Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » John Menzies Macfarlane: Far, Far Away and Not So Long Ago

John Menzies Macfarlane: Far, Far Away and Not So Long Ago

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 14, 2008

Scottish-born convert John Menzies Macfarlane arrived in Utah in 1852. The 18-year-old taught school in Bountiful for a few months, then moved to Cedar City in the fall of 1853 where he took up farming and again taught school.

The federal census consistently describes Macfarlane as a farmer. His career, however, was far more varied than that suggests. He was Toquerville’s first postmaster in the late 1850, and served as Iron County’s first superintendent of schools in the late 1860s. He became a surveyor, exploring the possibility of diverting the Virgin River to irrigate lands near Hurricane, and aiding miners at Silver Reef and in Nevada’s Pahranagat district to establish their claims.

Macfarlane studied law. He was part of the defense team in John D. Lee’s trial for the 1857 massacre at Mountain Meadows. He became a justice of the peace, and was elected probate judge of Washington County in 1879. He resigned in 1885, going to Mexico to avoid prosecution for plural marriage (he had three wives, by whom he had had 26 children). Macfarlane returned to Utah only once, visiting St. George in 1892 for unsuccessful medical treatment; he died and was buried at St. George.

While many served as willingly as Macfarlane did wherever they were needed to build Zion, Macfarlane had one skill that set him apart from his neighbors: A talented choir director, Macfarlane organized his first choir at Cedar City as early as 1861. He took them by wagon 60 miles to St. George soon after that community’s founding, to encourage its struggling settlers. He organized a brass band for Cedar City and headed efforts to purchase a cabinet organ for the chapel there. Reports from southern Utah activities throughout the 1860s-’70s are dotted with references to Macfarlane’s “highly entertaining” concerts and his “rich” performances at church conferences. Such a performance at St. George in 1868 moved colony leader Erastus Snow to ask Macfarlane to relocate there. He did, to St. George’s delight and Cedar City’s sorrow.

While he remained based at St. George, Macfarlane made extended trips to Silver Reef to perform mining surveys. During such a trip in 1879, Macfarlane met the Rev. Lawrence Scanlan, sent from the archdiocese of San Francisco to minister to southern Utah’s Catholic miners. The two men became respectful neighbors and dining companions, despite their serious religious differences. When Scanlan mentioned his regret that he had no choir and only an unfinished chapel in which to hold services, Macfarlane tendered the use of the new LDS tabernacle at St. George and offered to teach his choir to sing the Latin mass. Scanlan was skeptical, but he provided Macfarlane with a copy of the desired music. On May 25, 1879, after two weeks of practice, Macfarlane’s 30-member choir sang for Scanlan and the Silver Reef miners, and probably for an equal number of curious Mormons, in the St. George tabernacle.

Still, despite his civic, religious and diplomatic successes, Macfarlane made his best known contribution one evening late in 1869. Desiring a new Christmas song for his choir, Macfarlane brooded over possible texts and tunes. With its bright melody and joyful message, the carol Macfarlane wrote that night has spread far from its Dixie birthplace, to the point where many have forgotten the carol’s relatively recent — and Mormon — origin:

Far, far away on Judea’s plains,
Shepherds of old heard the joyous strains:
Glory to God, Glory to God,
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth, good will to men!
Peace on earth, good will to men!

Sweet are these strains of redeeming love,
Message of mercy from heaven above,
Glory to God, Glory to God,
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth, good will to men!
Peace on earth, good will to men!

Lord, with the angels we too would rejoice,
Help us to sing with the heart and voice,
Glory to God, Glory to God,
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth, good will to men!
Peace on earth, good will to men!

Hasten the time when, from every clime,
Men shall unite in the strains sublime,
Glory to God, Glory to God,
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth, good will to men!
Peace on earth, good will to men!

 (Illustration: Macfarlane composing his new Christmas carol, The Instructor, December 1961)




  1. i love these stories

    Comment by tjk — December 14, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  2. Thanks, t. Blogging is the perfect format for stories like this and storytellers like me. I don’t know what people like me did before blogging, without the expensive luxury of a press … buttonhole strangers on street corners, perhaps, until we were hauled away for being public nuisances … 😉

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 14, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

  3. Funny comment, Ardis. :-)

    I do very much like this Christmas carol. I do very much dislike playing it on the organ, as I did today. Other than that minor detail, it’s one of my all-time favorites.

    I was reading a bit of the history of St. George, Utah, yesterday. What a blessing to the community to have a talented musician like Macfarlane among them.

    Comment by Amy T — December 14, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

  4. Ardis, thanks very much for this! It might sound silly, but I’m blown away to discover that this carol was a product of my own culture.

    Comment by J. Nelson-Seawright — December 14, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  5. So was I, J., when I first heard of JMM. Spread the word!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 14, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

  6. Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by rick — December 14, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

  7. I grew up in quite a musical home and my mom was very proud that this carol was one of ours. I loved getting some details about the man who wrote it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 14, 2008 @ 8:51 pm

  8. I grew up with this carol. Now that I know its origin, I’ll have to ask my non-member friends to see how many know it. I had just assumed it was much older.

    Comment by BruceC — December 15, 2008 @ 8:07 am

  9. Wonderful post, as usual Ardis.

    I had a roommate at the Y who was a direct descendant of Macfarlane He claimed that the spelling the family used (as opposed to MacFarlane) was because an ancestor was accused of sheep theft back in Scotland but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict (though just barely). The ancestor therefore wasn’t ejected from the clan, but forced to adopt the new spelling; sort-of a disfellowshipment from the clan.

    I called him sheep-thief for the rest of our time together.

    Comment by Chad too — December 15, 2008 @ 8:13 am

  10. Since learning of the LDS connection some years ago, I have occasionally wondered whether Far Far Away has made much a dent in the non-Mormon world. This post inspired me to do a little bit more research. On the one hand, just Googling the name of the song turns up countless sites at which you can find the lyrics and, occasionally, hear an MP3 recording. Looking for recordings through Amazon, however, is a different story. There are only two available: one from the MoTab, the other by a certain Nancy Hanson that was released by Deseret Book. So I suspect that the song remains a largely Mormon thing.

    Comment by Last Lemming — December 15, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  11. I guess I have known that FFAonJP was composed by a Mormon for quite a while and that it was unique to the LDS Hymnal. I, too, have wondered if it had ever moved outside of LDS circles. I really don’t think it has. Having lived most of my life in the mission field, I don’t think I’ve ever run across it outside of the Church. Too bad. It really is a great Christmas hymn.

    Comment by Steve C. — December 15, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  12. I haven’t run across it, either, except in Mormon contexts. (Too bad — the gentile world is missing a wonderful carol.)

    I do want to emphasize that what I wrote is true: the carol “has spread far from its Dixie birthplace” — it has, everywhere that English-speaking Latter-day Saints sing Christmas carols; it is no longer a local song performed by a St. George choir — and also that its Mormon origin has been forgotten by many of us who assume that it’s a traditional folk carol like “Joy to the World” or “The First Noel.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 15, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  13. John Menzies MacFarlaine is my great, great, great grandpa. I’m very proud that he a part of my rich Scottish heritage as well as Far far away on Judea’s plains being part of my heritage as well. Cheers.

    Comment by Preston Marshall — June 22, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  14. The story of this hymn is published in the book A Dixie Christmas. This story is titled Far Far Away In St. George by Mary Phoenix published by Publishers Place in St. George. 1988. John M Macfarlane is my husbands ancestor through his wife Ann Chatterley.

    Comment by Deanna — December 17, 2009 @ 10:44 am

  15. I had no idea! Thank you for sharing this. (This would be another I would love to print and share — please let me know if that would be ok — if not, I understand, too.)

    Comment by m&m — December 23, 2009 @ 12:57 am

  16. Be my guest, m&m, for private circulation but not for general distribution. (This is a slight reworking of one of my Salt Lake Tribune columns.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 23, 2009 @ 8:28 am

  17. I’m late to the party, but thanks for this post. I love the illustration too. (How long did it take to track that down?) I like how the artist used a mirror to capture both the task of composition and Macfarlane’s face. And how the old foot-pump organ and the St. George temple visible through the window give the viewer some sense of time and location. (Although I don’t believe the temple exterior was finished in 1869…) This is another gem.

    Comment by Clark — January 3, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

  18. Isn’t that a great cover? Late or not, I’m happy you discovered the post. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 3, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

  19. Being a lawyer decendant of John M. I just had to name one of my sons John Menzies Macfarlane. He has not appreciated it until recently. I too have loved bragging about John M. and his early tolerance for people of other faiths. His friendship to Father Scanlin was rewarded later when he was in hiding for polygamy and Father Scanlin helped to hide him. It pays to be kind to all and understanding toward other’s beliefs.

    Comment by Kelly Macfarlane — February 5, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

  20. I hope your son’s appreciation for his honorable name continues to grow, Kelly.

    Your report that Father Scanlan concealed a fugitive polygamist, if verifiable, would be a valuable addition to Mormon and Utah history. It does take me by surprise, though, knowing something of Father Scanlan’s opposition to plural marriage, and I would greatly appreciate further details as to date and circumstances, and a pointer toward any documentary support for the family story. Thanks in advance.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 5, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

  21. John M. Macfarlane is an ancester of my late husband although we aren’t sure how. As nearly as we could figure he was a cousin of my husbands great grandfather, James Macfarlane. The Macfarlanes have been and will continue to be a force to be reconed with. They do great things because they are great people

    Comment by Cheryl Macfarlane Wilson — July 23, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  22. It’s so wonderful to actually find my ancestor on the internet and to see his Christmas carol acknowledged. He was my great-great grandfather on my father’s side, and we used to sing this piece during our Christmas family parties.

    I once heard a medley of carols that consisted, I believe, of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Far,Far Away”. It was featured in a special Christmas concert in SLC. I just about stood up and cheered! My dad would’ve been so proud to see his great grandfather’s song presented so broadly and so well to a large audience.

    I’m very pleased to have the good fortune to claim John M. MacFarlane as my relative, and it’s gratifying to know that so many people recognize and enjoy his carol.

    Comment by Kate — November 28, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  23. @Clark, the St. George temple wasn’t even announced until 1871. Other anomalies in that cover: he awoke in the middle of the night to write the song, so he would have been dressed in his nightshirt. The only light they had would have been a rag in a dish of lighted oil, not a nice lamp. Quill pens had not been used for a century or so; he would have written the song with a stubby pencil. Family lore disagrees on whether or not he could afford to own an organ at that time. Even so, the family is thrilled with the cover; it was a treasured possession in my childhood home.

    Comment by Dana — March 5, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

  24. Wonderful post Ardis! Thank you, as always, for the “rest of the story.”

    Comment by andrew h — December 8, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

  25. Just stumbled on this page while searching for info to add to my family history. I am a descendent of J.M and Ann Chatterley. Knew he had written this Hymn. Didn’t he also write other Hymns?

    Comment by Sherlene — October 18, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

  26. Sherlene, we recently discussed another of John Menzies Macfarlane’s hymns, this one with text by Charles Lowell Walker:

    Dearest Children

    Comment by Amy T — October 19, 2014 @ 11:09 am

  27. I am writing an feature for Etched magazine (formerly elan) in St. George, and I am requesting permission from Ardis Parshall to cite this article as a source of information about John Macfarlane’s song.

    Comment by JJ Abernathy — October 7, 2015 @ 5:46 am

  28. Of course you may cite it, as long as by “cite” you mean list author, title and location, perhaps even providing a link — thank you for that. (If, however, by “cite” you actually mean “republish the entire column,” as some have done, then no, I do not give permission for republication.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 7, 2015 @ 8:50 am

  29. Thank you. Of course, I would not “republish the entire column.”

    I thank you for your excellent insight into the features you have written.


    Comment by JJ Abernathy — October 8, 2015 @ 6:12 am

  30. I agree that “Far, Far, Away on Judea’s Plain” has not taken hold in other churches but if it had, I think my oldest son would have had something to do with it. When he was 5 years old, he would sing it at the top of his lungs while sitting in a shopping cart. Other shoppers loved hearing him sing “Glory to God, Glory to God, Glory to God in the Highest” so cheerfully throughout the stores. People would stop us and comment on what a beautiful song it was.

    Comment by Patty Macfarlane — October 9, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

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