The First Work of Mormon Literature (except scripture)

In a sense, Mormon Literature began 178 years ago this month, with the publication of the Evening and Morning Star.

Much depends on exactly how you define Mormon Literature. Excluding the Book of Mormon, however, the first literary works were first published in June of 1832, in the first number of the Evening and Morning Star. That first LDS newspaper included several poems in its first issue, two of which were by LDS authors W.W. Phelps (the newspaper’s editor) and Parley P. Pratt.

Of course, these were the first published. We may never know for sure exactly what was the first work written, since not everything has survived in a dated manuscript form. But I did learn recently, from early Mormon document collector Jon Hajicek, that another Parley P. Pratt poem was written well before the first issue of the Evening and Morning Star was published. Hajicek says he has a manuscript copy of Pratt’s A Song of Zion, a poem he dedicated “To Mrs Clarisa Chapen of Independence Jacson County Misourie” (evidently Miss Clarissa Melissa Chapin, the daughter of Adolphus Chapin, a Mormon identified from the Whitmer settlement in Jackson County, Missouri ). The poem was later included in Pratt’s first book, The Millennium (1835), as “Historical Sketch from the Creation to the Present Day. In Three Parts.” and appears as “Song 1. (Common Metre)” in the collection.

From what I can tell, Pratt was in Missouri twice during 1831, once early in the year, and a second time from December into 1832. Whether this poem was written during the earlier or the later visit, I can’t tell. Regardless, it was written at least 6 months before the publication of the first issue of the Evening and Morning Star.

Like A Song of Zion, both of the poems in that first published issue in 1832 were later included in a book — Emma Smith’s A Collection of Sacred Hymns, the first LDS hymnal. But unlike the poem included in The Millennium, these two were much longer lived. Both also appeared in the Manchester LDS hymnal, first published in 1840, and in subsequent editions of hymnals until as recently as 1912. Of the two, Pratt’s seems to have been the more popular, since it is mentioned as having been sung on several different occasions in LDS publications, while Phelp’s hymn isn’t mentioned, although it seems likely that it was sung at least occasionally over the years.

After describing all this and emphasizing their place as the first of Mormon literary efforts, I should probably let you read the poems. Here then are the first two published works of Mormon literature (except scripture):

What fair one is this, in the wilderness traveling

By W. W. Phelps

What fair one is this, in the wilderness trav’ling,
Looking for Christ, the belov’d of her heart?
O this is the Church, the fair bride of the Savior,
Which with every idol is willing to part.
While men in contention, are constantly howling,
And Babylon’s bells are continually tolling,
As though all the craft of her merchants was failing,
And Jesus was coming to reign on the earth.

There is a sweet sound in the gospel of heaven,
And people are joyful when they understand;
The saints on their way home to glory, are even
Determin’d, by goodness, to reach the blest land.
Old formal professers [professors] are crying “delusion,”
And high minded hypocrites day, “’tis confusion,”
While grace is pour’d out in a blessed effusion,
And saints are rejoicing to see priest-craft fall.

A blessing a blessing, the Savior is coming,
As prophets and pilgrims of old have declar’d;
And Israel, the favor’d of God, is beginning
To come to the feast for the righteous prepar’d.
In the desert are fountains continually springing,
The heavenly music of Zion is ringing;
The saints all their tithes and offerings are bringing;
They thus prove the Lord and his blessing receive.

The name of Jehovah is worthy of praising,
And so is the Savior an excellent theme:
The Elders of Israel a standard are raising,
And call on all nations to come to the same:
These Elders go forth and the gospel are preaching,
And all that will hear them, they freely are teaching,
And thus is the vision of Daniel fulfilling [fulfilling];
The Stone of the mountains will soon fill the earth.

THE time is nigh, that happy time

By Parley P. Pratt

THE time is nigh, that happy time,
That great, expected, blessed day,
When countless thousands of our race,
Shall dwell with Christ and him obey.

The prophecies must be fulfil’d
Though earth and hell should dare oppose;
The stone out of the mountain cut,
Though unobserved, a Kingdom grows.

Soon shall the blended Image fall,
Brass, silver, iron, gold and clay;
And superstition’s dreadful reign,
To light and liberty give way.

In one sweet symphony of praise,
The Jews and Gentiles will unite;
And infidelity, o’er come,
Return again to endless night.

From east to west, from north to south,
The Savior’s Kingdom shall extend,
And every man in every place,
Shall meet a brother and a friend.

3 thoughts on “The First Work of Mormon Literature (except scripture)”

  1. I think it’s especially noteworthy that the first published works of Mormon lit are poems. (But of course he’d say that, you say. He’s a poet.) And while these fall within and exemplify the wholly didactic standards of home literature (and, admittedly, of much 19th century poetry), I find them most interesting for their value as cultural artifacts and for the common theme they unfold in reference to their LDS context (though their Mormonness doesn’t necessarily seem like it would be as explicit outside of this context): the rolling forth of the stone cut out of the mountain without hands.

    Thanks for sharing these, Kent. You’ve struck a chord that will resound in an essay I’m writing about contemporary Mormon poetry.

  2. I thought that the first poem, by Phelps, was interesting for its unusual rhyme scheme. In my admittedly not-very-expert experience with poetry, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a -B-B CCC- scheme.

  3. I have no idea about the rhyme scheme, but these two lines are somewhat amusing:

    And Babylon’s bells are continually tolling,
    As though all the craft of her merchants was failing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s