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Oh, WHOSE Mother?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 04, 2010

So I came across this poem about Mother in Heaven the other day:

O My Mother, thou that dwellest,
In thy mansions up on high,
Oft I think that I remember
How you bade your child goodbye.
How you pressed me to your bosom,
Bade me a true son to be,
Ere I left my home eternal,
To accept mortality.

How you gave me words of counsel,
Guides to help my straying feet:
How you taught by true example
All of Father’s laws to keep.
While I strive in this probation,
Well to live the Gospel truth,
May I merit your approval
As I did in early youth.

‘Tis recorded in your journal
How you stood by Father’s side,
When by power real, eternal,
Thou wast sealed a goddess bride.
When through love and truth and virtue,
Ere in time thou didst become,
In your high exalted station,
Mother of the souls of men.

When of evil I’ve repented,
And my work on earth is done,
Dearest Mother, loving Father,
Pray forgive your erring son.
When my pilgrimage is ended,
And the victor’s wreath I’ve won,
Dearest Mother, to your bosom,
Will you welcome back your son?

Can o’ Worms Alert: You may want to stop here, enjoying the poem or not, as your taste dictates.

I had heard this poem somewhere, who knows where, and decided it would make an easy and least painful Mother’s Day post. The poem, called “O My Mother,” was printed in a 1919 issue of the Millennial Star. Thought I’d do what I usually do when I find a short piece that stands on its own: Look up the life dates of the author, find one or two interesting facts about that person’s life, write a brief introductory paragraph, and post the poem.

Easy, right?

Hmmm.

I had no trouble identifying the man who was listed as the poem’s author in the 1919 publication (Lester Hyrum Jones, 1906-1996, of Provo, Utah). But then …

What’s this? The descendants of Cordelia Morley Cox (1823-1915) claim that she is the author? Because she copied it into her diary in her very own handwriting? Well, that’s certainly no proof that she wrote it – I can copy the Gettysburg Address into my diary in my very own handwriting, and what does that prove? But Cordelia did record it in her diary in 1907, which means at the very least that Lester wasn’t its author in 1919.

Then there’s a version of the poem that Susanna Morrill included in her article on the Religion and Culture Web Forum, “The Mother in Heaven and Eve: Models of Femaleness in Early Mormonism” (Nov. 2004). She found the poem in the journal of Jane Kartchner Morris (1888-1977; the journal runs from 1916 to 1971). Dr. Morrill assumes Jane wrote the poem (“she self-consciously re-worked Snow’s poem in her undated prayer to the Mother in Heaven”). But we already have an indication that the poem was on paper by 1907, which means that Jane’s recording of it even as early as 1916 is a late-comer.

Another article (Robert Sayers, “Sing Anything: The Narrative Repertoire of a Mormon Pioneer,” Journal of the Southwest 29:1 (Spring 1987), 41-79; not available on the web except by JSTOR subscription) attributes the poem to Mormon doggerel-songster/folk poet Peter Howard McBride (1850-1934, Martin handcart company survivor who settled in Arizona). Sayers says the piece was composed for the 1892 Pima “Old Folks Party.” As presented in Sayers’ article, the “O My Mother” lines are the second half of a longer “Old Folks Song.” Sayers, evidently not a Mormon, doesn’t recognize those lines for what they are (“there is little about ‘The Old Folks Song’ that marks it in an obvious sense as a Mormon work” {huh?!!!!!}) and he treats the relevant lines as though they spoke of one’s earthly, biological mother (the poem’s theme is “the continuity between the generations,” he writes). Just for fun, here is the first part of “The Old Folks Song,” a downer if I ever heard one, now that I’ve passed 50 myself:

O, the old folks have come, let us greet them with a smile,
And from all their dear faces, and from them all sorrow beguile.
O, the wrinkled and gray, they are friends that we love,
Though they are now on their way to their home up above.
But while they remain, let us do our part
To banish a pain and cheer a sad heart;
That each silver hair and each wrinkled brow
May have not a care, while they meet with us now.

O, the old folks we see were not always as now,
With their silvery curls and their care-worn brow;
Though their springtime is passed, and their summer’s no more,
They will anchor at last on the bright golden shore.
Examples of manhood our fathers were then,
The strongest and bravest and noblest of men;
Our mothers the loving and virtuous and fair,
Stood by their side all their trials to share.

O, the old folks, the dear ones, the tried and true,
In the battles of life they have fought their way through;
And the faint and the weary that fell by their side,
By their kind loving hands laid away when they died.
And proud are their children to know that they came,
To parents so great on the pages of fame;
O, my Mother thou that dwellest in thy mansions on high,
Oft I think I still remember when you bade your child goodbye.

There seems to be little continuity between the two halves. Frankly, without seeing McBride’s manuscript I’m not at all sure that Sayers didn’t misunderstand his source and run together two poems that McBride never intended to be sung together. At the very least, though, for our purposes, the date for this poem is pushed back to 1892, bumping Lester and Jane, but not Cordelia, out of contention.

Also in 1892 (March 1), William Chase Harrison (1852-1936, of Spanish Fork most of his adult life) contributed the poem to the Juvenile Instructor, with the title “Companion Poem to Eliza R. Snow’s ‘Invocation.’” That could easily have served as the model for all the appearances of the poem in diaries and later magazines and explains how it was distributed to so many widely separated people. Peter could even have found it there in time to incorporate it into his Old Folks Day celebration. But does William’s name on the poem here prove that he wrote it? I don’t know. The attribution to Lester in the 1919 Millennial Star looked just the same, and we know he didn’t write it.

Finally, there an intriguing comment from Heidi on an old Juvenile Instructor (the blog) post reporting that this poem is found in Reddick Newton Allred’s Hawaiian mission journal. I haven’t found that source yet, but if true, that would push the date of the poem to about 1855 – which seems a little iffy to me, because then we’d have to explain how the poem lay dormant for so many years, then jumped simultaneously into the awareness of both Peter in Gila, Arizona, and William in Spanish Fork, Utah. Without evidence either way, I’m inclined to think that Reddick copied the poem in 1892 or later onto a blank leaf in his journal. Stranger things appear regularly in those blank back pages of archived journals.

Maybe we can spot a genealogy of influences by looking at the variations. Here I have reproduced the poem as it appeared in the 1919 Millennial Star, indicating the variations in the various other sources (ignoring minor differences in punctuation, capitalization and spelling).

Lester Hyrum Jones (1919) serves as the base text
William Chase Harrison (1892) is variant (A)
Cordelia Morley Cox (1907) is variant (B)
Peter Howard McBride (1892) is variant (C)
Jane Kartchner Morris (19–?) is variant (D)
Reddick Newton Allred (18–?) is variant (E)

O My Mother, thou that dwellest,
In thy mansions up on high,

(B) In the mansion up on high
(C) In your mansions up on high
(D) In thy mansions on high,

Oft I think that I remember

(A) Oft methinks I still remember
(B) Oft me thinks I still remember
(C) [omitted line; see *Note]
(D) Oft I think I still remember
(E) Oft me thinks I still remember

How you bade your child goodbye.

(A) When you bade your child good bye.
(B) When you bade your child goodby.
(C) [omitted line]
(D) When you bade your child goodbye.
(E) When you bade your child goodbye.

How you pressed me to your bosom,

(A) How you clasped me to your bosom,
(B) How you clasped me to your bosom
(D) [omitted line]
(E) How you clasped me to thy bosom,

Bade me a true son to be,

(C) Bade me a true child to be
(D) [omitted line]

Ere I left my home eternal,

(A) Ere I left my Father’s mansion,
(B) Once I left my Father’s mansion
(D) [omitted line]
(E) E’er I left my fathers Mansion

To accept mortality.

(A) To dwell in mortality.
(B) To dwell in mortality.
(D) [omitted line]
(E) To dwell in Mortality.

How you gave me words of counsel,

(D) How you gave me council [sic]

Guides to help my straying feet:

(A) To guide aright my straying feet;
(B) To guide aright my straying feet
(C) Guides to aid my straying feet
(D) To guide my straying feet
(E) To guide aright my straying feet,

How you taught by true example
All of Father’s laws to keep.
While I strive in this probation,
Well to live the Gospel truth,

(A) How to learn the gospel truth,
(B) How to learn the Gospel’s truth
(D) How to learn the gospel truth
(E) How to learn the gospel truth

May I merit your approval

(E) May I merit thine approval

As I did in early youth.

‘Tis recorded in your journal

(B) [In heavens journals] Tis recorded
(E) ‘Tis recorded in thy journal

How you stood by Father’s side,

(B) You stood by Father’s side,

When by power real, eternal,

(A) When by powers that are eternal
(B) When the powers that are eternal
(C) When by power, zeal, eternal
(D) When by powers that are eternal,
(E) When by powers that are eternal

Thou wast sealed a goddess bride.

(A) Thou wast sealed his goddess bride;
(B) Thou wast sealed his Goddess bride
(D) Thou wast sealed his Goddess Bride,
(E) Thou wast sealed his Goddess Bride

When through love and truth and virtue,

(A) How by love and truth and virtue
(B) How by love and truth and virtue
(D) How by love and truth and virtue
(E) How by love and truth and virtue

Ere in time thou didst become,

(A) E’en in time thou did’st become
(B) And in time thou did’st become
(D) E’en in time though [sic] didst become,
(E) E’en in time thou didst become,

In your high exalted station,

(A)Through your high, exalted station
(B) Through your high exalted station
(C) In thine high, exalted station
(D) Through your high exalted station
(E) Through thy high exalted station,

Mother of the souls of men.

When of evil I’ve repented,

(D) When from evil I’ve repented

And my work on earth is done,

(C) And the work on earth is done,
(D) And my life on earth is done,

Dearest Mother, loving Father,

(A) Kindest Father, loving mother,
(B) Kindest Father, Loving Mother,
(D) Kindest Father, loving Mother,
(E) Kindest Father – loving Mother,

Pray forgive your erring son.

(C) Pray forgive Thy erring one.
(E) Pray forgive thine erring son

When my pilgrimage is ended,
And the victor’s wreath I’ve won,

(C) And the victor’s crown is won
((D) And the victor’s wreath is won,
(E) And the victors wreath is won

Dearest Mother, to your bosom,

(E) Father – Mother – to thy bosom

Will you welcome back your son?

(A) Will you welcome home your son?
(B) Will you welcome home your son.
(C) Please welcome back this one.
(D) Welcome home your loving son.
(E) Wilt thou welcome home thy son.

[*Note: Version (D) omits four lines in the second verse, but adds four lines unlike anything found in any other version to the third verse. After “How by love and truth and virtue e’en in time though [sic] didst become,” (D) adds: “Loud shall thy sons Sing thy praises in songs, And thy daughter shall Join and thy virtues prolong”.]

If I had used William’s version as the base text, there would have been far fewer variants – if anyone is still reading, look at how many points all the variants are identical to William’s version. That strongly suggests to me that William C. Harrison’s is the original version, with variants in the others being either slips of the transcriber’s pen or, in one case, consciously swapping out a lot of the you/your pronouns for thee/thy pronouns. The other versions are actually more like each other than any one of them is like Lester’s – his reads like a much later version, with the rough metrical edges knocked off. Even Reddick Allred’s version, the one perhaps recorded in Hawaii in the 1850s, is virtually identical to William’s 1892 publication. But I’m too lazy to re-do my chart using Harrison, rather than Jones, as the base.

So. There you are. Enjoy the poem. Don’t ask me who wrote it, though.



16 Comments »

  1. Once more, a fascinating detective story.

    It’s odd that anyone would think that the two poems are just two parts of the same–the meter is not only different, but is regularly fouled up in the “old folks” poem, whereas the “Oh My Mother” is quite consistent in its meter.

    But I’m going to let sentimentality trump all the evidence and put my money on Jane Kartchner Morris, who is the older sister of my grandfather’s third wife. : ) Who needs evidence if there’s a family relation, no matter how tenuous? It’s like going to the track and betting on the pretty horse–sometimes it wins!

    Comment by Mark B. — May 4, 2010 @ 9:28 am

  2. Don’t have really anything to add, except my awe and appreciation!

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 4, 2010 @ 9:40 am

  3. This is great. We’ll have to start calling you Ardis “Snopes” Parshall.

    I have seen a similar claim in one of the histories of one of my ancestors. Not about this poem, but some distant cousins incorrectly claimed that the ancestor wrote a well-known song in the hymn book. (Her name is similar to the author’s name.) It is curious how misinformation like this shows up once and then is repeated and repeated over and over again. (New Family Search, anyone?)

    Comment by Researcher — May 4, 2010 @ 9:54 am

  4. I’m exhausted (yet still intrigued) after reading such a – well, exhausive – piece of research. Have a well-deserved rest, Ardis!

    Comment by Alison — May 4, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  5. Sorry, “exhausTive”! (I was so exhausted, I…never mind…)

    Comment by Alison — May 4, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  6. Ardis, good thing we have you around to do the detective work.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — May 4, 2010 @ 10:08 am

  7. Zebedee Coltrin remembers in 1871 seeing Frederick G. Williams in a daguerreotype from 1835, pen in hand, writing this very same poem, with Jacob Hamblin looking over his shoulder. Or something like that.

    All I can say is you continue to amaze with your mad hot researcher skilz. In my research, what appeared to be a pretty straightforward quote by Brigham Young took on a new life of its own, and I spent the better part of a year trying to find the original source, which was not quite what I thought it was. It took some more work just to sort through what was likely accurate after several decades, and what was likely not, which included Nephite canals in Arizona, polygamists on the run to Mexico, and several other interesting stories along the way.

    Provenance is a slippery slope, indeed.

    Comment by kevinf — May 4, 2010 @ 10:19 am

  8. Can I make a request for kevinf to do a guest post on his research into the BY quote?

    Comment by Alison — May 4, 2010 @ 10:29 am

  9. It was a lot of fun to read through the various variants. What a history detective!

    On another point, I have to say that I was intrigued that some thought of producing a companion piece to Eliza Snow’s “O My Father” poem in the first place. I know Snow’s verse is obviously addressed to “Father” but I had never thought of the poem as focusing on a fatherly-figure to the exclusion of Heavenly Mother. To the contrary, now Snow’s poem stands as a remarkable contribution to the official doctrine of female deity. It makes me wonder whether some larger cultural sensibility from the Victorian age was influencing the author(s) of the companion poem.

    Still, despite my initial surprise, I’m very pleased we have this “O My Mother” verse in our collective repertory.

    Comment by Hunter — May 4, 2010 @ 10:48 am

  10. I was reading the set up and wondered to myself how you would analyze to text to determine the origin. Of course, as I read further I was rewarded with the rest of your post. It was like “You want more? Well, here it is”. Wonderfully done.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — May 4, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  11. Alison, Ardis willing, I’ll provide the details and forward to her and see if it fits. I’m very interested in the stories of the Nephite canals, which actually don’t have any bearing on my initial research. Apparently, this was a fairly common belief of the Saints in the Mesa area, but I haven’t found a lot more information yet. Could be a great story in its own right. If anybody knows anything more about “Nephite Canals”, let me know. Ardis, my provenance story about the Brigham Young quote will get sent in the next few days.

    Comment by kevinf — May 4, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  12. Thanks, kevinf — I think both stories would make wonderful guest posts. Everybody always seems to enjoy the detective work that is part of history, and who wouldn’t like to hear about Nephite canals? (I’ve got one such reference to the belief that the Bonneville shoreline in Juab County was a Nephite dam.)

    Am glad you’re all enjoying this post, too, even if it doesn’t reach and ultimate solution. (Actually, I think we almost have to award the laurels to Jane Kartchner Morris, too, after the loyal way Mark B. stood up for his grandfather’s third wife’s older sister?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 4, 2010 @ 11:31 am

  13. Kevinf, what do you mean by “Nephite canals”? The Mormon settlers did use the pre-existing canal structure from the Hohokam civilization. You can still see some of them:

    http://www.waterhistory.org/histories/hohokam2/

    I grew up a few blocks away from the Park of the Canals, a city park with some preserved Indian canals and lovely desert plantings.

    I imagine some of the Mormon settlers would have attributed the canals to Nephite civilizations, but I never heard of any specific legends. Then, of course, my family was originally from Eastern Arizona and not Mesa.

    I’ll add my vote for guest posts by kevinf on any of those topics.

    Comment by Researcher — May 4, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  14. Intriguing. When I started reading, I was sure Ardis was going to say this was a early 1990′s era poem from Carol Lynn Pearson, or someone else from that uproar. I was shocked when she claimed 1919, but I agree that it’s not likely the original date, as L.H. Jones was only 12 or 13 at the time, and he’d have to be a theological and poetic savant to come up with this as a deacon.

    Knowing a published copy exists in 1892, I would also tend to give full credit for this to W.C. Harrison.

    Comment by Clark — May 4, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  15. Ardis,
    You always do great work.

    Comment by mmiles — May 4, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

  16. As I read it, I totally hear it to the tune of some other hymn, but I’m blanking on the title. wish I could hum it for you all!

    Comment by Christine — May 5, 2010 @ 9:53 am

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