Lit Come Follow Me: D&C —Joseph Smith History 1

In the second lesson for this year, the Come Follow Me curriculum turns to Joseph Smith-History in order to include a brief look (over two lessons) at the origins of the restoration. For most Church members, the story is very familiar, and the principles taught are well-covered material. And, as you might imagine, the events of the First Vision have been told many times in poetry. But, that was not always true—Mormon poets didn’t cover the First Vision until the saints arrived in Utah.

Below I’ve included three poems that treat the First Vision. Two of them are from some of the best known of Mormon poets. But, don’t stop there. The final poem, a sonnet, is the best, and one of my favorites of all Mormon poetry.

Eliza R. Snow’s Historical sketch of the Life of President Joseph Smith

The earliest poem I found is from 1856 — found in Eliza R. Snow’s first collection of poetry. Snow started writing a poetic epic poem to tell the life story of Joseph Smith in the early 1840s, completing an introductory poem that was published in 1843. She later wrote two “chapters” of the poem covering Smith’s life until the organization of the Church, and then apparently abandoned the project. The whole poem was published in her 1856 collection. The following is a portion of the second chapter that covers the events of the current Come Follow Me lesson:

Historical sketch of the Life of President Joseph Smith

CHAPTER SECOND

by Eliza R. Snow (1856)
Vermont, a land much fam’d for hills and snows
And blooming trees, may boast the honor of
The Prophets birth-place.
Ere ten Summer’s suns
Had bound their wreath upon his youthful brow,
His father with his family remov’d;
And in New York, Ontario County, since
Call’d Wayne, selected them a residence;
First in Palmyra, then in Manchester.
Religion was the fashion of the day—
Religious vot’ries and religious sects,
From time to time, like bees in Summer, swarm’d.
In Manchester a great excitement rose,
And multitudes of converts join’d themselves
Unto the sects; and Joseph’s tender mind
Was deeply and most solemnly impress’d
With the importance of eternal things.
But then, amid the strange confusedness
Of cleric strifes and proselyting schemes,
His mind was left to wander in the dark
Impenetrable maze of doubt and deep
Anxiety; to ascertain the one
Of all the various sects, that God approv’d.
The recklessness of childhood was but just
Diverging into youth—his tender years
Were yet unripen’d with the radiance of
His fifteenth Summer’s sun.
“Which way is right?”
Was the inquiry of his anxious mind;
When loud as though an angel’s whisper came
Upon the breeze, a clear suggestion spoke
With more than mortal meaning, to his heart—
“If any man lack wisdom, let him ask
Of God who giveth lib’rally to all,
Upbraiding not.”
All human aid was vain—
No earthly counsel could avail him aught;
And in his heart he purpos’d to obtain
The wisdom from above.
One beauteous morn,
When not a cloud was seen to hover o’er
The broad horizon—when the vernal sun
Pour’d his reviving rays on Natures crest,
Already deck’d with sweetly scented flowers—
He sought retirement in the woodland shade;
In secret there to lift his heart and voice
To God, in prayer. In all his life before,
He had not shap’d his thoughts and his desires
For vocal supplication. In the depth
Of nature’s wild retreat—where secrecies
Of thought pour’d forth, could only reach the ear
Of Him to whom the secrets of all hearts
Are known—he spread the burthen of his soul
Before the Lord. He scarce had bow’d himself
In humble posture, when, with iron grasp
A power invisible laid hold on him.
His prayer was interrupted, for his tongue
Was suddenly in speechless silence chain’d.
Thick atmospheric darkness gather’d round—
Destruction seem’d inevitable, and
Into the deep recesses of his heart
Despair was fastening its poison’d barb.
Then, with a mighty effort of his mind,
He rais’d his struggling heart to God, and sought
Deliverance from above; when suddenly
A pillar, brighter than the noon-day sun,
Precisely o’er his head, descending, fell
Around him; and he felt himself unbound
And liberated from the terrors of
The strong, unearthly grasp with which he was
Most fearfully enchain’d.
No sooner had
The glory from on high around him shone,
And the demoniac grasp disappear’d, than
He saw two glorious personages stand
Above him in the air; surrounded with
The light that had envelop’d him. With joy,
Wrapt in astonishment, he heard himself
Address’d. Address’d by whom? Address’d by what?
Was that indeed a voice he heard; or was
Imagination, with its frenzied harp,
Playing upon the organs of his mind?
Was that the speech of fancy which he heard?
And was it the soft echo of the strains
Of phantom-music on his ear? And were
The glorious figures which he saw, the forms
Of airiness and wild delusive thought?
O no: the heavens had verily unfurl’d
The sable curtain which defines the bounds
’Twixt earth and immortality; and he
Was gazing on celestials, and he heard
The voice of the Eternal.
One of the
Bright personages whom he saw referr’d
Him to the other, and address’d him thus,
“Joseph, this is my well beloved Son,
Hear him.”
To know his duty, was indeed
The burthen of his mind—the theme of all
His soul’s solicitude. Accordingly,
No sooner had he got possession of
Himself, with power to speak, than he inquir’d,
“Which of the sects is right?” for yet the thought
That all were wrong, had not occurr’d to him.
And what was his astonishment, to hear
The being who address’d him, say, “None of
The various sects are right; and all their Creeds
Are an abomination in my sight.”
He said that the professing world was all
Corrupt. “They with their lips draw near to me,
And while their hearts are far away, they teach
For doctrines the commandments of mankind.
They have the form of godliness, but they
Deny the power thereof.”
A second time
He said to Joseph that he should not join
Himself to any sect. Much else was said;
And then the heavens were curtain’d from his view.
With all the frankness, and simplicity,
And unsuspecting nature of his young
And inexperienc’d heart; like Paul of old,
He soberly declar’d the novel fact—
Novel to modern ears—that he had seen
A heavenly vision; and the consequence
Fell heavy on him!
Did those Christian friends,
Whose pious zeal had prompted them before,
To proffer him a fostering guardianship,
Approach him then, with hearts—with bosoms, warm
With charity and tenderness? Did those
Professing to believe the record of
The visions, prophecies, and gifts of Saints
In ancient times; rejoice with him to hear
That God was still the same to answer prayer—
To open heaven, and show the secrets of
Eternity? Ah! no. the very fact
That he had seen a vision, broke the bond
Of friendship; and an awful avalanche
Of persecution fell upon him, hurl’d
By the rude blast of cleric influence!
Contempt, reproach, and ridicule were pour’d,
Like thunderbolts, in black profusion, o’er
His youthful head; as if to blast the bud
Of character—to wither reputation, ere
It could be strengthen’d by maturing years.
And all for what? Ah! wherefore all this aim
Of high and low, to strike a blow at one
So young, so innocent, and so obscure?
Because that he, in faith and confidence,
Pray’d unto God, and God had heard his prayer;
And, faithful to His promise as in times
Of old, had pour’d the blessings out to him
According to his faith. Such was his crime—
Such was the character of that misdeed
Which the religious world reported such.
But what avail’d the malice of the world
With him? He’d seen a heavenly vision, and
Had heard the voice of Him who does not lie;
And all the powers of darkness, speaking through
The human tongue, could never teach him to
Unknow what he authentically knew
His eyes had seen—his ears had heard—he’d felt
The power of the Eternal Deity.
How sweet the joys of conscious innocence:
How peaceful is the calm within the breast,
When conscience speaks in approbative tones
Softer than notes that swell the harpsichord,
And testifies within, that all is well
With what a noble, heavenly feeling does
The bosom swell; and how composedly
The spirit rests and feels secure from all
“The strife of tongues;” reposing on the firm,
Immovable, unchangeable defence—
The bulwark of the favor of the Lord.

•    •     •     •     •

Orson F. Whitney’s The Jubilee of Zion

The second poem is also associated with an attempt to write an epic poem telling the story of Mormonism. In 1880 Orson F. Whitney, then a reporter and city editor for the Deseret News, wrote “The Jubilee of Zion”, a long poem celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Church. Whitney would leave on a mission the following year, edit the Millennial Star, and eventually be called as an Apostle in 1906—less than two years after publication of his epic poem, “Elias, an Epic of the Ages.”

The following excerpt from “The Jubilee of Zion” also retells the story of the first vision:

From The Jubilee of Zion

by Orson F. Whitney (1880)

Far down the mystic river of the Mind,
A fleet of recollections slowly wind—
A chain of gems on Fancy’s pinions brought,
Historic views on Mem’ry’s canvas wrought.
The foremost is a scene where forests grow,
Where flowers bloom and springtime breezes blow,
Where sweet toned birds send up their matin lay,
And lave in th’ golden fountain of the day.
Deep in the bosom of a woodland shade,
Where Solitude her secret home hath made,
A simble lad, his sunburned temples bare,
Pours forth a guileless soul to God in prayer.
A sudden cloud of midnight depth profound,
Now hurls him breathless to the trembling ground;
Speechless he’s stricken, but with voice of will
Calls on his God, and supplicates Him still.
His prayers are heard. Lo! shining o’er his head
A dazzling light! Where hath the darkness fled?
A pillar brighter than the noonday sun,
When on the purest sky his race is run,
Falls, gently as the earth-reviving dew,
And opens to his gaze a heavenly view,
Two Beings, of a glory to defy
The pow’r of words stand ‘twixt him and the sky.
And is’t a voice, or music low and clear,
Whose hallowed sweetness charms the listner’s ear
Like murm’ring waters from a mossy rim,
“Joseph! ‘Tis my Beloved Son, Hear him!”

•    •     •     •     •

William Mulder’s Restoration

The author of this third poem, William Mulder (1915-2008), was an historian and English professor at the University of Utah, who is perhaps most remembered for his important history of the Scandinavian Mormon immigration, “Homeward to Zion.” He served an LDS mission in Holland and served in the US Armed Forces during World War II before he obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard in American Civilization.

The following poem is, as I said above, on of my favorite Mormon poems. Written a couple of years after Mulder’s return from his mission and after his marriage, but before his military service, the poem’s structure as a sonnet is somewhat unusual among Mormon poetry. It is also much more modern than the previous poems, using what I think is a very devotional and worshipful tone. It will, I think, add immensely to this lesson:

Restoration

By William Mulder (1941)
Perhaps I’ll never see the Father face to face,
But I have bowed my head where Joseph knelt
And, moving lips in silent prayer, have felt
The quiet rapture of that sacred place.
The trees in their familiar whisperings
Bore witness, and the very atmosphere
Confirmed what I dared only hope before:
I felt the truth the inward vision brings.
The glory of the grove still lights my way
As it once lighted Carthage, Liberty,
Nauvoo, the westward march – and constantly
The vision shines upon the church today.
The Restoration comes each spring again
To bring me close to God and to my fellow men.

.

6 comments for “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C —Joseph Smith History 1

  1. Yes, when searching for information about him, “The X Files” definitely muddies the water (esp. because Fox Mulder’s father is named “William”).

    He’s a fascinating person, one who should not be forgotten.

  2. While dog walking Sunday evening and once again being dazzled by the last pink rays of sunlight sweeping across the mountain tops where I live, a few of the lyrics of Orson F. Whitney’s hymn “The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close” popped into my head. I hurried home to refresh my memory of all the words.

    Whitney is, of course, most famous for the lyrics to Savior, Redeemer of My Soul. However, The Wintry Day never advanced from the 1948 LDS Hymnal to our current 1985 edition. Whitney’s winter setting poem is haunting yet a reassuring voice for the new Zion in Utah. Perhaps the reason his hymn would eventually lose traction is these lines from the fourth verse:

    The wilderness, that naught before would yield,
    Is now become a fertile fruitful field.
    Where roamed at will the savage Indian band,
    The templed cities of the Saints now stand,
    And sweet religion in its purity
    Invites all men to its security.

  3. But, Lee, “The Wintry Day” is right there as big as life in No. 37 of the 1985 hymnal, though “savage Indian band” was changed to “fearless Indian band.” Despite the remarkably fine imagery of the first verse, outside Utah the hymn is recognized as primarily the homesick thoughts of a Utah missionary experiencing a winter in the British isles. Many non-Utah Mormons are not homesick for Utah and don’t like the text after the first verse. I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t make the next cut to a new hymnal for two reasons: the text and the melodic range being too wide for most of our congregations to sing. When I needed to make an arrangement for non-Utah use, I rewrote part of the second verse to continue the imagery of the first and make it a message about the gospel rather than about Utah. You can see my text in Ron Staheli’s ward choir arrangement (very different from mine) at https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.233.104/68f.fad.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/The-Wintry-Day-revised-and-in-F-Score.pdf

    Kent, Thanks for your post. I’ll treasure Mulder’s sonnet.

  4. Kent, I intended to send you information about another book which you may choose to reference for your series here. “A Certain Testimony” by R. Paul Cracroft (1979, Deseret Press) is “A Mormon Epic in Twelve Books” (473 pp).

    The relevant portion on the first vision is probably longer than Eliza’s above. I will type it in if you would like, or leave to your discretion.

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