In the final chapter of Mosiah, King Mosiah and his people face the fundamental political question—what form of government to choose. After Mosiah demonstrates the potential problems with a monarchy, the people choose a more democratic form of government, under the rule of judges. As the first chief judge, Alma then discovers that even democracy faces difficulties.
While many early Mormon poems dealt with political issues, the majority were reactions either to the persecutions in Missouri and Illinois or to the enforcement of anti-bigamy laws in Utah. The poem I found for this lesson is an exception to that norm.
The author of this poem, Henry W. Naisbitt, was born in 1826. His father died when he was still a boy, so he neglected school to help his mother. But despite the family circumstances, Naisbitt had a great love for reading, which may explain his literary talent. After apprenticing as a maker of copper kettles, learning to make silk hats and learning carpentry, Naisbitt ended up in the grocery business. He joined the LDS Church in 1850 and immigrated to Utah in 1854. By the late 1800s he had become well known as an exponent of Mormonism and he regularly spoke in the Tabernacle on a variety of occasions and his poems and articles appeared frequently in Mormon periodicals. He served two missions to Great Britain. During the first, from 1876 to 1878, he served as the editor of the Millennial Star. He served the second mission starting in 1898 (at age 72) as a counselor to European Mission President Platte D. Lyman. After returning in 1901, he published a volume of poetry, Rhymelets in Many Moods. He died in 1908.
By Henry W. Naisbitt
- “The kingliest kings are crowned with thorns.” — Gerald Massey.
- “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life.” — Revelations.
- Who feels like war, who seeks to turn
- The tide of thought which swells to-day?
- Who feels the flame of purpose burn
- ‘Gainst vested right, or tyrant’s sway?
- ‘Tis well they count the certain cost,
- Before they raise the sweeping storm;
- And understand if wrecked or tossed,
- “Earth’s kingliest kings are crowned with thorn.”
- This every age hath given to those
- Whose godhead burst the narrow bound,
- By custom set by books, or laws
- To circumscribe, or truth to bound.
- No dungeon dark enough for them;
- No death too fierce or too forlorn;
- Justice and mercy died—and then—
- “The kingliest kings were crowned with thorn.”
- For every science martyrs bled,
- On every path of thought they fell,
- But ages learn from heroes dead,
- That truth will rule, who may rebel!
- And garnished sepulchres are raised
- To men despised and roughly torn,
- While fools repeat the name none praised,
- “The kingliest kings once crowned with thorn.”
- Who asks a mission man to bless?
- Who pants for right, unselfish, brave?
- Let history tell that no caress
- So certain as a martyr’s grave!
- Yet if such feel inspired of God
- With that high trust of kinship born,
- The wrath of man may seem no rod,
- “To kingliest kings when crowned with thorn.”
- Whate’er the conquest we may seek,
- Whate’er we wish to curb or break,
- Error with hoary head, or weak
- As childhood in its wilful wake;
- Be sure, if victory must be won,
- If once resolved in tears to groan;
- So truth be with us it empowers,
- “Though kingliest kings are crowned with thorn.”
- And days shall come, I hail them now,
- When work which makes a man divine,
- Shall have the inspiring care and eye
- Of rulers sent as Gods to shine!
- Roll on, ye glorious times ahead,
- Bring blessings for the crowds unborn,
- And resurrect our deathless dead,
- “Our kingliest kings once crowned with thorn.”
The Contributor, v2 n12 pg 377
This may be one of those poems where late 19th-century English and British usage gets in the way of our understanding today. I at first thought that some of the words had been switched for something else because of OCR errors, but found that was incorrect. The image of “thorns” is also a bit challenging—is Naisbitt referring to the crown of thorns that Christ wore? or simply to the difficulties that all rulers face—the almost inevitable injustices that every government perpetrates in its attempts to make life better or preserve power (depending on your point of view).
Regardless, this poem includes some fascinating parallels with what Mosiah discussed in advocating the rule of judges. While Naisbitt sees difficulties with a monarchy, ruled by those “Whose godhead burst the narrow bound” and who are responsible for the martyrs who “For every science… bled,” he also, in the end, foresees righteous “rulers sent as Gods to shine” and would “resurrect our deathless dead.”
But the message of this poem is one directed at those who would overthrow the tyrant, urging them to “count the cost, / Before they raise the sweeping storm,” suggesting that “history [tells] that no caress / [is] So certain as a martyr’s grave,” and observing that “ages learn from heroes dead.”
Just as these chapters from the Book of Mormon make clear that the questions of governing aren’t easy to solve, so too, Naisbitt sees difficulty for those who would rebel against tyranny and he may even be hinting that the cost of rebellion might be higher than the cost of minor injustice.