely, Scotland, who had been to Nauvoo, left the Church, and returned to his native lands, to try to thwart missionary work. No victor was declared in the debates but the rapid growth of the Church in Kilmarnock indicates Lyon’s success. The Church headquarters in Liverpool named John the presiding elder in Kilmarnock (and indeed all of county Ayrshire) in February 1845, just ten months after he had joined the church. He preached and baptized wherever he could. One longtime resident of Kilmarnock recalled of Lyon:

I often met with him at Paxton’s Brewery at the Waterside, and had disputes with him on all subjects—Stewart’s Philosophy, Locke’s. For some years I had not seen much of Lyon, and when we did meet he was with some Mormons in a neighbouring village trying to make converts to the new faith. Of course I did laugh heartily to find him, of all men, a Saul among the prophets, and ridiculed in no measured terms the new imposture.[7]

The LDS Millennial Star records a similar incident from quite a different point of view. Lyon “opened” neighboring Stewarton to Mormonism in 1847. He first obtained a meetinghouse free of charge, but after some success in attracting new members the church building was denied him. A local gentleman bought a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants for the purpose of convincing the town of its absurdities. Lyon met him in public debate where “the truth bore him down to an acknowledgement that such were the laws in ancient times, and the man of loud words became a perfect infant in the Lyon’s paw.”[8] The pun is obviously intended; Lyon felt a nobility in his name and often “roared” his beliefs aloud. A pre-Mormon friend in Kilmarnock observed that “John Lyon was a poet worthy of his name” but also that he was “very disputatious as well as pugnacious.”[9] John enjoyed the public contests and the exposure they gave the Church. And they obviously bore fruits; the branch in Kilmarnock grew to 107 members in four years under Lyon’s missionary efforts, and approximately 190 converts were baptized in nearby villages from 1844 to 1848, John being responsible for most of these eager new members.

The Lyon house in Kilmarnock was a well-known stopping place for visiting Church authorities in Scotland. Diaries and letters of brothers Samuel W. and Franklin D. Richards, as well as their uncle Dr. Levi Richards, indicate that they visited with John and Janet and always participated in a delightful evening of entertainment in the home, a change from most other houses in which they lodged. Lyon was usually encouraged to read his poems; songs, both religious and otherwise, were performed by invited Church members; especially popular were the lilting melodies and words of Robert Burns. Invariably each diarist recorded his delight in the Kilmarnock home. A single example from young Franklin D. Richards in 1846 points up the varied nature of the evenings: “Spent the evening there [home of John Lyon] and saw experiments on mesmerism.”[10]

Yet popularity and prosperity in the Church did not guarantee joy and blessings at home. Different from most couples of the time, Janet and John enjoyed the first twenty-two years of their married life without the death of a child. During the winter of 1848, however, one-year-old Margaret died and two months later her infant sister, Agnes, also passed away. The death of these girls, the tenth and eleventh children in the family, were evidence of Janet’s tired, overworked body. One more child would be born, but he too would not live to maturity.

John’s poetry written before his joining the Church was much in the vein of the Romantic movement—exultation in nature, eulogy of local people and places, sentimental, personal, and often written in the Scottish dialect. “The Auld Man’s Lament,” “The Laboring Man’s Song,” and “Reflections on a Bank Note” are but a few published examples.[11] After joining the Church, he continued the search for rhyme and easy metaphor but directed his lyric efforts to the thrilling doctrines, the exciting people, and the inspired activities of the new gospel. The few poems of his pre-Mormon years gave way to an effusion of pent-up poetry in praise of God and man. The Millennial Star now became Lyon’s main vehicle of publications; its pages trace his lyric outburst, thirty-two poems between 1845 and 1852. Many are occasional poems, written for a specific person,[12] for a unique occasion (the death of Orson and Sarah Pratt’s infant son, for example), or a particular place. Most of the poems reflect an optimistic view of life and many point to a future millennial reign on earth. Lyon sensed the Mormon mood of the day, feeling that he was part of a new order which would very soon usher in the second coming of Christ. His poems reflect the themes that he was preaching to his non-Mormon neighbors—gathering to Zion, fleeing “Babylon,” repenting, and so forth.

In 1850 Orson Pratt, then president of the British Mission, urged John to collect his scattered poetry and publish a single volume of LDS poems. With continued encouragement from Franklin D. Richards, John collected thirty poems that had previously appeared in the Millennial Star, added seventy-four more and delivered the package to the new British Mission president, Samuel W. Richards. Lyon dedicated the book to his dynamic young Apostle friend Franklin D. Richards and agreed to donate any proceeds to the Perpetual Emigration Fund (P.E.F.). The office in Liverpool paid the printing costs for 3,400 copies, and in January 1853 The Harp of Zion was delivered for sale throughout Great Britain. “It is got up in superior manner, printed in new type, on beautiful thick paper, and splendidly bound. No Saint will be satisfied to be destitute of a copy.”[13] Lyon and indeed the entire Church in Great Britain were proud of this, the first complete edition of poetry published by the Church.[14] For the first time the Church entered the realm of publishing creative literature. Nearly every issue of the Millennial Star had featured a poem or two by an LDS writer, but now an entire book was published with Church money and approval. Mormon authorities had previously printed newspapers, tracts, general epistles, and emigrants’ guide, and standard scriptures, but not a book of poetry. The Harp of Zion indicated that many authorities felt that the Restoration must be captured in aesthetic form, as well as rhetorical and scriptural discourse.

The Harp of Zion, despite its claim to fame as a “first,” did not sell well in Great Britain. George Q. Cannon, reviewing the enormous inventory of publications in the Liverpool office in 1861 noted that “of books: there is the Harp of Zion, out of 3404 copies 21 have been sold in three years.”[15] It may have sold better in the first years of its publication but at two shillings and six pence the book was likely too expensive for most of the Saints, strapped by poverty and already expected to contribute to the Perpetual Emigration Fund, to the fund to build the Salt Lake Temple, to the traveling elders, and to pay tithing and buy the Millennial Star and scores of doctrinal tracts. George Q. Cannon packed up most of the copies of the Harp and, with Eliza R. Snow’s 1856 Poems: Religious, Political, Historical, which had sold even fewer copies, sent them to Utah. Many copies of Lyon’s book were sold throughout the territory; a few were given to friends. The book achieved a fame in Utah that it had not experienced in Great Britain, likely due to the author’s visibility in high Church circles, as well as an improving economy that permitted the luxury of purchasing a book of poetry.

It was likely Lyon’s visibility as a poet in the Millennial Star, as well as his success as a “baptizer” in Ayrshire and his friendship with Franklin D. Richards, that had brought his name to Orson Pratt. In 1849 President Pratt called Lyon to full-time missionary service to preside over and preach to the Worcester (England) Conference. John had ample reason not to accept the assignment: his wife was pregnant with child number twelve; his two youngest daughters had died just a few months earlier; his two oldest children had just married and were expecting; weaving was not producing profits and Janet would have a near-impossible time supporting the family by herself; and two sons were seriously sick with cholera. Nevertheless, he put his affairs in order, sadly left Kilmarnock, visited Orson Pratt in Liverpool for instructions (where President Pratt told him to push the tract project of getting one LDS pamphlet in every home in Great Britain), and on 11 February 1849 John Lyon reported for three years of purseless, scripless missionary work. He kept a detailed diary during the first four months of his mission, recording branches visited, baptisms performed, sermons preached, letters written, and people contacted. During his mission, Lyon wrote some 1,000 letters, walked approximately 5,445 miles, delivered 420 formal sermons, and baptized approximately 360 people—all in thirty-five months![16]

Once again, however, Church successes were clouded by family tragedy. On 27 March, just two months after leaving home, John received a letter which

gave me intelligence of the death of my son David who died on the 23 at half past 11 a.m. this news gave me exceeding pain; I wept aloud and slept very little during the night thinking of my family and their mother. I prayed for them and felt to ask the Lord to strengthen her in this bereavement.

March 28 Wednesday

This day I wrote a consolatory letter to my family condolling them on the Death of my son over which I shed many bitter tears of regret in not having it in my power to carry his remains to the silent grave.[17]

Two months later another letter from home informed of my son Roberts, departure, which took place on Saturday evening the 26th [of May 1849] at ½ past 6 evening for which I felt to be thankful to my heavenly father for removing him from his long and severe affliction.[18]

Robert, age sixteen, and David, age ten, both died of the lingering illness of cholera. The diary entries are brief but the pain that John and Janet suffered is incalculable. John surely asked why. When he was doing the Lord’s work, why should he be so plagued? No answer came immediately; he continued working. In June of the same year Janet delivered a son; she and John selected the name of Franklin D. Richards Lyon in honor of their Apostle friend, a further affirmation of their trust in the Church.

In December 1851, President Franklin D. Richards reassigned John to preside over the large Glasgow Conference. Lyon joyously packed his bags, returned to Kilmarnock, and soon took up residence in Glasgow for the next thirteen months. As conference president, he collected and recorded donated monies, blessed scores of babies, organized quarterly conference meetings, and continued preaching to his long-forgotten friends. He was now a “somebody” in Glasgow and felt that his “self-made rise from poverty” was chiefly a result of his religious convictions. During his short tenure in Glasgow, he baptized approximately 35 people, making a total of 715 he converted and baptized in Great Britain.

Finally, after preaching the doctrine of the gathering, writing poems about fleeing Babylon to congregate in Zion, and baptizing many who had already left for America, John received official permission to gather with the Saints in Salt Lake. He, Janet, and their five surviving single children sailed on 28 February 1853, in the ship International with 417 other excited LDS emigrants. Samuel W. Richards recognized John’s leadership talent and named him first counselor to the ship’s LDS president, Christopher Arthur. Lyon kept an accurate log of the fifty-four-day crossing, with its too-frequent calms and occasional serious storms; he recorded the fifty-three-day seasickness of Richard Waddington, the second counselor to President Arthur, and noted the scarcity of water and provisions as a result of unfavorable winds, as well as understandable quarrels between tightly berthed passengers.[19]

Upon arriving in New Orleans, the company boarded a steamer journeying upriver to St. Louis, then to Keokuk, Iowa, where Isaac Haight, the Church’s agent, organized them into various companies for overland travel. Lyon’s leadership and speaking abilities again caused that he be named captain of one hundred in a ten-pound P.E.F. company, as well as chaplain for the entire Jacob Gates company. They purchased oxen, wagons, and provisions, and set out on a four-month, fourteen-hundred-mile journey across Iowa, Nebraska, and the wilderness of Wyoming and Utah. Various diaries indicate slow but constant progress, and plagues of grasshoppers, mosquitoes, and flies. Lyon’s family reached “the Valley” on 28 September 1853, the completion of a more than ten-thousand-mile journey from Scotland; they had been “on the road” for more than eight months but joyously entered an autumn valley with high and happy hopes for a reunion with the Saints of God.

The John Lyon family barely scraped through the first hard winter in the Valley, existing on potatoes and on roots grubbed from the nearby hills. In 1854 Lyon built a log home in what was soon to be the Twentieth Ward and settled into making an adequate living. Brigham Young gave him part-time work as his family weaver and also requested that Lyon teach all Brigham’s daughters to weave.[20]

John’s literary fame had preceded him, and he began volunteer work with the newly created Territorial Library. The librarian, William C. Staines, married John’s daughter, Lillias, in 1854, the same year in which John was named assistant librarian. When Staines was called on an extended mission, Lyon took over as head librarian, receiving an annual salary of $400 for the relatively short hours he put in. As librarian, he met Sir Richard Burton, Mark Twain, and Artemus Ward—a few among the many dignitaries and literati who passed through Utah. The Church authorities showed off Lyon as a literate Scottish convert whose erudition did not keep him from exercising the new faith. Lyon also earned a meager salary as superintendent of the Endowment House from its dedication in 1855 to 1884. He continued his newspapering work, writing as a critic for the Deseret News. He gave elocution and “Dramatic Art” lessons to Maude Adams and many other actors on the stage of the Salt Lake Theater. In short, he dominated much of the literary realm in early Salt Lake City.

While steamboating up the Mississippi en route to the West in 1853 John had heard of a new Church doctrine, referred to cryptically as the D.O.P.O.W. (doctrine of the plurality of wives), or celestial plural marriage. He resisted for three years but was frequently aware of its preached importance from the highest levels of Church leadership. His close friendship with Brigham Young and other authorities and his organizing work at the Endowment House brought plural marriage to mind daily. In 1856 John had a dramatic dream:

I thought [dreamed] . . . that I was in company with the First Presidency, as a guest at dinner, when Brigham Young asked me why I did not take another wife, as I was losing time. I replied that I did not know where I could find one willing to have me. Said he, “Will you take one, if I find one?” I said “yes” so I dreamed he took me out to the street and told me to go as far as I saw the rise of the road, and there enquire for a lady of the name _______. In my dream I arrived at the house in quick time but it seemed to be evening and rather dark. So I rapped at the door but got no answer. . . . I rapped again and a voice said, “Come in.” I was in the middle of a small room having one bed in the corner, where a woman was sitting in her nightgown. I enquired “if there was a lady of the name of _______ [who] lived here?” when all in chorus, rang out a loud laugh, from the lady in bed, and what I supposed other three, who were hidden in the room. This merry introduction wakened me out of my pleasant anticipations.[21]

The dream reveals John’s desire to comply with Brigham’s wish, but he must have worried about the reaction of others, particularly his acceptance by women, as indicated by their derisive laughter as he approached the lady in bed.

Near the small Lyon family cabin lived another Scotsman, Robert Crookston; John frequently visited with his fellow countryman and observed a sixteen-year-old English girl who served as a maid. Her father had died in Nauvoo and her mother in Winter Quarters, and the kindly Crookstons brought her to Salt Lake City in 1852. “Often visiting this family, my mind was drawn to this girl, and plural marriage being a subject on my mind as sacred as baptism for the remission of sin,”[22] John timidly thought of marriage with this sixteen-year-old orphan.

Although I never put much faith in my dreams as revelation still I looked upon it as strange that this [house of the dream] was in the vicinity of my Scotch acquaintance’s dwelling, where I had seen this girl. Some months later I was indeed invited to dinner [by the First Presidency]. After dinner Brigham Young addressed me in the exact words, “Why did I not take another wife as I was getting old?” To this question I answered by a laugh, when he sternly asked me what I meant. I told the three gentlemen my dream.

Brigham told John that the dream was from the Lord and that he ought not be concerned about ridicule. That very night, John went to the Crookston home, talked with the young girl and “proposed to her . . . if she would be my wife for time and all eternity, to which she answered in the affirmative. This was all the courtship we had.”[23] On 28 March 1856 Brigham Young sealed fifty-three-year-old John Lyon to sixteen-year-old Caroline Holland in the Endowment House. Janet had also been sixteen when she married John thirty years earlier. She was not present at the sealing ceremony.

Little if any specific consultation took place between Janet and John prior to this plural marriage; considerable occurred after! Young “Carrie” (Caroline) continued living with the Crookston family until John was able to build another tiny cabin on the corner of Oak and Bluff streets (3rd Ave. and F St.), adjacent to his “first home.” Janet must have resented her husband’s frequent evening absences; when Caroline finally did move in as neighbor and husband-sharer, forty-eight-year-old Janet moved out to Tooele with her recently arrived married daughter, Janet Lyon Spiers. After a year, however, Janet returned to help teenage Caroline care for her children. During the next fifteen years Caroline bore seven children, the last one born in 1872, when her husband was in his seventieth year and she in her thirty-third. Natural jealousies often overcame the need to cooperate, to express love, and to sacrifice for the expanding family.

John felt some of the tensions that existed among two women living under nearly the same roof and captured these in poetic form. He does not attack the rather sacred doctrine of plural marriage but through literary displacement exposes the not unexpected human strife and struggles. Most non-Mormons viewed polygamy as a crude throwback to a less-civilized era, one of the relics of barbarism. Others, among them Mark Twain and Artemus Ward, whom Lyon had met personally, turned polygamy into fun and frolic.[24] Lyon was directly aware of its serious human conflicts, its joys and doctrinal importance, but chose to emphasize the humorous.

Most of Lyon’s poetry is a very serious examination of the “Mormon experience.” In Scotland he had observed and later challenged a former Saint who had gone to Nauvoo, become disillusioned, and returned to Glasgow. This individual was likely the previously mentioned Mr. Robertson. John wrote a poem, a poignant examination of what happens to an individual who has “walked in the light” and later “fallen on into darkness”:

The Apostate

I knew him, ere the roots of bitterness

Had grown to putrid cancer in his soul.

Then Revelation’s light gleamed o’er his mind

In strange fantastic dreams of future bliss;

. . . .

Precocious, in a day from childhood to

A man, he grew a giant of his kind;

. . . .

All knowledge, ere it was revealed, he knew.

The knotty points in Scripture he could solve,

By presto touch of talismanic wand,

And, Patriarch like, had the discerning gift

To know the ancient seeds of Israel’s race.

. . . .

The gathering was his constant theme; for he

Had dreamed at golden gates, and pearly walls,

. . . .

And so he left, to seek his fairy land

Uncounselled, in his own imaginings.

But ah! he thought not of the fiery path

Where persecution, poverty, and death,

Await the just, ere they can sing the song

Of ransom’d ones, by suffering perfect made.

 

Thus, full of novelty’s romance, he found

The city of Saints, and with it all

The stern realities of life. His hope,

Like morning mist, evaporated quite,

And with it, all his dreams of phantom bliss

. . . .

Still disaffection’s deadly ‘venomed sting

Withered his schemes, till every sense became

Corrupt, and dead. He neither saw, nor felt,

Nor heard, nor savour’d of the things of God.

Then falsehood came, and with it came distrust;

Truth error seemed, and lies appeared as truth!

And holy men mere swindling vagabonds!

 

Like smould’ring embers still the hatred burned

In his foul mind, till every passion burst

Their prison’d fire, and blazed one sulph’rous flame

Of malice, hotter than the Stygian lake!

And so he fell from his gigantic height,

 

As we have seen a falling meteor fall

From out the starry vault, which never had,

‘Mong constellations, a fixed residence,

Save the combustive fluid of scattered gas,

That, kindled by the windy current, flashed,

And falling, seemed a blazing orb of heaven!

. . . .

Forgotten, nearly twenty moons he’d left

Nauvoo! When lo! in Scotland I beheld

This strange, outlandish looking man at church

Among the Saints. I wondered much, I watched

Him when the congregation sang in praise

The songs of Zion! But his lips moved not,

And when they knelt, he stood a statue mute

Amidst the prostrate throng of worshippers

His bas’lisk eye in rolling anguish told

The gnawings of the bitter worm within

I met him after service, and he strove

To imitate the Saints’ fond welcome greet,

But when his hand touched mine,—Lord save me, how

I shook! Touched with his influence of despair;

It ran like lightning o’er my mortal frame,

Benumbing all the energies of life.

The Prophet, Saints, and all their labours, were

His theme of execration and contempt

. . . .

He raved, and counted o’er his money lost;—

The turning period of his selfish soul—

And like old Shylock, grinned in bitter spite

To have his “pound of flesh.” We parted thus.

‘Twas past all patience, longer to endure. (Harp of Zion, 53–56)

The vibrant images—a cancered soul, dead corrupted senses, smoldering embers of hatred, a muted statue, lifeless lips—recreate an agonizing human tragedy. John felt the loss for and to the individual and vividly created an anguished being who had lost so much of his former self.

Lyon also wrote scores of shorter lyric poems praising God and nature, man and mountains, and individual friends and fellow believers. Most of his poetry is hope-filled—a positive response to the glorious doctrines he found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Much of the poetry is hastily written for a specific occasion; most poems are based on a strong need to rhyme, at times ignoring other necessary components of good poetry. When he is at his best, he is a very good poet; the sonnet “Lust” represents an excellent combination of lyric expression and meaningful thought:

Lust

Lust is the offspring of a thousand sighs,

Intrigue, deception, and as many lies;

A strange compound of hidden, plotting ill,

To fire with rage, to torture, or to kill;

Fraught with distrust, anxiety, and care,

Jealousy, revenge, and unconsoled despair:

The softest passion of a menial’s heart,

That ebbs and flows, as impulse plays its part;

At times o’ercome with feelings proud and mean,

That lurk in secret, yet are ever seen

In looks, and gestures, thoughts, and strong desire,

That live, and burn unquenched; undying fire,

That e’en in death, with all life’s powers destroyed,

Still longs, and lusts, yet never is enjoyed. (Harp of Zion, 155–56)

John Lyon’s extant poetic production numbers more than 350 poems. He wrote at least twenty-five short stories and prose sketches which were published in the Mountaineer, Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine, the Contributor, and the Deseret News. Some of his poetry was put to music and appeared in the Juvenile Instructor. The LDS hymnbook of 1851, more like a book of poetry because it was published without musical notation, carried eight of his hymn-poems. Subsequent editions continued most of these hymns, originally selected by Franklin D. Richards; however, the 1948 revision of the hymnbook eliminated all of Lyon’s songs. John maintained an intimate poetic friendship with Eliza R. Snow, exchanging poems and puns with her for thirty years, and both Eliza and John regularly acted live roles in the temple endowment ceremony. Lyon met with all the aspiring writers and poets of the territory, encouraging them to produce and publish. In the intellectually oriented Twentieth Ward he batted ideas and doctrine with William C. Staines, Karl G. Maeser, Phenieas H. Young, William S. Godbe, Eli B. Kelsey, and Edward Tullidge. Lyon discussed and wrote with these men but never went to the extremes that caused Godbe and others to leave the Church. He became known to all as Father Lyon, an endearing term of respect for his age, his office of patriarch, and his continuing poetic and personal contributions to the Church.

John Lyon received many official Church callings in Utah. In January 1854, he became a seventy and was sustained as one of the presidents of the Thirty-seventh Quorum, meeting every Friday evening in the Fourteenth Ward schoolhouse.[25] On 12 February 1867 he received the fulness of the priesthood in the Endowment House.[26] Brigham Young, John Taylor, George Q. Cannon, and other Apostles, with Wilford Woodruff as “mouth” ordained him a patriarch on 7 May 1873.[27] He served in this capacity until his death. As were other early Church members, John Lyon was baptized more than once. Of one baptism John simply recorded on a scrap of paper, “Baptised in the ED house for the N order 1876.”[28] This was his third baptism, performed to signify a new life in the United Order. (The first baptism occurred in 1844 in Scotland; the second, upon his arrival in Salt Lake City in 1853). In his waning years, Brigham Young pushed very hard to establish the cooperative orders that he felt should characterize true Saints. As a friend of the great organizer, Lyon entered into a covenant to live more closely the laws of mutual production and sharing.

John “retired” from his supervisory work at the Endowment House in 1884 at age eighty-one, having served for thirty years. During that span, he had examined recommends, organized sessions, and accurately recorded the comings and goings of thousands of saints who came to be sealed. He was intimately associated with Presidents Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford woodruff. “Brother Brigham” included John Lyon in a now-famous portrait “Brigham Young and his Friends,” hanging in the Church Museum in Salt Lake City.[29] Wilford Woodruff paid him the honor of setting Lyon apart as patriarch. John Taylor, a fellow British Islander, loved Lyon’s poetry and responded by writing a fine poetic response to John:

Thou Lyon of the East! I’ve heard thy roar;

Thy voice hath sounded Britain’s Isles all o’er;

And in Columbia’s land a Lyon’s known,

Not by another’s works, but by his own.

. . . .

Let those less noble rack their creaking lyre,

And try in vain to light the Poet’s fire

‘Tis thine to take a more exalted stand,

And touch the living chords with master hand.

With Pope, or Milton, Shakespeare, Mills or Snow

. . . .

A thousand tongues shall reverb’rate thy praise.[30]

While the sentiment and comparison with other great English writers is overblown, John Taylor honestly viewed the contribution Lyon made to the interpreting and understanding of LDS doctrine to be of incalculable, even eternal, worth.

As a man who did not have early educational opportunity and who did not learn to read and write until his mid-twenties, Lyon achieved the goal he had early admired, that of being at least partially “self-made.” For forty-five years he lent his entire spiritual, personal, and literary energies to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, giving much to it and receiving more from it. He was a poet for the Lord. “Father” John Lyon was known and admired by most of the members of the Church in the nineteenth century. He died in Salt Lake City on Thanksgiving day, 28 November 1889.

Notes



[1] Announcement of Lyon’s death, Millennial Star 51 (23 December 1889): 813.

[2] Information concerning John Lyon’s early life comes from forty-two pages of fragmented reflections on his early life, written in Utah in the 1880s, in my possession; hereafter cited as John Lyon manuscript.

[3] John Lyon manuscript.

[4] Information taken from the journal of William Gibson, Library-Archives, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives) and records of the Kilmarnock Branch.

[5] This poem, written in 1875 and awkwardly titled “Reminiscence of My Early Ignorance of ‘Mormonism,’” was published in a posthumous collection of Lyon’s writing entitled Songs of a Pioneer (Salt Lake City: Magazine Printing, 1923), 81.

[6] John Lyon manuscript.

[7] “Senex” (pen name for Matthew Wilson), “Mormonism—A Kilmarnock Bishop in Utah,” 9 April 1881 Supplement to the Kilmarnock Standard. Wilson visited Utah in the 1870s and wrote a very scathing article on Lyon and Mormonism.

[8] John Lyon to Thomas D. Brown, Millennial Star 10 (15 July 1848): 221.

[9] John Kelso Hunter, “Retrospects,” The Kilmarnock Standard, 20 April 1895, 6.

[10] Diary of Franklin D. Richards, 5 December 1846, in LDS Church Archives.

[11] The poems were published in the Kilmarnock Journal, the Western Watchman and the Edinburgh Witness, the latter two papers published for the purpose of religious reform.

[12] Among the many poems of this nature are three written to Franklin D. Richards, one to Eliza R. Snow, one to Eli B. Kelsey, another to Samuel W. Richards, and a poem of encouragement to two lonely sisters in a remote corner of Scotland.

[13] Millennial Star 15 (29 January 1853): 73.

[14] In 1840 Parley P. Pratt published a 140-page collection of his poems and miscellaneous writings, which may be considered the first book of poetry published by a nineteenth-century Mormon. It did not, however, have the certification of the Church, which is tacitly implied in Lyon’s 1853 work, published by and for Church members. In later years, newspapers in Utah hailed Lyon as the first Mormon to publish a complete book of poetry, likely because he was so well known, Parley P. Pratt was dead, and Lyon’s Harp of Zion “was in many homes in the territory” (Millennial Star, December 1889, 183).

[15] George Q. Cannon to Brigham Young, 31 March 1861, original in LDS Church Archives, cited by David J. Whittaker, “Early Mormon Pamphleteering,” Journal of Mormon History 4 (1977): 48, n. 39.

[16] Diary in Archives of Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Figures are extrapolated from the diary and branch and conference records; hereafter cited as John Lyon diary.

[17] John Lyon diary.

[18] John Lyon diary.

[19] Log book in Archives of Lee Library.

[20] Recollection of Maria Young Dougall, “True Pioneer Stories,” Juvenile Instructor 62 (Nov. 1927): 611.

[21] John Lyon manuscript.

[22] John Lyon manuscript, italics added.

[23] John Lyon manuscript.

[24] See Richard H. Cracroft, “Distorting Polygamy for Fun and Profit: Artemus Ward and Mark Twain among the Mormons,” Brigham Young University Studies 14 (Winter 1974): 272–88, for other writers who saw humor in plural marriage.

[25] Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 12 January 1854, LDS Church Archives.

[26] John Lyon manuscript.

[27] John Lyon manuscript.

[28] John Lyon manuscript.

[29] Lyon family tradition holds that John and one other were painted in some years after the original was completed.

[30] Reproduced in Lyon, Harp of Zion, 3–4.