Finding Mormon poetry that talks about Christ is not hard at all. In fact, of all the Mormon poetry that I’ve read (considering only poems written by Mormon authors), the number of poems about Christ surpasses by far the number of poems about any other single individual. If this is a good proxy for what Mormons believe, then there is no doubt: Mormons worship Christ, not Joseph Smith. But the final Lorenzo Snow lesson for the year focuses on the mission of Christ, mentioning also that he has visited the earth in the latter-days and will come again. That particular mix of ideas is actually quite difficult to find in Mormon poetry (or at least in what I’ve collected so far). The following poem is nice, and its short, and actually does mention many (but not all) of the ideas in the lesson.
There is no shortage of poetry about Joseph Smith, the subject of lesson 23 of the Lorenzo Snow manual. But Snow’s views on Joseph Smith are focused not on his martyrdom or on his role as the initial prophet of this dispensation. Instead, Snow focuses on Joseph Smith’s character—an unusual subject for the early Mormon poetry I’ve collected so far. But the following poem does briefly mention some of Joseph Smith’s character traits:
Its been a decade or more since practicing “random acts of kindness” became a kind of fad here in the U.S. I’ve always liked the concept, and I’ve practiced it on occasion. But I don’t think its a substitute for the kind of doing good to others that Lorenzo Snow manual lesson #22 is talking about. While “random acts of kindness” might be a starting point, its no substitute for “mourning with those that mourn” or “comforting those that stand in need of comfort.” Perhaps the difference between the random, transitory nature of the “random acts of kindness” fad and the true care for others spoken of in Mosiah is behind what William W. Phelps is describing in his poem below:
I’m usually a little uncomfortable when we discuss the evils of the world, as happens in Teachings of Lorenzo Snow lesson #21. Its not that I don’t see evil in the world, but its that I also see good there. And the optimist in me even sees some progress—the world getting better than it was. The following poem makes me wonder if the whole dichotomy of the world v. the kingdom of God should be seen in another way. Is the problem not, in part, that the world doesn’t see life from an eternal perspective? Is the world focusing on the here and now, on real circumstances and in the process forgetting and frustrating the better ideals that the gospel promotes? Or is it vice versa in some way? Can we even draw a neat line between the world and the kingdom of God, putting all the world on the side of evil?
We often use the phrase “a marvelous work and a wonder” to describe the restoration and subsequent spread of the gospel across the earth. And this work is marvelous and wonderful, as lesson 20 of the Lorenzo Snow manual discusses. As a story it has conflict and drama and surprise. And it is, I think, easy to see the hand of God moving the work forward. It may be, however, that the work doesn’t move forward in a straight line, continually growing and improving. Our history shows, I think, some steps back, times when problems led many to leave the Church and the number of active, participating members diminished. So, given that, what does “a marvelous work and a wonder” mean? The following poem is an excerpt, the first four stanzas of a longer, politically-oriented poem describing the Mormon situation in the 1880s—one of the most dramatic times in Mormon history. Still, despite the difficulties, its author opens the poem…
Lorenzo Snow lesson 19 highlights several purposes for missionary work in its collected statements from Snow’s discourses. Clearly bringing the gospel to others is the chief purpose of this effort. Snow also suggests in these statements that missionary work is a sacrifice that missionaries make when they are sent out into the world. Perhaps the sacrifices that Snow himself made taught him the value of missionary work and the sacrifices made. Snow’s sister evidently thought these sacrifices were important, since she made them the subject of the following poem.
The world today treats leaders with honor and deference, giving those who manage to become leader of government and society the benefits available to the rich, while shielding them from many of the cares of life, and, at times, from their own errors and sins. Lesson 18 in the Lorenzo Snow manual makes it clear that such benefits and deference are not what Church leadership are about (and I wonder if governmental and other leadership shouldn’t also avoid these trappings). Instead, Church leadership is about serving others, and whatever benefits from that leadership should come after this life. The following poem says as much about the Church’s second prophet and president, Brigham Young.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Character not only matters, Lorenzo Snow seems to indicate in the material included in lesson 8 of the Lorenzo Snow manual, it is how we are judged, how the Lord “knows our heart.” This prioritizes, of course, character development, which is, in the end, the focus of this lesson. While I don’t have a Mormon poem that discusses character development itself, I have found several that do discuss what character traits are important, including this one.
In Mormonism we talk a lot about concepts like “enduring to the end” and “faithfulness in times of trial” (the subject of the current lesson in the Lorenzo Snow manual). We teach that trials are a necessary part of life, burdens that we need to pass through in order to learn the lessons of life and build our abilities for the next life. Children face these same lessons as they become independent of their mothers (and fathers), as Mormon poet Coral J. Black explores in the following poem.
Chapter 6 of the Lorenzo Snow manual discusses President Snow’s teachings about perfection—his encouragement of gradual improvement, diligence and patience and the role of repentance in obtaining perfection. One of the concepts that stands out to me is the requirement for patience and endurance in reaching perfection. These themes can also be found in his sister’s poem that follows.
Lorenzo Snow’s teachings on man’s destiny and on the nature of God have often been met with both criticism from non-Mormons and wonder from members. His couplet about the past of God and the future of man (mentioned in the lesson), encapsulates an important part of Mormon theology, something that has been even encapsulated in our poetry, such as in his sister Eliza’s well-known poem, today sung as the hymn O My Father. But that hymn is not the only poetical expression of these teachings.
When Lorenzo Snow speaks of the Holy Ghost in the material included in chapter 4 of the lesson book, it is clear that he sees the spirit as a great help to us. “It would be simply foolish indeed to expect the Latter-day Saints in these days to comply with the celestial law… except they were sustained by a supernatural power.” The idea that there is a power in the Holy Ghost is something that isn’t mentioned often. So when I saw the following poem, it resonated with me.
The concept of enduring to the end can be somewhat vague. Much of what it requires depends on environment and circumstance — what is required for you to endure to the end is perhaps different than what will be required of me. But the underlying gospel principles are known, and the following poem by Eliza R. Snow talks about some of them.
[I am traveling for the 4th annual Brazilian Mormon Studies Conference — please excuse the delay in posting this.] From the beginning of Mormonism, Baptism has been a central focus of our preaching. Baptism must be done in the correct manner and by the correct authority, and should be followed by the gift of the Holy Ghost. And this is the focus of the second lesson in the Lorenzo Snow manual used in Priesthood and Relief Society. Of course, our baptisms have always been accompanied by hymns, and the following hymn appeared in Emma Smith’s first hymnal in 1835 and in subsequent hymnals through 1841, but disappeared thereafter. It was likely sung at baptisms during the first decade of Mormonism (perhaps even the baptism of Lorenzo Snow).
I love the first lesson in the Lorenzo Snow manual. It seems like Snow’s love of learning is second to none among latter-day Prophets. And his statements about learning are wonderful: “Though we may now neglect to improve our time, to brighten up our intellectual faculties, we shall be obliged to improve them sometime. We have got so much ground to walk over, and if we fail to travel to-day, we shall have so much more to travel to-morrow.”
For the past year each Monday afternoon my “Literary BMGD” posts have appeared each Monday — perhaps confusing some readers who have wondered exactly what these posts were all about. And those who clicked on them to read what they had may have been surprised to find that they were… poetry. What exactly is BMGD and why poetry? If I am going to continue these posts, I should probably explain: