Monday, September 5, 2016

Hymns in the News

Last week an article appeared in Salt Lake City's Deseret News about the opening of the 1000 Songs of Zion Museum in Enoch, Utah, dedicated to Mormon Elder Joel Hills Johnson (1802-1882). As indicated in the museum's name, Johnson wrote more than a thousand poems, many of which have been sung as hymns in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the last 150 years.  He was also the founder of the city of Enoch

His best-loved hymn is still sung in LDS circles, though, like many of their hymns, is not known in other denomination. Some of its theology would seem out-of-place in other settings.  The mountain imagery is taken from passages in the Book of Isaiah, and also would have referred to the mountains of Utah where many of the followers of Joseph Smith ended up (more on that below).

High on the mountain top
A banner is unfurled.
Ye nations, now look up;
It waves to all the world.
In Deseret's sweet, peaceful land,
On Zion's mount behold it stand!

For God remembers still
His promise made of old
That he on Zion's hill
Truth's standard would unfold!
Her light should there attract the gaze
Of all the world in latter days.

His house shall there be reared,
His glory to display,
And people shall be heard
In distant lands to say:
We'll now go up and serve the Lord,
Obey his truth, and learn his word.

For there we shall be taught
The law that will go forth,
With truth and wisdom fraught,
To govern all the earth.
Forever there his ways we'll tread,
And save ourselves with all our dead.

Joel H. Johnson, c.1853
Ebenezer Beesley, 19th cent.

You can read more about Johnson and this particular hymn at the blog of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and also view the Choir singing it. Unfortunately, the largest online hymn sites do not have much to say about Johnson: has no biographical information and only lists four of his hymns, and he does not appear at all on the Cyber Hymnal site. For those interested in further exploring LDS hymnody, the denomination has put their latest hymnal online, Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1985).

Two additional stanzas of Johnson's text do not appear in that book, or on the choir's video, but were included in earlier Mormon hymnals:

Then hail to Deseret!
A refuge for the good,
And safety for the great, If they but understood
That God with plagues will shake the world
Till all its thrones shall down be hurled.

In Deseret doth truth
Rear up its royal head;
Though nations may oppose,
Still wider doth it spread;
Yes, truth and justice, love and grace,
In Deseret find ample place.

In this hymn, those of us not familiar with LDS doctrine might assume that "Deseret" is used in the sense that other hymnwriters might use "Jerusalem" or "Zion," but its meaning is far more concrete. The State of Deseret was established by Mormon settlers in 1849 (Johnson was an elected member of its legislature) and proposed to the United States as an official territory, but the federal government named it Utah instead, based on a Native American name. Further efforts to establish a territory named "Deseret" continued until 1872.  Johnson was writing of the hoped-for Deseret, an actual place on this continent where his people would be safe and prosperous. The name persists to our day as an old name for Utah, such as in the Deseret News, which brings us back to where we began. 

Eight Years Ago: Amy Beach

Seven Years Ago: Amy Beach

Four Years Ago: Hymns in the News (coincidentally, about another LDS hymn!)

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