In recent years the attention on the tragedy of the Martin and Willie handcart companies seems to have increased. Their situation and rescue has been the subject of books and movies (and lessons) in a process that seems to mythologize the events. The current lesson (#35 in the Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine manual) explores the saving nature of the rescue, and compares that to the Savior’s atonement and our own responsibility to save those who are lost. The following poem helps to set the stage for this discussion, describing the difficulty and the courage necessary to face it.
When we discuss the Mormon trek, the focus is almost always on the physical suffering that many of the immigrants endured while traveling west. While certainly the physical struggle to cross the plains (covered in Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 34) was difficult, the pioneers suffered in other ways also. For example, many left family behind, generally compounded by their conversion to Mormonism, and often assuming that they would never see their family members again. The poem below describes just such a situation.
Many of our hymns have a martial air to them, often echoed in their messages. We are called “Christian Soldiers,” marching on to war, and we call to the “Elders of Israel” to join the campaign. And often the Priesthood is called “God’s Army” in an attempt to emphasize, I suppose, its size and power and the brotherhood we often feel in the priesthood. The following poetic excerpt not only captures some of that brotherhood, but also explains clearly that this “army” is not a military, but something far different, more like what is described in Lorenzo Snow lesson #17. The author of this excerpt finds this difference not in marching or shouting, but in the singing of a hymn of Zion.
We often make assumptions about the past based on our perspective today, and the current Gospel Doctrine lesson about Brigham Young and succession in the presidency is no exception. We know that the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve becomes the new Prophet, and it is easy to assume that this was always understood. But following the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, that question was far from clear among many members of the Church. Even six months later, when this poem was written, those members who followed Brigham Young often assumed that he would remain president of the Quorum of the Twelve, rather than replace the prophet.
[I’m sorry for the delay in getting this posted. I’ve been traveling a lot the past week.] The martyrdom of Joseph Smith was a shock to his people and one that, as their successors, we still remember and still feel. But in the days following his assassination, the reaction of Church members was one of outrage. While we today see the martyrdom as “sealing his testimony,” then the members of the Church saw this as a failure of the state, with a feeling that the state was somewhat complicit in these murders. But despite that the brothers were immediately seen as martyrs, equal to those of antiquity. The following poem is perhaps the most immediate poetic reaction, written on July 1st and published that same day in the Times and Seasons. It was subsequently republished in all three of the other existing LDS publications that Fall and was published as a broadside as well. It was later published in other…
When we speak of unity it is often difficult to understand exactly what we need to do to achieve it. The teachings of Lorenzo Snow in the current Priesthood/Relief Society lesson manual (lesson 16) try to address this, but I’m not quite sure that they give the specifics needed. Should we be united politically? What does such unity mean? There are many elements of society today that are by nature divisive, and politics is clearly one of them. Does the gospel offer a better way to decide political questions, a more united way? The author of the following poem seems to think so.
The doctrine of eternal marriage, discussed in D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson 31, is clearly tied to the priesthood (the authority by which such marriages are performed) and to salvation, for salvation in the eternal kingdom is dependent on sealing, both to parents, to spouse and to children. The following poems addresses the role of sealing in our understanding of priesthood and of salvation.
Our doctrine of performing ordinances on behalf of the dead is unusual among the religions of the world. Many religions pray for the dead, Mormonism actively performs the same saving ordinances that the living must have. These teachings were introduced during the Nauvoo period, and baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi at that time, until the basement of the Temple was complete and ordinances could be performed there. At that point Mormonism learned that these ordinances belonged in the Temple, and this understanding was captured in the following poem by William Wines Phelps, written for the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple in 1846:
For many members of the Church the most intense period of “faithful, energetic service in the Kingdom of God” during our lives is our missionary service. So it is no surprise that many of the ideas expressed in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow lesson #15 are characteristics that we associate with missionaries—service as “ambassadors of Christ,” and “helping others receive salvation” are quickly listed as things that we too should adopt in our service in the Kingdom. Often we use missionary service as an example for how our own service should be conducted. But, this doesn’t mean that missionary service is the only service we perform as Church members, or even that service should be restricted to service in the Church. But it does mean that missionary service is a useful example. The following poem discusses the rigors of missionary service—as an example:
I’ve long thought that Nauvoo was a kind of Mormon Camelot, a shining, hopeful city built on consistent, righteous principles that fell apart amid internal dissension. While I wouldn’t push the analogy too far, I think it kind of works on the surface, especially given the standard portrayal of Nauvoo in lessons like Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson 29 and in the following poem.
Despair is, I think, one of the most difficult parts of the human condition. While the sources of our despair today are very different from those suffered by the early saints, the feelings are just as real and difficult. Where do we turn for peace? The following poem explores the despair we all feel—the same discussed in Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson #28—and provides an answer to it.
What do we mean when we talk about help from God? Our religion, and lesson 14 in the Lorenzo Snow manual, teaches us that we should rely on God for the help. Yet when we think about how this help actually works, it isn’t about God doing things for us, at least not usually, its about the guidance and strength that he gives us so that we can do what needs to be done ourselves. That is the strength that is described in the following poem.
We often assume in our perception of trials and challenges that the trials aren’t our fault, that these challenges are something that happens to us instead of something that happens as a result of our choices. While it is certainly true that some trials—natural disasters for example—are not by our choice, others are at least the consequence of our own choices. And, in some cases, we actually choose to undertake things that we know will be difficult. Does that mean that they are not still trials? Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson 27 illustrates this. The Church members during the Kirtland and Missouri periods were sometimes innocent of what they were being persecuted for. But other times they brought the persecution on themselves. And, in the case of Zion’s Camp, they chose to do something difficult, even though they knew that it would be hard.
What is the purpose of the Relief Society? While we think we understand its purpose based on what the women’s organization does today, the things that Relief Society does have changed radically since its founding in 1842. And the Lorenzo Snow lesson on the Relief Society shows this change, since his comments reflect a focus on charity and providing for the poor that we don’t hear much today—since that function is now handled by the welfare program. But before the welfare program was developed in the 1930s, the Relief Society WAS the welfare program. It collected and stored foodstuffs for later distribution to the poor, seeing to the welfare of everyone it could serve. This role can also be seen in the following hymn, which appeared in LDS hymnals in Lorenzo Snow’s day.
Our understanding of missionary work has changed and evolved substantially over Mormon history. Where we know assume that missionaries are young, during the 19th century missionaries were more mature and married. Where the sacrifices of missionaries today are usually parts of life postponed, during the life of Joseph Smith they meant real hardship for families, the missionary begging for food and even danger of physical assault. Still, then, as now, those brought to a knowledge of the gospel were grateful, as was the author of this poem.
What should the priesthood mean to us? How should it influence who we are and how we act? These questions are part of nearly every Mormon lesson on the priesthood these days, and lesson 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine manual is no exception. And I think the following poem fits this basic topic well.
I frequently hear claims that many church members are leaving the Church, that those who have been raised in the Church, or who have converted have become disillusioned. For a variety of reasons members do leave the Church, and it may be that they are leaving faster now than they did 50 years ago; although we don’t have the data to say for sure. It is clear that this has happened throughout the history of the Church, sometimes in greater numbers than in other times. D&C gospel doctrine lesson #24 addresses this, urging members to “be not deceived.”
It is nice to see our duties described in a way that makes clear their role in our communities. Take tithing, for example. Lorenzo Snow’s teachings in the current Priesthood/Relief Society manual (lesson 12) clearly cover our obligation, outlining how much we must provide and how tithing is a commandment of the Lord. But the lesson doesn’t put obedience to this commandment in context. It doesn’t show how it works in our everyday lives and what its effects are on our community. I think this poem does put the commandment in context.
I occasionally see from both inside and outside of the Church those who suggest that Mormons are somehow against education. While there certainly have been some anti-intellectual ideas floating around the Church almost from the beginning, the general tenor of Church teachings have always been supportive of education, and D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson #23 is no different. Church leaders have repeatedly, since the days of Joseph Smith, made it clear that education is not just good, it is part of the very purpose of life. Today’s poem sees education as a crucial element in the progress of man:
One of the most difficult concepts for many (perhaps even most) Church members in U.S. culture today is the idea that we should let the Lord direct our lives. Part of the difficulty lies in our desires, which may be righteous, but also may not be what the Lord would have us do. How often do we ask what he wants us to do? Another source of doubt about this concept is knowing what the Lord would have us do, even if we have asked. We sometimes feel like we are asking and not getting an answer (although I suspect this is usually our own fault somehow). Not knowing the answer leads us to a choice: either do nothing or do what we think best instead. In the following poem, John A. Widtsoe, an Apostle from 1921 to 1952, echoes the pleas for guidance that we all feel or should feel.
The word of wisdom is strongly connected with who we are as Mormons—it has become as much an identifier as pork is for Jews and for Muslims. We emphasize the importance of this teaching in lessons like the current Gospel Doctrine lesson (#22), and we teach it to kids almost from birth. But while section 89 was received by Joseph Smith in 1833, it really didn’t become an identifying characteristic of Mormons until past 1900 and, as I understand it, was only included among the Temple recommend questions in the 1950s. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that it was early in the 20th century that we first have songs for children, like the following poem, that encourage keeping the word of wisdom. In this poem keeping that commandment is not only encouraged, it explicitly says we keep it as part of our identity; Because We’re Mormons.
When we think of the second coming of Christ and the things that will happen in the last days, frequently our focus is on the prophesied destruction and the “signs of the times.” But as the focus of D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson 21 shows, we need not put our focus there, but instead we can focus on what will happen to the righteous and the millennium that will be ushered in by the second coming. That same kind of focus can be seen in the following hymn by W. W. Phelps:
It seems like a few verses in the D&C are all we know about the life after this. Lesson 20 of the Gospel Doctrine manual covers D&C 76, 131, 137, and part of 132, and in these scriptures we discover a structure for the hereafter, a segregation of the children of God into groups based on the lives they live here on earth. But the descriptions in scripture are far from specific—after all, how much information can be provided in a few hundred words? I don’t know if the poem below adds much or not. Written by Orson F. Whitney, named an apostle just two years after this was published, this poem is dense, employing sophisticated language and imagery to portray what is in the scriptures. Does it give additional insight? You tell me.
We tend to talk about the benefits of the temple more than the obligations. In the temple we may gain knowledge, revelation, be sealed to our families, and give our relatives who have passed on the opportunity to accept necessary earthly ordinances—all important elements described in the Lorenzo Snow manual lesson 10. But these benefits come with some obligations (beyond those required to qualify for a recommend), such as the obligation to attend the temple periodically, support temple work, do genealogical work, and even work in the temple when called. On a practical level, these obligations are quite different from the expectations experienced by the Saints in Nauvoo and understood by them before the Nauvoo Temple was built, as can be seen by the following poem.
How thin is the veil? Might we remember bits of our experience there? Could a melody we heard there be familiar to us here? (assuming we even heard melodies there). The idea of the pre-existence and of the other elements of the plan of salvation, discussed in D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson 19, are a source of endless wonder and speculation. We just don’t know much about what our existence before and after this life was and will be like. But, perhaps nothing says more about our belief in the plan of salvation than our fascination with speculating about what the life before this one was like, and what the life after this one will be like.
Object Lesson: The Gold Coin Supplies: Either a $1 coin (such as the recently issued gold coin) or a half-dollar coin. A small bag of dirt. A few miscellaneous objects, such as a pen or paper clip. Lesson: The teacher holds up the coin and asks the class, “What is this?” (Wait for the class to answer: It’s a coin.) “What is its value?” (Either a dollar or 50 cents, depending on the coin type.) Teacher drops the coin on the ground. Kicks it. Steps on it. Lifts up the coin again. “How much is it worth now?” It’s still worth a dollar, isn’t it? Teacher takes a pen or paper clip, and scratches the side of the coin. Covers it in dirt. Lifts it up. Asks again, “How much is it worth now?” It’s still worth a dollar. You are children of God with infinite value. You are worth an infinity of these coins. Please don’t forget this. Some…
The sacred and eternal nature of families is regularly taught and believed among Mormons today. But it wasn’t seen as quite as obvious to Church members in the middle of the 19th century. The teaching that our family relationships extend past this life and are modeled on the family relationship we had before this life developed throughout the life of Joseph Smith, culminating with the King Follett discourse (given just before his death) and with the temple ordinances. The teachings of Lorenzo Snow on this subject (seen in the Lorenzo Snow manual chapter 9) thus represent a very developed understanding of how these relationships fit in the plan of salvation. For many earlier Church members, however, it seems to me that these teachings were mostly comfort on the loss of loved ones, especially children. And it is in comforting those who have lost children that the eternal nature of families can be seen. An example is the poem selected for this…
We are a temple-building people. Today we are more removed from the process than ever. Where Mormons once donated money, materials, time and effort to building temples in Kirtland, Nauvoo, St. George, Salt Lake and elsewhere, we participate less and less in the process, first no longer providing materials, then over time less and less labor, and more recently we no longer even have fundraising specifically for building temples or any other building. So we might today be excused from understanding completely how much building temples was part of the life of early members of the Church. Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson 18 addresses the doctrine behind temple building, and the poem I’ve chosen for this lesson adds a millennial tone to the doctrine.
Its hard to find poetry about tithing! I suppose since tithing wasn’t emphasized as much by the Church before the beginning of the 20th century, Mormon poets didn’t focus on the concept. Or, it might simply be that the subject matter doesn’t work well in poetry; certainly the word “tithing” isn’t very poetic, leaving me with visions of bad poetry in which every line ends with a present participle. Its enough to set my ears ringing! But, I suspect that tithing is such a basic concept that my chronological review of poetry, still mired in the late 1840s, just hasn’t come across the poetic reactions to the principle. But I did finally come across the following poem, which gets close, mentioning “the outlay of your money for the Church.”