Often LDS lessons based on the scriptures cover such a broad range of topics in the scriptures given that the stated theme of the lesson doesn’t capture what is going on in the scripture passages. While this lesson is certainly one of those times, the poem I found is really about the stated theme of the lesson: prophets, seers and revelators.
In early Mormon poetry and writings, this usually referred to one person: the Prophet Joseph Smith. Where today we talk more about prophets generally, for the first 30 years of Mormonism, the prophet mostly referred to Joseph Smith specifically. And it is in the context of Joseph Smith that we learn their ideas about what a Prophet or Seer or Revelator is.
The specific verses in the book of Mormon readings for this week that refer to the seer are Mosiah 8:13-17, in which Ammon tells Limhi both that a seer can read the plates that Limhis’s people have found and something about what a seer does. In the following poem, poet and future prophet John Taylor not only lauds Joseph Smith the prophet and seer of his time, but also gives some characteristics of what a seer is and what he does:
by John Taylor
Written for the dedication of the Seventy’s Hall (Nauvoo),
and dedicated to President Brigham Young.
- The seer;—the seer;—Joseph the seer—
- I’ll sing of the Prophet ever dear:
- His equal now cannot be found,—
- By searching the wide world around.
- With Gods he soared, in the realms of day;
- And men he taught the heavenly way.
- The earthly seer! the heavenly seer,
- I love to dwell on his mem’ry dear:—
- The chose of God, and the friend of men,
- He brought the priesthood back again,
- He gazed on the past, on the present too;—
- And ope’d the heav’nly world to view.
- Of noble seed—of heavenly birth,
- He came to bless the sons of earth:
- With keys by the Almighty given,
- He opened the full rich stores of heaven,
- O’er the world that was wrapt in sable night,
- Like the sun he spread his golden light.
- He strove,—O, how he strove to stay,
- The stream of crime in its reckless way—
- with a mighty mind, and a noble aim
- He urg’d the wayward to reclaim:
- ‘Mid the foaming billows of argry strife—
- He stood at the helm, of the ship of life.
- The saints;—the saints; his only pride,
- For them he liv’d, for them he died!
- Their joys were his;—their sorrows too;—
- He lov’d the saints;—he lov’d Nauvoo.
- Unchanged in death, with a Saviors love
- He pleads their cause, in the courts above.
- The seer;—the seer—Joseph the seer!
- O, how I love his memory dear,
- The just and wise, the pure and free,
- A father he was, and is to me.
- Let fiends now rage in their dark hour;—
- No matter, he is beyond their power.
- He’s free;—he’s free;—the Prophet’s free!
- He is where he will ever be,
- Beyond the reach of mobs and strife,
- He rests unharm’d in endless life,
- His home’s in the sky;— he dwells with the Gods,
- Far from the furious rage of mobs.
- He died; he died—for those he lov’d,
- He reigns;—he reigns in realms above,
- He waits with the just who have gone before,
- To welcome the saints to Zions shore;
- Shout, shout ye saints—this boon is given,
- We’ll meet our martyr’d seer in heaven.
Meant to be sung to the tune: The Sea.
Times and Seasons, 1 January 1845
While the scriptural account seems pretty straightforward in its description of a seer, Taylor’s poetry seems to suggest a bit more. He describes Joseph as “The earthly seer! the heavenly seer,” which, to my mind, suggests some kind of role in the hereafter for seers, although I have no idea what exactly that might be. He later suggests one possible role in the hereafter, saying that “He pleased their cause in the courts above” and in the very end, “He reigns;—he reigns in realms above, / He waits with the just who have gone before, / To welcome the saints to Zions shore.” Elsewhere, Taylor’s description of a seer is more straightforward. He says of the seer: “He gazed on the past, on the present too;— / and ope’d the heav’nly world to view.”
Taylor is not the most accomplished of early Mormon poets (Parley P. Pratt, Eliza R. Snow and John Lyon were better, IMO), but his poetry was far from ignored. This piece was meant as a hymn and, according to the instruction in the published version, was meant to be sung to the tune of a popular song, “The Sea,” probably the tune used for a song by Barry Cornwall which became popular in the 1830s and which was republished multiple times in popular newspapers and magazines. Taylor’s poem uses the same meter, but has a stanza twice the length of Cornwall’s song, so, I surmise, the tune was meant to be repeated. The text was first printed as a single sheet, apparently provided to those attending the dedication, which lasted seven days from December 26, 1844 to January 1, 1845. The same setting was the included in the Times and Seasons. It was later published in the Nauvoo Neighbor and the Frontier Guardian.
As a hymn, it was included in the Liverpool Hymnal of 1847, and was republished in LDS Hymnals through the 1948 book, but was not included in the most recent (1985) hymnal. Somewhere among the string of hymnals, the tune “The Sea” was dropped, and an arrangement of the tune “Neukomm.” by Ebenezer Beesley was used instead, which required changing the order of some of the words and repeating some of the lines.
While I have no idea why it was dropped from the hymnal, I wonder if it wasn’t because it concentrated too much on Joseph Smith. I know we have some hymns that still do this, but this hymn seems to go a bit beyond what the others do, IMO (although I haven’t studied that issue in depth). It is also not the strongest hymn, so it could be that it was dropped simply because there was so many better hymns, and hadn’t gained a place among those beloved hymns that would be impossible to replace.
Still, The Seer does provide a window on the role of a prophet, seer and revelator, and so would be interesting to contemplate along with Mosiah 8:13-17 in the lesson.