Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Advent 2009: “A Stranger Star,” Orson F. Whitney, Evan Stephens
 


Advent 2009: “A Stranger Star,” Orson F. Whitney, Evan Stephens

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 05, 2009

Orson Ferguson Whitney (1855-1931), grandson of early church leader Newel K. Whitney, had talents and interests in literature, theater, and epic poetry. He served multiple missions for the church, one of which involved editing the Millennial Star, and was the long-time bishop of the ward where I now live (yeah, I know that matters most to you, Dear Reader!). He was author of the call for the development of Mormon arts, promising that we would someday have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”

Evan Stephens (1854-1930), almost exactly Whitney’s contemporary, was born in Wales and learned to play the organ and sing after his emigration to Utah. Long-time director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he was responsible for developing that body from a decent stake choir to the international sensation of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. A prolific composer and lyricist, a number of his hymns remain in our current hymn book. We continue as a church to sing in four-part harmony when most churches have gone to unison in large measure because of the influence of Stephens and his preference for Welsh harmony.

With two powerhouses like that, how could their combined hymn fail? Well … I don’t know about the music, but the words are so ponderous that I can’t imagine them being sung by a congregation. A choir, maybe. Maybe. And only the first verse really qualifies as a Christmas hymn.

From the 1927 Latter-day Saints Psalmody, here is “A Stranger Star.”

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A stranger Star that came from far, To fling its silver ray
Where, cradled in a lowly cave, A lowlier infant lay;
And led by soft sidereal light, The Orient sages bring
Rare gifts of gold and frankincense, To greet the homeless King.
O wondrous grace! Will Gods go down Thus low that men may rise?
Imprisoned here the Mighty One, Who reign’d in yonder skies?
Hark to that chime! What tongue sublime Now tells the hour of noon,
As on a dying world descends Life’s life – God’s greatest boon?

Proclaim Him, prophet harbinger, Make plain the mightier’s way,
Thou sharer of His martyrdom! Elias? Yea, and Nay.
The crescent moon, that knew the Sun, Ere stars had learn’d to shine;
The waning moon that bath’d in blood, Ere sank the Sun divine.
“glory to God! good will to man! Peace, peace!” triumphal tone.
“Why peace?” Is discord then no more? Are earth and heav’n as one?
Peace to the soul that serveth Him, The monarch manger-born;
There, ruler of unnumbered realms; Here throneless and forlorn.

He wander’d thro the faithless world, A Prince in Shepherd guise;
He called his scattered flock, but few The Voice could recognize;
for minds upborne by hollow pride, Or dimm’d by sordid lust,
Ne’er look for kings in peasant’s garb, For diamonds in the dust.
Wept He above a city doom’d, Her temple, walls and tow’rs
O’er palaces where recreant priests Usurp’d unhallowed pow’rs.
I am the Way, the Life, the Light!” Alas! ‘twas heeded not.
Ignored – nay, mock’d God’s Messenger And spurned the gift He brought.

O bane of damning unbelief, Thou source of lasting strife!
Thou stumbling stone, thou barrier thwart The gates of endless Life!
Or love of self and Mammon’s lust! Twin portals to despair,
Where bigotry, the blinded bat, Flaps thro’ the midnight air.
Thro’ these, gloom-wrapt Gethsemane! Thy glens of guilty shade
Griev’d o’er the sinless Son of God, By gold-bought kiss betrayed;
Beheld Him unresisting dragg’d, Forsaken, friendless, lone,
To halls where dark-brew’d Hatred sat On Judgment’s lofty throne.

As sheep before His shearers, dumb, Those patient lips were mute;
The clamorous charge o taunting tongues He deigned not to dispute.
They smote with cruel palm a face which felt yet bore the sting;
Then crowned with thorns His quivering brow, and mocking, hailed Him “King!”
Transfixt he hung, O crime of crimes! The God whom worlds adore.
“Father, forgive them!” Drained the dregs; Immanuel was no more.
No more where thunders shook the earth, Where lightnings, ‘thwart the gloom,
Saw that unconquered Spirit spurn The shackles of the tomb.

Far-flashing on its wings of light, A falchion from its sheath,
It cleft the realms of darkness and Dissolved the bands of death.
Hell’s dungeons burst, wide open swung The everlasting bars,
Whereby the ransomed soul shall win Those heights beyond the stars.
Far-flashing on its wings of light, A falchion from its sheath,
It cleft the realms of darkness and Dissolved the bands of death.
Hell’s dungeons burst, wide open swung The everlasting bars,
whereby the ransomed soul shall win Those heights beyond the stars.



5 Comments »

  1. Perhaps Whitney’s epic poetry is better suited for recitation (or silent reading) than singing.

    Comment by Justin — November 5, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  2. I know I’ll have to duck and run for cover to admit, in this company, that I absolutely despise “The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close,” (hymn 37) but I’m simply not a fan of Orson F. Whitney’s poetry. On the other hand, I do like Evan Stephens, and I love Welsh music. This piece is a fair example of that genre and has some nice harmonies, and would sound lovely sung by a Welsh choir. (But perhaps with other words. What other text is in “8′s & 7′s”?)

    Comment by Researcher — November 5, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  3. If I am not wrong, the first verse at least comes directly from the “Elect of Elohim” in Whitney’s epic work “Elias.” While the hymn may not be singable, I personally think that it is tragic that we as a people so frequently pass around banal emails written in doggerel prose, but few remember “Elias” for some of its gems. For instance, the “Elect of Elohim” contains a few lines, appearing before the portion quoted in the hymn, about the the Savior’s charge which I find inspiring:

    “Go forth, thou chosen of the Gods,
    Whose strength shall in thee dwell!
    Go down betime and rescue earth,
    Dethroning death and hell
    On thee alone man’s fate depends,
    The fate of beings all.
    Thou shalt not fail, though thou art free–
    Free, but too great, to fall.”

    Comment by Ed Tuttle — November 5, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

  4. Thank you, Ed. Re-reading it not as a hymn, but imagining a very powerful reader declaiming it (as Justin suggests) gives me some idea of more successful poetry. It would take an extremely skillful reader, though, to pull it off, I think, and as a culture (not just Mormon, but wider), we’re out of touch with that style of performance.

    Researcher, “With Wond’ring Awe” seems to fit, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 5, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

  5. I’ve been reading “Elias” lately; all of these lines are directly from there. The entire work is well done, if a bit over the top at times. I’m quite enjoying it.

    Comment by Ariel — October 30, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

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