Zion’s Hymns as Sung by the Pioneers

This article originally appeared in Vol.50, No.1 (2003) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Richard H. Cracroft

“Oh what songs of the heart we shall sing all the day, when again we assemble at home.”

The of the Latter-day Saints have always been crucial to the spiritual expression of individual Saints as well as to the collective expressions of the Mormon people. Hymns—defined as sacred and spiritual “songs of the heart” addressed to deity—gladden the soul by enabling formal, lyrical expression of one’s most profound spiritual feelings. But they also do much more, for hymns assist in organizing and interpreting LDS history,2 framing LDS beliefs, and expressing LDS hopes, expectations, and ideals. Hymns, then, are vital in transforming the Latter-day Saints into more than a sect, denomination, or church, for hymns provide part of that spiritual and cultural glue that has congealed the Latter-day Saints into a people

Nevertheless, it seems to me that, despite the affinity present-day Saints may feel with their forefather and foremother Saints, the hymns as sung by the Mormon pioneers meant something compellingly different to them than the same hymns means to us or will mean to our greatgrandchildren.

As this closer look at a handful of nineteenth-century LDS hymns of Zion makes clear, the men and women who pioneered and settled Utah Territory between I847—1890 brought to these hymns a remarkably different perspective. . . . The impassioned lyrics of these hymns, set to soul-stirring , resonated and reverberated within and among the pioneer Saints with an immediacy, pertinence, and anticipation regarding recent events, familiar circumstances, and imminent expectations.

The pioneer Saints hymned the events of the Restoration and the modern-day gathering of Israel; they heralded the imminent millennial reign of Jesus Christ; they cheered the restoration of the holy priesthood as part of the restoration of all things; they mourned their martyred prophet while being empowered by his witness; they prayed for freedom from oppression and persecution; they urged one another to keep the vision pure, to remain true to the faith; they sang of their Latter-day Saint doctrines and beliefs, from “work for the dead” and temple sealing for the living to consecration, tithing, the Word of Wisdom, and the plan of redemption and exaltation; they shouted praises for the newly revealed holy scriptures and continuing communications with the heavens; they sang of their duty to call on the inhabitants of Babylon to repent, be baptized, and flee to Zion; and above all, they praised the tender mercies of their God who had led his chosen Israel to Zion, “freedom’s last abode,” and they stood “all amazed” at the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. . . .


An examination of the perennially popular Mormon hymns “The Morning Breaks/’ “Redeemer of Israel,” “The Spirit of God,” “O My Father/’ “Praise to the Man,” and “Come, Come, Ye Saints” makes evident that Mormon hymns reveal not only the pioneer Saints3 exultation in their restored theology, but also their strong faith and remarkable confidence in the inevitable triumph of the kingdom of God and their collective vision of themselves as God’s chosen Israel.


Written by Parley P Pratt (1840) and set to the tune “Hudson/3 composed by Mormon convert George Edward Percy Careless (1864), “The Morning Breaks” expresses in moving lyrics Mormon joy at the recent Restoration of the gospel. It stirs the heart of the convert and helps keep vivid among the Saints God’s “strange act” (Isa. 28:21) in leading, individually and collectively, the children of the promise out of obscurity and sin into salvation and righteousness:

The morning breaks, the shadows flee;

Lof Zion’s standard is unfurled!

The dawning of a brighter day

Majestic rises on the world.

Thus Zions light is bursting forth To bring her ransomed children horned

We sing these words with fervor but not with quite the same fervor of men and women who have laid their all on the alters of a brand-new Zion.


The Saints” vibrant optimism, confidence, and gratitude to the Father for touching common lives, all expressed in “The Morning Breaks,” arc likewise evident in “Redeemer of Israel-” Written by W W Phelps, the hymn first appeared in 1832 in The Evening and the Morning Star, a Jackson County, Missouri, LDS newspaper* This adaptation of Joseph Swain’s “Oh Thou, in Whose Presence My Soul Takes Delight”5 underscores the concerns of the Saints with recent mob oppression in Jackson County, persecution to which Phelps and his printing press had fallen prey. As with other hymns, however, this hymn is layered with Mormon history, incorporating as it does new meanings arising from the later persecutions of the Saints—the hostilities in Missouri and Nauvoo, the forced exodus into the Mountain West, the U.S* military invasion in the Utah War of 1857-1858, and the 1874- 1890 polygamy raids on Mormon Zion by the U.S* government- Note in the second and third verses the multiple layers of meaning as they would occur to Saints fleeing the latest persecution;

We know he is coming

To gather his sheep

And lead them to Zion in love,

For why in the valley Of death should they weep Or in the lone wilderness rove?

How long we have wandered As strangers in sin.

And cried in the desert for thee

Our foes have rejoiced When our sorrows they’ve seen,

But Israel will shortly be free.

Typically the Saints end the hymn with this confident ‘ rallying cry in the fourth verse:

Fear not, and be just,

For the kingdom is ours. The hour of redemption is near6


The assassination of the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. and his brother Hyrum on June 27, 1 S44? immediately spawned a number of hymns in honor of the murdered prophet, thereby introducing a new theme into Mormon hymnody. Of these hymns in honor of the Prophet Joseph, the most popular continues to be “Praise to the Man,” by W W Phelps.7 The wrathful line in the second verse that formerly read, “Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins, stain Illinois while the earth lauds his fame,” was gentled in the 1927 hymnal to “Plead unto heav’n, while the earth lauds his fame.”* The original wording of that line, along with the tone of the hymn, reflects an immediacy and a personal and group pain that present-day Saints, while sympathetic, may not fully comprehend.

Written and published within a few weeks of Joseph’s death, the hymn recounts recent events in Mormon history, reveals something of the in-your-face belligerence that characterized the Gentile—Mormon conflict, and makes clear the determination of the harried and harassed Saints to press on despite the loss of their prophet. They sound their confidence in the eventual triumphant day when “mark our words,” they seem to say, “millions shall know ‘Brother Joseph’ again.”

The hymn was originally sung as a dirge, slowly and mournfully, to the tune “A Star in the East,” rediscovered in the 1950s by the Ames Brothers and recorded in their best-selling “My Bonnie Lassie.” The hymn enabled pioneer Saints not only to mourn their fallen leader but also to use any occasion of its singing to testify to those who “knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) of his prophetic virtues and divine calling. Whether or not “millions” would know Brother Joseph again, thousands of Saints who had known him well would bring to the hymn the immediacy and grief arising from firsthand acquaintance with the murdered prophet-— emotions not as possible 150 years after the tragedy at Carthage.


At the heart of the Mormon hymns are Zion and an intense longing for a refuge at once tangible and spiritual. Even before the Latter-day Saints fled to the Rocky Mountains, the idea of Zion was firmly fixed in their imaginations. Present-day Saints are hard pressed to comprehend what it meant to put down one’s roots at last in the Zion of God and raise one’s voice in praise to God for the security of “our mountain home so dear.”9 As children of Israel, the Saints planted their ensign on Ensign Peak (Mt. Zion) and thereby took part in fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah. In the music of Ebenezer Beesley and the words of Joel Hills Johnson, they sang from their valleys in the Wasatch while looking up to towering, sheltering mountains:

High on the mountain top

A banner is unfurled«

Ye nations, now loo^ up;

It wanes to all the world*

In Deseret’s sweet, peaceful land,

On Zions mount behold it stand! 10

Weary with their settle-plant-and-flee existence, the pioneer Saints sang, no doubt with a different kind of fervor and with greater relief than contemporary Saints can muster, Charles Penrose’s “O Ye Mountains High”:

In thy mountain retreat, God will strengthen thy feet;

Without fear of thy foes thou shah tread;

And their silver and goldt as the prophets have told,

Shall be brought to adorn thy fair head.

Praising the mountain retreat, “sacred home of the prophets of God” with its “vales of the free,” President Penrose, who had himself made the trek from England to Utah and eventually held a position in the First Presidency, reminds the Saints of the first Zion:

O Zion, dear Zion – home of the free,

That thou wert forced to fly to thy chambers on high,

Yet well share joy and sorrow with thee.11

Perhaps no other hymn so lyrically expresses the feelings of the Saints about Zion than “For the Strength of the Hills,” wonderfully adapted from English poet Felicia D. Hermans by Edward L. Sloan to fit like a glove the history and circumstances of the Saints:

For the strength of the hills we bless thee, Our God, our fathers’ God;

Thou hast made thy children mighty By the touch of the mountain sod.

Thou hast led thy chosen Israel To freedom’s last abode;

For the strength of the hills we bless thee. Our God, our fathers’ God.

At the hands of foul oppressors,

We’ve bourne and suffered long;

Thou hast been our help in weakness.

And thy pow ’r hath made us strong.

Amid ruthless foes outnumbered,

In weariness we trod;

For the strength of the kills we bless thee; Our Godour fathers’ God.

Thou hast led us here in safety Where the mountain bulwark stands

As the guardian of the loved ones Thou hast brought from many lands,

For the rod; and for the river,

The valley’s fertile sod}

For the strength of the hills we bless thee, Our God, our fathers’ God.12 . . .


After ten years of being left alone in the mountains, by which time the Saints were able to put down permanent roots, encroachment began. On July 24, 1857, as the Saints celebrated in Big Cottonwood Canyon their tenth anniversary of arriving in Utah, they were informed by Abraham O. Smoot and Porter Rockwell that the U.S. Army was on the march to invade and put down a rebellion in Utah Territory: the Saints were at war with the United States, and the Utah War of 1857-58 was on. President Young recalled the missionaries, recalled the settlers from the perimeters of the territory, and put the Saints on a war footing.

Local squads of the Nauvoo Legion drilled and paraded through the centers of Utah’s villages and hamlets; the local contingent of Pitt’s Brass Band paraded up and down the square—if they had one; and they all sang “Up, Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion,” another hymn by Englishman Charles W Penrose and the rallying war song of the Utah War, sung to the tune of “The Red, White, and Blue.” Note in the hymn the specific references to atrocities against the Mormons, and pay special attention to both the fierce wording applied to the federal troops and the treasonous words of the last stanza, in which Penrose proclaims, “Soon ‘the Kingdom’ will be independent.” I show in brackets the gentling emendations of the 1985 hymnal:

(1857 version, as printed in 1863) (1985 redaction)

Up awake, ye defenders of Zion!

The foe’s at the door of your homes;

Let each heart be the heart of a lion,

Unyielding and proud as he roams.

Remember the wrongs of Missouri;

[trial of Missouri]

Forget not the fate of Nauvool [the courage of Nauvoo]

When the God-hating foe is before ye,

[the enemy host is .. .]

Stand firm, and be faith fid and true.

[Chorus added using last two lines of each verse]

By the mountains our Zion’s surrounded; [By His power is Zion . . J Her warriors are noble and brave,

And their faith on Jehovah is founded. Whose power is mighty to save.

Opposed by a proud, boasting nation [In each soldier a brave heart is beating] Their numbers, compared, may be few, [Tho our]

But their union is known through creation,

[We’ll not rest till our foes are retreating] And they’ve always been faithful and true*

Shall we bear with oppression forever? [Entire verse omitted]

Shall we tamely submit to the foe,

While the ties of our kindred they sever? Shall the blood of the prophets still flow? Noi The thought sets the heart wildly beating;

Our vows; at each pulse we renew,

Ne’er to rest till our foes are retreating, While we remain faithful and true!

Though, assisted by legions infernal.

The plundering wretches advance, [plundering foemen]

With a host form the regions eternal,

We’ll scatter their hosts at a glance!

Soon “the Kingdom ” will be independent; In wonder the nations will view The despised ones in glory resplendent; [Our Zion in . . .]

Then let us be faithful and true! B,


The Deseret Sunday School Union had an incalculable influence on the hymning of the Latter-day Saints, The Sunday School hymn reflected a sea-change in Mormon hymnody made necessary by the rising generation of errant or straying youth who “knew not Joseph” (Ex, 1:8) or Brigham and who had not been called upon to sacrifice for the kingdom of God. In teaching the youth of Zion to “choose the right/”14 to live righteous lives, the hymn became an aid in teaching Latter-day Saint values and lifestyle as well as theology. While present-day Saints can identify with numerous teachings in the hymns, many members distance themselves from certain quaint, outdated, and often unintentionally humorous hymns.

The Sunday School, formally established by the Church in 1866, featured, for the next century, weekly hymn practice, which included church-wide teaching of a hymn of the month, often newly minted. The new hymn would be published along with other new hymns in die Juvenile Instructor, also founded in 1866 as the official publication of the Deseret Sunday School Union Board. The Sunday School not only placed the didactic hymn at the stage center for much of the pioneering and settlement era but also stimulated the writing of hymns throughout the Church.

The fervor of the call to attend Sunday School, held at ten each Sabbath morning (sacrament meeting usually being held at seven each Sunday evening), is seen in the several somewhat-dated Sunday School songs still included in the 1985 hymnbook: “Welcome, Welcome, Sabbath Morning/’ “Thanks for the Sabbath School,” “We Meet Again in Sabbath School,” and “Come Away to the Sunday School*” Gone forever is “Never Be Late,” one of the favorite but timeworn Sunday School hymns of the settlement era:

Never be late to the Sunday School class, Come with your bright sunny faces;

Cheering your teachers and pleasing your God—

Always be found in your places r Never be late, never be late;

Children remember the warning:

Try to be there, always be there Promptly at ten in the morning.15

Joseph L. Townsend and William Clayson, two Sunday School workers in Payson, Utah Valley teamed up to write dozens of Sunday School hymns. To their stirring hymns, many of them militant and martial, such as “Hope of Israel” and “O Thou Rock of Our Salvation,” the Deseret Sunday School Union added such hymns of moral uplift and caution as “Scatter Sunshine,” “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today,” and “I’II Be a Sunbeam for Jesus.”

President Spencer W Kimball would recall with pleasure a sentimental bit of doggerel, “Don’t Kill the Birds,” which he had learned in Sunday School nearly eight decades earlier as a child on the Arizona Mormon frontier. Though the hymn was long ago dropped from the hymnal and may have made little impression on others, its admonitions deeply and personally impressed young Spencer and later influenced his adult attitudes about the environment and human stewardship:

Don’t kill the little birds, that sing on bush and tree,

All thro’ the summer days, their sweetest melody.

Don’t shoot the little birds! The earth is God’s estate,

And He provideth food for small as well as great.16

Similarly, Mormon boys up and down the settlements learned and sang, often in Sunday School opening exercises, in soprano or falsetto, Evan Stephen’s “A ‘Mormon’ Boy” The hymn became a part of those youths’ lives, and they never forgot the experience of singing their righteous pride at being Latter-day Saint hoys destined to enjoy, as deacons, more priesthood power “than the Pope at Rome”:

A “Mormon” boy, a “Mormon” boy,

I am a “Mormon” boy.

I might be envied by a king,

For I am a “Mormon” boy.17

Another of the frequently sung Sunday School hymns to come from the early Sunday Schools and Primary associations is Eliza R. Snow’s “In Our Lovely Deseret,” set to the tune of George E. Root’s popular Civil War song, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” about a captured Union soldier—“In my prison cell I sit, thinking, Mother dear, of you”13—which Sister Snow transformed into a distinctively Mormon hymn, now dated by its parochial views:

In our lovely Deseret, Where the Saints of God have met,

There’s a multitude of children all around.

They are generous and brave;

They have precious souls to save;

They must listen and obey the gospel’s sound.

Chorus: Hark! Hark! Hark! tis children’s music—

Children’s voices, ok, how sweet,

When in innocence and love,

Like the angels up above.

They with happy hearts and cheerful faces meet

That the children may live long

And be beautiful and strong,

Tea and coffee and tobacco they despise,

Drink no liquor, and they eat

But a very little meat;

They are seeding to be great and good and wise.19 . . .

As the century waned, the pioneers grew older, the settlements became towns and cities, the influence of the East encroached, and Zion was threatened with increasing inactivity among the young people. Attempting to interest and activate a flagging youth, the Sunday School began publishing, late in the century hymns like “True to the Faith” by Evan Stephens.20 The congregation would pledge to be “true to the faith that our parents have cherished, / True to the truths for which martyrs have perished” and, in another popular Sunday School hymn, would stand up to declare themselves in singing “Who’s on the Lord’s side? Who?”

As we have seen, the hymns of the pioneer Saints spoke directly to them in tones, accents, and images that described their daily lives, recent history, tribulations as a people, and their faith in God. Hymns helped the Mormon pioneers to see themselves as children of God who were hard at work fulfilling an ancient prophecy, building Zion, and making meaningful sacrifices for the kingdom of God. In a way peculiar to their times and seasons, the Mormon pioneers gleaned strength and courage, resilience and tenacity from the association-laden hymns. Their vision renewed by their worship services, of which hymns were a part, they returned to their homes to fight the good fight, stave ofF the latest drought, dig yet another well, plant a promising crop, and “hold to the rod, the iron rod”.21 Somehow, singing their hymns, their songs of the heart, helped bring their Zion cause, their people’s turbulent past, their formidable present, and their visionary destiny into saintly focus and enabled them, once more, to make their chorus swell, “All is well! All is well!’22

This article originally appeared in full in the book Nearly Everything Imaginable: The Everyday Life of Utah’s Mormon Pioneers, (137-55), edited by Ronald W Walker and Doris R. Dam (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, BYU Studies, 1999).


1 Oh, What Songs of the Heart” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 286 (hereafter cited as HymnsJ.

2 For example, “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer,” in Hymns, no. 26.

3 See also Mary D. Potter, “Doctrines of Faith and Hope Found in Emma Smith’s 1835 hymnbook”. BYU Studies 37, no. 2 (1997-98): 32-56.

4 Hymns, no. 1.

5 George D. Pyper, Stories of Latter-day Saint Hymns (Salt Lake City: Deseret Near Press, 1939), 96.

6 Hymns, no. 6.

7 Pyper, Stones of Latter-day Saint Hymns, 97—100.

8 Karen Lynn Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 1988), 55-56.

9 Hymns, no. 33.

10 Hymns, no* 5.

11 Hymns, no. 34; Deseret News 1997—98 Church Almanac (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1996), 44.

12 Hymns, no. i5.

13 Hymns, no. 248; Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns, 255. The hymnal in which this song first appeared is Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 12th ed. rev. (Liverpool: George (X Cannon, 1863), 13-74.

14 Hymns, no. 239.

15 Deseret Sunday School Song Book: A Collection of Choice Pieces for the Use of Sunday Schools, and Suitable for Other Occasions, 3d ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1899), 158.

16 Deseret Sunday School Song Book, 6th ed, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1907), 185; Spencer W. Kimball, “Strengthening the Family—the Basic Unit of the Church,” Ensign (May 1978): 47-48.

17 Deseret Sunday School Song Book, 122—24.

18 Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns, 307.

19 Hymns, no. 307.

20 Hymns, no. 254.

21 Hymns, no. 274.

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