Evan Stephens (1854-1930) was the musician who, more than any other, transformed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from an excellent stake choir to the world-famous professional musical voice of the Church. Our English hymnbook still carries 19 hymns written and/or composed by Stephens.
What follows is a selection from a talk Stephens gave in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, on 27 August 1916, during an evening in his honor upon his retirement as director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
I will read you a few verses from different selections to give you the idea of the practicability, in a sense, of our songs. We sing many hymns written by those not of us, that is, at present. We do not know whether they have believed in the gospel in the spirit world or not, but Wesley and Watts and many others who wrote their hymns before the Latter-day Saint church was organized or known of – we sing some of their verses and hymns and we think a great deal of them, and some of them seem to be as direct on the message of “Mormonism” as anything that has been written since.
The hymn with which we opened the services has to deal with peace – something very foreign, apparently, to the feeling and the spirit of the world today – but very often it is said the darkest hour is before day, and maybe the war-like time at present is to precede that of peace.
Behold, the mountain of the Lord
in latter days shall rise. …
That is no a mere figure of speech with us, it is a real fact.
Behold, the mountain of the Lord
In latter days shall rise,
On mountain tops, above the hills
And draw the wond’ring eyes.
That is with reference to you, my friends, or tourists, perhaps, who want to come here and see us and know something more about us and what we believe in. That is the message we care for, not our individual selves; so we draw the wond’ring eyes.
To this the joyful nations round,
All tribes and tongues shall flow:
‘Up to the hill of God,’ they’ll say,
‘And to His house we’ll go.’
The last verse:
No strife shall rage, or hostile feuds
Disturb those peaceful years;
To plow-shares men shall beat their swords,
To pruning hooks their spears.
No longer host, encount’ring host,
Shall crowds of slain deplore.
They’ll hang the trumpet in the hall,
And study war no more.
What I want to insist upon, impress over and over upon you, is that we mean what we sing, and we sing those songs to remind us of what we are and in what age of the world we are living in and what our work is.
We indulge in a little more sentimentality or sentiment in our second hymn today:
Come, dearest Lord, descend and dwell
By faith and love in ev’ry breast;
Then shall we know and taste and feel
The joys that cannot be expressed.
Come, fill our hearts with inward strength;
Make our enlarging souls possess
And learn the height and breadth and length,
And depth of thine unmeasured grace.
Now to the God whose power can do
More than our thoughts or wishes know,
Be everlasting honor done,
By all the Church, through Christ his Son.
You will see, if you ever got the wrong idea that the “Mormon” people worshiped Joseph Smith and not our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, you will see that you have been mistaken. Perhaps you have never thought so, but there is an idea of that sort prevalent.
We have another hymn that we think a great deal of because it expresses a doctrine that … I have found to be generally liked by the people of various denominations whom I have talked with, but they are slow to believe … Now, we believe that he is the Father, the real father of our spirits, not of our bodies in the flesh, but of our spirits; and for that reason we believe also that there is a mother in heaven …Now, then, this hymn was written by one of the lady members of this Church who was held in great esteem as a poetess and justly so in my estimation. Some of her hymns are among the most inspiring that I know:
Oh, my father, thou that dwellest
In the high and glorious place!
When shall I regain thy presence,
And again behold thy face?
Now, please do away with any sentimentalism and think that this is a mere figure of speech. We mean this in reality, in full reality.
In thy holy habitation,
Did my spirit once reside?
In my first primeval childhood,
Was I nurtured near thy side?
For a wise and glorious purpose
Thou has placed me here on hearth,
And withheld the recollection
Of my former friends and birth.
Yet oft-times a secret something
Whispered, You’re a stranger here,
And I felt that I had wandered
From a more exalted sphere.
I had learned to call Thee Father,
Through thy Spirit from on high;
But, until the key of Knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heavens are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal,
Tells me, ‘I’ve a mother there.’
Even some of our own people sometimes forget and take up the sweet sentimental thought of our mother – having a mother there meaning our earthly mother who has gone before – they think of her. That is not the intention of the hymn, you understand. It is the mother of our spirits in heaven. We may have an earthly mother also, “gone before and we hope to meet her.”
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
["In Honor of Professor Evan Stephens," Deseret Evening News, 23 September 1916, 3ix/1-7]
Elder Russell M. Nelson’s recent fireside talk on “Worthy Music” may be seen at KBYU (choose 28 April 2008 from the date drop-down, then 9:30 p.m.).