Front Matter

Psalms of Nauvoo

Early Mormon Poetry

Hal Robert Boyd

Susan Easton Black


 

Published by the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, in cooperation with Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City.

Visit us at rsc.byu.edu.

 

© 2015 by Brigham Young University. All rights reserved.

 

Printed in the United States of America by Sheridan Books, Inc.

 

Deseret Book is a registered trademark of Deseret Book Company.

Visit us at DeseretBook.com.

 

Any uses of this material beyond those allowed by the exemptions in US copyright law, such as section 107, “Fair Use,” and section 108, “Library Copying,” require the written permission of the publisher, Religious Studies Center, 185 HGB, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602. The views expressed herein are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of Brigham Young University or the Religious Studies Center.

 

Cover design and interior layout by Carmen Cole

 

ISBN

US Retail: $


 

From Hal Robert Boyd

For Holly and Connie

 

From Susan Easton Black

In Memory of Gordon B. Hinckley

 

Contents

Brief Chronology of Significant Events in the Life of Joseph Smith and the City of Nauvoo

Preface

Editorial Procedures

Introduction

Chapter 1: Flight from Missouri

Chapter 2: Nauvoo the Beautiful

Chapter 3: Martyrdom and Aftermath

Chapter 4: Biographical Sketches of Poets

Works Cited

Author Index

Title and First Line Index

General Index

 

Brief Chronology of Significant Events in the Life of Joseph Smith and the City of Nauvoo

1839    April 22                        Joseph joins family in Quincy, Illinois

            May 10                        Joseph moves to Commerce (later known as Nauvoo), Illinois

1840    March 4                       Joseph begins journey to Washington, DC, to petition government officials for redress of Missouri wrongs

            August 15                    Joseph introduces doctrine of baptism for the dead

1841    January 19                  Joseph receives revelation to build Nauvoo Temple and Nauvoo House     

            February 1                  Joseph is elected to Nauvoo City Council

            February 4                  Joseph is elected Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion

            April 6                         Church leaders lay cornerstones of the Nauvoo Temple

            June 4                         Joseph is arrested on Missouri charges

            June 10                       Judicial Court dismisses writ for arrest of Joseph

            November 8                Joseph dedicates baptismal font at Nauvoo Temple site

1842    March 17                     Joseph establishes Female Relief Society of Nauvoo with wife Emma as president

            May 4                          Joseph administers temple endowment in the upper room of the Red Brick Store

            May 19                        Joseph is elected mayor of Nauvoo

            August 6                      Joseph prophesies Latter-day Saints will be driven to the Rocky Mountains

1843    January 5                    Joseph is freed of criminal charges stemming from alleged assassination attempt on Lilburn W. Boggs

1844    January 29                  Joseph is a candidate for president of the United States

            March                          Joseph gives administrative keys to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

            April 7                          Joseph delivers King Follett Discourse

            June 7                         Nauvoo Expositor calls for repeal of the Nauvoo City Charter

            June 10                       Nauvoo City Council denounces the Nauvoo Expositor as a public nuisance

            June 27                       Mob kills Joseph and his brother Hyrum at Carthage, Illinois

            June 29                       Joseph is buried in Nauvoo

            August 8                     Latter-day Saints sustain Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as leaders of the Church

1845    January                       Illinois legislature repeals Nauvoo City Charter

            May                             Court trial held against nine suspects accused of murdering Joseph and Hyrum

            December 10              The first day endowments were administered in the Nauvoo Temple.

1846    February 3                  The last day Latter-day Saints receive endowments in the unfinished Nauvoo Temple

            February 4                  Latter-day Saints begin Mormon exodus from Nauvoo

            May 1                          Orson Hyde dedicates Nauvoo Temple

            July 16                         Latter-day Saint volunteers enlist in the Mormon Battalion

            September                   Battle of Nauvoo; Latter-day Saints driven from Illinois

 

Preface

Reflecting upon his prophetic predecessor, President Brigham Young said that “Joseph Smith was a poet, and poets are not like other men; their gaze is deeper, and reaches the roots of the soul; it is like that of the searching eyes of angels; they catch the swift thought of God and reveal it to us.”[1] Of Joseph’s poetic contribution, Elder Orson F. Whitney—a prolific poet himself—added, “Joseph Smith was not a Homer, nor a Shakespeare, nor a Milton. He was more. He was a prophet, and consequently a poet.” Joseph unfolded “the great poem called ‘Mormonism,’ the grandest and sublimest epic ever conceived.”[2] Luckily, early Latter-day Saints captured the epic as it unfolded before them in Nauvoo, Illinois.

In this growing city, poets found ample publication outlets in the Times and Seasons, the Wasp, and the Nauvoo Neighbor. Others, however, penned poetry in private correspondence and personal diaries. They wrote of revelations, restored scriptures, prophecies, temples, and their testimonies of Jesus Christ. To these faithful psalmists, their religion served as a ready muse for novel poetry. Psalms of Nauvoo: Early Mormon Poetry is a narrative collection of these poems.

The volume opens with the Mormon exodus from Missouri and ends with the Saints’ farewell to Nauvoo as they faced an uncertain future in the American West. Our purpose in contextualizing and publishing these poems is to provide a glimpse into the culture, life circumstances, religious heritage, and espoused doctrines of those early Latter-day Saints; hopefully by doing so we offer readers the chance to also catch “the swift thought of God” as the poets penned it.

 

Acknowledgments

We are indebted to our spouses, Holly M. Boyd and George D. Durrant, for their support, keen intellect, and perceptive judgment. They contributed immeasurably to this project, serving as researchers, editors, critics, coaches, and occasional paleographers. Undergraduate and graduate assistants also shaped the substance and structure of the volume; we especially thank Ruth Covington and Clinton Brimhall.

Karen Lynn Davidson provided insightful comments on an early version of this work. Davidson’s work with Jill Mulvay Derr on Eliza R. Snow’s poetry was vital to this undertaking; their impeccably researched tome, Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, provided documentation and ideas for this volume. We are also grateful to Neal E. Lambert and Zachary M. Hutchins—both consummate literary scholars—for their helpful suggestions. We thank Steven C. Harper and Eric D. Huntsman for their expertise in editing earlier writings. Connie Boyd, William Boyd, and Nathan Neilson caught awkward phrases and improved the overall flow and tone of our editorial introductions. This volume would never have reached fruition without the generous support of the BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book. As the volume went through sundry iterations, R. Devan Jensen was patient and persistent. Thomas A. Wayment, Dana M. Pike, Brent R. Nordgren, and others at Religious Studies Center deserve our deepest gratitude for their faith and belief in the project.

We thank the research staff at the Harold B. Lee Library and the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University as well as the staff at the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Each institution opened their doors and made available resources for this undertaking. We also thank the Office of Research and Creative Activities and the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU for their financial support.

Given all of the professional and scholarly assistance we received, our readers should be holding a perfectly edited book. Yet it is far from perfect, and we alone are responsible for any shortcomings. Perhaps our stumbles will inspire greater scholars to produce more thorough, insightful, and comprehensive collections of early Latter-day Saint poetry. 

Last, and most important, we thank the early Latter-day Saint poets for these psalms. Their verses and legacies of faith deserve a finer memorial than just one volume, but we take heart in knowing that their poetry will now reach a new audience of appreciative readers. 

 

Editorial Procedures

The poetry selected for this collection was composed (with a few noted exceptions) by Latter-day Saints from 1839 to 1846. Preference was given to poetry that focused on the history and citizenry of the city of Nauvoo, especially the events surrounding the life, ministry, and death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Beginning with poems expressing vehement feelings about the Missouri persecutions of 1838, the collection continues through the Nauvoo era including the Saints’ anticipated trek to the Rocky Mountains. Some poems address specific events or people, and others examine doctrinal teachings or simply offer prayers, lamentations, or even lighthearted humor. The collection presents a diverse group of poets ranging in abilities, yet taken together they share a surprisingly unified voice.

The collection is primarily meant to make available original poetry from the era, however, we have attempted to provide sufficient context to enhance appreciation and understanding of the verses. Those hoping to grasp the many nuances of Latter-day Saint history would do well to supplement their reading. Furthermore, this collection is not exhaustive; many devotional or strictly homiletic verses fell outside the narrative focus of this volume. And, despite our best efforts in searching hundreds of pertinent journals, letters, papers, and periodicals to find historically relevant poems from the era, we likely overlooked or misjudged worthy poems along the way. Due to the amount of poems we encountered, much of the work of this volume involved distinguishing poems of artistic and historical merit.

Although the volume frequently oscillates between serious poetic verses and more lighthearted lyrics, we rarely distinguish the two and frequently refer to both as “poetry” or “poems.” More discerning audiences will recognize important distinctions between poems, hymns, and songs, and must forgive us for conflating the terms. We have tried, however, to provide relevant context in editorial introductions.

When the date of a holographic poem was unknown, the earliest date of publication was used. For undated poems and hymns, we placed the poem within the chronology according to our best guess from the content, context, and (where possible) historical records. Although, as indicated, we include publication dates for most poems, the poetry is not uniformly ordered by date of publication.  Since some poems address topics in the recent past or are published well after composition, we use our discretion in ordering the poetry within each chapter.  For example, Parley P. Pratt’s poems written while in prison were not published until later. We have chosen to embed them into the narrative closer to when they were probably composed. Also, when nearly duplicate versions of poetry were found, rather than select the earliest handwritten version, the first printed edition was included in the collection.

When working with unpublished manuscripts, a careful transcription was made of the holographic text to maintain the text as close to the original as possible. To a few of the unpublished and published poems we have made minor spelling and grammatical corrections to enhance readability (for example, replacing the word “tail” when “tale” was intended). Where the meaning and understanding of a poem was not significantly jeopardized by such errors, we maintained the original spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and paragraphing. As commas and periods are difficult to distinguish in some holographic poetry, where there was a question, periods were placed at the end of a sentence and commas were inserted where the sentence does not end.

For editorial uniformity, capitalization and punctuation are standardized in the titles of each poem. When unpublished poems are not titled, the first line of the poem becomes the title. Where titles include subtitles, the title is printed first and the subtitle printed in a smaller font below the main title. Line endings and words broken at line endings have been standardized. Annotations for antiquated words, references to historical events and figures, and some allusions to scripture and literary works are footnoted. For poems by Eliza R. Snow, scriptural quotations and allusions are included in footnotes and were prepared in consultations with the King James Bible and the other standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but were first discovered and noted by editors Jull Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson in their meticulously researched Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2009). Short epigraphs, quotations, and dedications before poetic verses are included either before the poem or in the editorial note or footnotes. Long prefaces and numbers before stanzas, or numbers indicating the pagination of longer poems, have largely been removed. While font has been standardized for all verses, the poems’ indentation patterns have been modified from the original typeset and printing.

Philosophically, we have tried to maintain historical accuracy without compromising readability, accessibility, and comprehension. Readers looking to find direct transcriptions of published or unpublished works will want to consult original sources, which are cited after each poem. Above all, as editors, we hope to enhance the readers’ appreciation and understanding of these historically rich poems.


Introduction

About a year before his death, the Prophet Joseph Smith faced a writ of extradition to Missouri on charges of alleged conspiracy in an attempted assassination of Lilburn W. Boggs.[3] Joseph appeared before Judge Nathaniel Pope in Springfield, Illinois, to answer the accusations. Judge Pope began the court proceedings by inviting a few women (including Mary Todd Lincoln) to sit near his bench to accommodate the full courtroom.[4]

When all was ready, Justin Butterfield, Joseph’s attorney, began humorously, “May it please the Court, I appear before you to-day under circumstances most novel and peculiar. I am to address the ‘Pope’ (bowing to the Judge) surrounded by angels (bowing still lower to the ladies), in the presence of the holy Apostles, in behalf of the Prophet of the Lord.”[5]

To say that Joseph and his supporters were appreciative of the judge’s acquittal is an understatement. En route to Nauvoo, they burst into joyous song. Two of Joseph’s confidants, Wilson Law and Willard Richards, composed extemporaneous verses, taking for their muse the well-known tunes of “The Irish Jubilee” and “There’s Nae Luck About the House”:[6]

And are you sure the news is true?

And are you sure he’s free?

Then let us Join with one accord,

And have a Jubilee

We’ll have a jubilee, my friends,
We’ll have a jubilee;
With heart and voice we’ll all rejoice
In that our Prophet’s free.

The remaining thirteen verses praise the people of Springfield, express gratitude for Butterfield and Pope, and even wax Shakespearean, alluding to Henry V’s “Band of Brothers.”

With warmest hearts we bid farewell,
To those we leave behind;
The citizens of Springfield all
So courteous and so kind.

***      

       And now we’re bound for home, my friends.

       A band of brothers true,

To cheer the hearts of those we love,
In beautiful Nauvoo.

We’ll have a jubilee, my friends,
We’ll have a jubilee;
With heart and voice we’ll all rejoice,
In that our Mayor’s free.[7]

The ad hoc lyrics are paradigmatic of early Latter-day Saint verse. Their poetic borrowing, biblical allusions, political musings, humor, optimism, and references to Latter-day Saint current events are all markers of Mormon poetry. Even the spontaneous composition was typical of the era. Psalms of Nauvoo: Early Mormon Poetry commences well before that triumphal trek from Springfield to Nauvoo, yet the poetry still displays similar features. Five years earlier, our volume opens with Warren Foote’s 1838 poem, “Let Zion And Her Children Mourn,” a meditation on Governor Lilburn W. Boggs’ extermination order[8] and the subsequent Mormon exodus from Missouri. “Although the Governor of the state / Said masacre and kill,” Foote pens,

Yet their lives are still preserved

Contrary to his will.

 

Then let them boast of taking

And threaten us to kill

This sure will never stop the work

Nor Mormonism still.[9]

As the collection begins, so too does it end with the Saints yet again on the lam. After Missouri, they spent nearly seven years in Illinois. But soon they were again forced to relocate and rebuild. While uncertain of their exact destination, the Saints were convinced of their destiny. As early as 1842 Joseph had prophesied that “the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains,” but there, he said, they would “become a mighty people.”[10]

Fittingly, the final verse of the collection, “All Is Well” (known today as “Come, Come, Ye Saints”), was penned in 1846 by the English poet and convert William Clayton while resting near Locust Creek in Iowa Territory. The setting was only about one hundred miles from Nauvoo, the beloved city the Saints had just fled.[11] Although painfully aware of the arduous trek ahead, Clayton felt blessed after receiving word of his son’s recent birth. “Composed a new song—‘All is well,’” he recorded in his journal. “I feel to thank my heavenly father for my boy.”[12]

“Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?” Clayton asks in the hymn, “’Tis not so; all is right.” Like the Saints who sang on the road to Nauvoo or those who penned words of hope after Missouri’s tragedies, Clayton’s optimism and faith captures the ethos of Mormon poetry. It’s little wonder that these verses are still sung on Sunday mornings in Latter-day Saint chapels across the globe:

Why should we think to earn a great reward
If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.
Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we’ll have this tale to tell—
All is well! All is well!

We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away, in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the saints, will be blessed.
We’ll make the air, with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we’ll tell—
All is well! All is well!

And should we die before our journey’s through,
Happy day! All is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
With the just we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell—
All is well! All is well!”[13]

Na​​vu​oo: A Poetic Place

The influential eighteenth-century hymnist Isaac Watts famously composed a poetic work that mimicked biblical psalms but used the language of New Testament Christianity.[14] Implicit in early Latter-day Saint poetry is a similar form of mimesis. While only a few Latter-day Saint poems overtly draw on biblical psalms (see Psalm LII, Psalm, and Psalm 2), many mirror and generously borrow from the popular poetry of the day.[15] What makes Latter-day Saint poetry unique, however, is not just their poetic borrowing, but their creative expressions of distinct religious doctrines, histories, subjects, and narratives.

For example, poets wrote of Latter-day Saints abandoning their Missouri homes for Illinois. And once in Illinois, they wrote of the struggles to rebuild. In the swamplands of the Mississippi River, just beyond the reach of Missouri’s authorities, the Saints also wrote about finding a refuge. Joseph called the swamplands and attending bluffs Nauvoo, meaning “a beautiful location, a place of rest.”[16] When the city was incorporated with a bona fide charter and legal protections, thousands of dispersed Latter-day Saints flocked by wagon, steamboat, horse, and on foot.

Soon Nauvoo’s population rivaled that of Illinois’s largest cities.[17] And, as the populous grew, so too did Nauvoo’s cultural offering. Musicians, frontier thespians, amateur architects, writers, and, of course, poets all lived and worked amongst each other in a dynamic religious community. The Nauvoo Singing School and the University of the City of Nauvoo offered musical instruction and performance. British converts like William Pitt formed bands[18] that played to appreciative audiences. The Saints gathered to listen in outdoor venues and in Nauvoo’s Music Hall.[19] Theatrical performances debuted in the so-called Cultural or “Masonic” Hall.[20] Thomas A. Lane, producer of the Nauvoo Dramatic Company, even cast Brigham Young to play the high priest in the play Pizzaro.[21] Later, Lane joked that President Young had played the part with “great success ever since.”[22] Immigrant converts such as Sutcliffe Maudsley and Robert Campbell painted and sketched some of the iconic scenes and portraits of early Mormonism.[23]

Prophet P​​oets

No form of creative expression was more integral to Latter-day Saint worship than their hymns and verses. As an artistic medium, the writing of hymns and poetry was “a form whose brevity and apparent simplicity could delude the dilettante into a feeling of cheerful competence in its execution.”[24] Yet, Latter-day Saint poets were inspired by more than ease of craft. As one literary critic wrote, “Nothing else in all of American history [is] materia poetica equal to the early Mormons, to Joseph Smith.”[25] Many of the hymns and poems are infused with discussions of prophets, revelations, visions, temples, persecutions, and testimonies of Jesus—in short, materia poetica. “We are, indeed beginning to be proud of our poetic writers,” wrote the editor of the Times and Seasons. Soon the Saint hoped to cultivate “such a constellation [of poets] in the West, as shall appear more glorious than the more favored muse in the East.”[26]

Before the Nauvoo era, the Church had institutionally encouraged the writing of hymns for almost a decade. In a revelation received by Joseph Smith in July 1831, his wife Emma was commanded to “make a selection of sacred hymns . . . which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church. . . . For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me” (D&C 25:11–12). With the assistance of William W. Phelps, Emma compiled the Church’s first hymnal—A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The preface to the hymnal alludes to the 1831 revelation:

In order to sing by the Spirit, and with the understanding it is necessary that the church of the Latter Day Saints should have a collection of “Sacred Hymns,” adapted to their faith and belief in the gospel. . . . Notwithstanding the church, as it were, is still in its infancy, yet, as the song of the righteous is a prayer unto God, it is sincerely hoped that the following collection, selected with an eye single to his glory, may answer every purpose till more are composed.[27]

Emma Smith in a Dark Riding Dress by Sutcliffe Maudsley. Courtesy of Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Shortly thereafter, devout convert Parley P. Pratt finished The Millennium and Other Poems, the first volume of poetry published by a Latter-day Saint. His poems, as he put it later, “sprang into existence one after another as occasion called them forth, at times and in places, and under circumstances widely varying.” In a second printing, Pratt added verses from his experiences in “the lonely dungeons of Missouri.”[28]

Parley P. Pratt by Frederick Piercy. Courtesy of Church History Library, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Alongside Pratt, Eliza R. Snow’s contributions to Latter-day Saint poetry are second to none. In her early twenties Snow published a few secular verses in local Ohio newspapers. However, after uniting with the Saints she dedicated her poetic talents to writing religious verses. In rhyme she chronicled the historical events of the Church and extolled its doctrines and leaders.  The New York Times dubbed her  “the Mormon Poetess” and eulogized her as “one of the central figures of the Mormon galaxy.”[29] More than a century after their deaths, Snow and Pratt remain two of Mormonism’s strongest poets and intellects.[30] Scholars today consider their work among the greatest contributions to early Mormon literature.

Eliza R. Snow by Marsena Cannon. Courtesy of Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Others such as Joel H. Johnson were prodigious poets and “gained some credit”[31] for publishing spontaneous hymns and poems. Starting in Ohio, Johnson wrote poetry through the remainder of his life with the saints in the west. Also, one of the Church’s earliest newspapermen, William W. Phelps, made extensive contributions to Mormon poetry and literature. Together, the poems of Phelps, Johnson, Snow , and Pratt, comprise much of this collection. Yet, selections from other prominent Latter-day Saint figures such as Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Wilson Law also appear, as well as lines from lesser-known contemporaries such as Milo Webb, Abigail Pitkin, Alexander Neibaur, and John Hardy, to name a few.

 

William Wines Phelps

Generally, early Latter-day Saint hymnody and poetry resembled the lyrics of the era’s common Christian songs. Although we often assumed that Latter-day Saints favored singing hymns “of the restoration,” traditional Christian songs were integral to early Latter-day Saint worship.[32] More than half of the hymns selected by Emma Smith for the first hymnal were reprints or revisions of well-known Protestant verses, including some of the most popular hymns of the day such as Isaac Watts’s “Joy to the World” and John Rippon’s “How Firm a Foundation.”[33]

Yet Latter-day Saint lyrics were not scarce. Venues like the Evening and the Morning Star, the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Times and Seasons, the Wasp, Nauvoo Neighbor, the Prophet, and the Millennial Star provided ample column space. Never “reticent about poetry,”[34] Latter-day Saints filled newspapers, hymnals, periodicals, and eventually books as converts and Church leaders alike dabbled in the craft.

Poetry as History and Theology

Though most of the poetic verses corroborate the established historical record, some expand our understanding of past events and circumstances. For example, a little-known letter sent from a Nauvoo resident details the derisory circumstances following the Saints’ exile from Missouri. The author explains, “where we live. / What’s our employ, what we possess, / How we appear, and how we dress.”

In Nauvoo City we reside,

Where we in peace can now abide,

Our dwelling measures “Thirteen Feet,”

With walls rough-hewn and white-washed neat.

 

Our bed springs up against the wall

Because our room is rather small;

***

For mobs you know have saucy grown

And will not let us have our own.

***

With chairs we’re blessed with only two

Missouri claims the remaining few;

Our glass above the table stands,

Cracked through the center by your hands.[35]

A few years later, when visitor Robert McCorkle arrived in Nauvoo, we infer that circumstances had changed. The fledgling city he describes exhibited signs of prosperity. McCorkle went to Nauvoo with the thought of possibly joining the Saints. “One thing candor forces me to say,” he wrote after his visit, “there is more intelligence among the common people [in Nauvoo], than ever I met with before; nor have I ever seen as little immorality exhib[it]ed in any city, town, or hamlet in which I ever spent the same length of time.”[36] Despite a favorable impression of the community, McCorkle left town with unanswered questions. In poetic form, McCorkle wrote to the Prophet Joseph: “A question on my mind appears / which has been hanging there for years,”

Do you possess the gifts of God,

As are recorded in his word?

***

For if its true, That God has given

Late revelations right from heaven,

Its also true, he’s set his hands

To gather Israel from all lands.

. . .

This truth unveil, and set me free

And show me who the Mormons be.[37]

In his letter McCorkle requested “an answer in poetic form . . . either privately, or in the ‘Times & Seasons.’” Though the Prophet Joseph was assassinated before he could respond, the corpus of Latter-day Saint poetry presents its own answer about “who the Mormons be.” The poems and hymns provide a fuller historical vision of the early Latter-day Saint experience. Yet, they also lend perspective to our universal human experience. As Latter-day Saint scholar George Handley has written:

The humanities—literature, philosophy, history, and the arts—are born of a striving to bear witness to human experience in all of its varieties, usually under conditions in which the particularities of experience are threatened by oblivion. . . . Human expressions . . . always demand attention to the particulars of individual lives and distinct cultures, they can provide a valuable check against our tendency to rush to quick and glib generalizations.[38]

The poems of this volume do indeed bear witness “to human experience.” They give voice to soaring spiritual highs and seemingly bottomless lows; to extreme deprivation, but also immense elation. They present playful musings and mournful eulogies. On one page we find  this playful verse:

                        The truth and virtue both are good

                        When rightly understood

                        But Charity is better Miss

                        That takes us home to bliss

                        And so forthwith

                                    remember Joseph Smith.

Several pages later we encounter somber verses detailing the martyrdom of the Prophet:. “Oh wretched murd’rers! fierce for human blood!” cries Zion’s poetess.

You’ve slain the prophets of the living God,

Who’ve borne oppression from their early youth.

To plant on earth, the principles of truth.

           

Shades of our patriotic fathers! Can it be,

Beneath your blood-stain’d flag of liberty;

The firm supporters of our country’s cause,

Are butcher’d while submissive to her laws?

Like all humans, Latter-day Saint poets experienced love and loss, life and death, persecution and prosperity, spiritual silence and thunderous theophany. Although their conditions were often more hellish than heavenly, they learned to turn hell into heaven. Their swamps became beautiful and their deserts blossomed. Even in the face of death, pioneer faith and optimism persisted. “One night, as we were making camp,” pioneer Oscar Winters remembered:

we noticed one of our brethren had not arrived, and a volunteer party was immediately organized to return and see if anything had happened to him. Just as we were about to start, we saw the missing brother coming in the distance. When he arrived, he said he had been quite sick; so some of us unyoked his oxen and attended to his part of the camp duties. After supper, he sat down before the campfire on a large rock, and sang in a very faint but plaintive and sweet voice, the hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” It was a rule of the camp that whenever anybody started this hymn all the camp should join, but for some reason this evening nobody joined him; he sang the hymn alone. When he had finished, I doubt if there was a single dry eye in the camp. The next morning we noticed that he was not yoking up his cattle. We went to his wagon and found that he had died during the night. We dug a shallow grave, and after we had covered his body with the earth we rolled the large stone to the head of the grave to mark it, the stone on which he had been sitting the night before when he sang:

“And should we die before our journey’s through,

Happy day! all is well!”[39]

The early Saints found a way to persevere, and so their poetry too perseveres. Generations have sung their hymns and read their words. This volume too showcases well-known verses, but it also preserves a few lesser-known songs and poems that offer fresh vistas into the hearts and homes of some of early America’s finest Latter-day Saints.

 

Notes


[1] Eugene Campbell, ed., The Essential Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 241.

[2] Orson F. Whitney, “Joseph Smith in Literature,” Improvement Era 9, no. 1 (December 1905): 135–53.

[3] See Morris A. Thurston, “The Boggs Shooting and Attempted Extradition, Joseph Smith’s Most Famous Case,” BYU Studies 48, no. 1 (2009):4–56.

[4] Isaac Newton Arnold, Reminiscences of the Illinois Bar Forty Years Ago (1881), 5–7.

[5] Arnold, Reminiscences of the Illinois Bar Forty Years Ago, 6. One variant of Butterfield’s opening quip includes, “I rise under the most extraordinary circumstances in this age and country, religious as it is: I appear before the Pope, supported on either hand by Angels, to defend the Prophet of the Lord!” See “Opening in Joe Smith’s Case,” The New Orleans Daily Picayune, February 24, 1843, both quotations are cited in Thurston, “The Boggs Shooting and Attempted Extradition, Joseph Smith’s Most Famous Case,” BYU Studies 48, no. 1 (2009):38.

[6] Michael Hicks, “Poetic Borrowing in Early Mormonism,” Dialogue 18, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 137.

[7] Wilson Law and Willard Richards, “The Mormon Jubilee,” the Wasp 1, no. 1 (January 14, 1843): 1.

[8] Signed by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs on October 27, 1838, the military directive ordered that “Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.” See John P. Greene, Facts Relative to the Expulsion of the Mormons or Latter Day Saints, from the State of Missouri, under the Exterminating Order (Cincinnati, OH: R. P. Brooks, 1839), 26.

[9] Warren Foote, journal, December 12, 1838. Church History Library.

[10] History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B.H. Roberts, 2d ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-1951), 5:85. For a thorough description of accounts corroborating the Saints’ plans and premonitions about relocating to the Rocky Mountains and the American West see Lewis Clark Christian, “Mormon Foreknowledge of the West.” BYU Studies 21, no. 4 (Fall 1981): 403-415.

[11] See Paul E. Dahl, “‘All is Well . . .’: The Story of the Hymn That Went around the World,” BYU Studies 21, no. 4 (Fall 1981): 515–27.

[12] William Clayton, diaries, Church History Library.

[13] Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Europe (Salt Lake City: Geo. Q. Cannon & Sons, 1894), 58–59.

[14] See The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.

[15] See Hicks, “Poetic Borrowing in Early Mormonism,” Dialogue 18, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 137.

[16] See Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002).

[17] For further exploration of Nauvoo’s growth in the 1840s, see Susan Easton Black, “How Large was the Population of Nauvoo?” BYU Studies 35, no. 2 (1995): 91–94.

[18] See Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music: A History (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 40–44.

[19] See James B. Allen, “Nauvoo’s Masonic Hall,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 10 (1990): 39–49.

[20] See Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (Oxford, England: University of Oxford Press, 2007), 145–46.

[21] Stanley B. Kimball, “Also Starring Brigham Young,” Ensign, October 1975, 51–52.

[22] John S. Lindsay, The Mormons and the Theatre (Salt Lake City: John Lindsay, 1905), 6–7.

[23] See Glen M. Leonard, “Picturing the Nauvoo Legion,” BYU Studies 35, no. 2 (1995): 95–135.

[24] Givens, People of Paradox, 167.

[25] Harold Bloom, Religion in America (New York: Touchstone with Simon and Schuster, 1993), 79.

[26] “To the Saints,” Times and Seasons 2, no. 16 (June 15, 1841): 439.

[27] Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Kirtland, OH: F. G. Williams, 1835).

[28] Parley P. Pratt, “Preface,” in The Millennium and Other Poems: to which is annexed a treatise on the regeneration and eternal duration of matter (New York: Parley P. Pratt, 1840).

[29] “The Mormon Poetess Dead,” New York Times, December 6, 1887, as cited in Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, “Eliza R. Snow’s Poetry,” BYU Studies 48, no. 1 (2009): 132.

[30] Stan Larson, “Intellectuals in Mormon History: An Update,” Dialogue 26, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 187–89.

[31] See Joel Hills Johnson, “A journal or sketch of the life of Joel H. Johnson, circa 1857–1859,” Church History Library.

[32] Michael Hicks, “What Hymns Early Mormons Sang and How They Sang Them,” BYU Studies 47, no. 1 (2008): 98–99.

[33] Stephen A. Marini, “Hymnody and History: Early American Evangelical Hymns as Sacred Music,” 134–35, in Philip V. Bohlman, Edith L. Blumhofer, and Maria M. Chow, ed., Music in American Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[34] Richard E. Cracroft and Neal A. Lambert, ed., Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1974), 251.

[35] Abigail Pitkin to Rebecca Raymond, Church History Library.

[36] Robert A. H. McCorkle to Joseph Smith, May 10, 1844, in “Received Letters,” Joseph Smith Collection, Church History Library; see Hal Robert Boyd and Susan Easton Black, “‘A Question on My Mind’: Robert McCorkle’s 1844 Letter to Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies 49, no. 4 (2010): 83.

[37] Boyd and Black, “A Question on My Mind,” 90.

[38] George B. Handley, “Poetics of the Restoration,” BYU Studies 49, no. 4 (2010): 47.

[39] See Heber J. Grant, “Our Favorite Hymns,” Improvement Era, June 1914, 781–83. Oscar Winters was Heber J. Grant’s father-in-law.