Much of the Book of Alma covers Alma’s missionary efforts in the land of the Nephites, and in this week’s chapters, Alma 8-12, he meets and preaches with his principle missionary companion, Amulek. Unlike the experiences of the sons of Mosiah, Alma and Amulek’s experiences aren’t always successful in the end. Instead, they face many tribulations, have many who refuse to believe in what they teach, very similar to what our missionaries face today.
The author of this poem, Joseph L. Townsend, tried to capture the difficulties that missionaries face. Townsend is best known as the author of many of the hymns in our hymnal today, including “Choose the Right,” “The Iron Rod,” “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words To Each Other,” and “Hope of Israel.” Born in Pennsylvania in 1872, Townsend came to Salt Lake City, Utah to improve is health and discovered Mormonism there as well. He served an LDS mission to the Southern States, owned and ran a drugstore in Payson, Utah for 15 years and then taught at Brigham Young Academy (the high-school predecessor of BYU) for a couple of years before teaching at Salt Lake City High School. And he wrote poetry — 10 of his hymns are in our current hymnal.
Here are his views on LDS missonary work:
by J. L. Townsend
- Wearily tramping day by day
- Over the country far and wide,
- Earnestly reaping by the way,
- And two and two, and side by side,
- Are Mormon Elders moving.
- Over the turnpikes rough and worn,
- Over the lanes through wheat and corn,
- Treading the paths in wood and field,
- Where honest folks a shelter yield,
- They ev’rywhere are roving.
- Oft on the wayside rocks or trees,
- Hungry and footsore, long they rest,
- Talking of home and liberties
- Ne’er given to a weary guest,
- However much befriended.
- Thousands of miles away from home,
- Daily they on their circuit roam,
- Facing the storms, or dust and heat,
- Until their mission is complete,
- Their tiresome labors ended.
- Bible in hand, they teach the truth,
- Like it was taught in Palestine,
- Calling on all, in age or youth,
- To heed the Gospel plan divine
- Restored again from Heaven.
- Freely they give the words of life,
- Ever opposed by Satan’s strife;
- Ever withstood by Pharisees
- Who fight the truth by calumnies
- As when it first was given.
- Ever at work, their lives at stake,
- Warning the world of what will be,
- Warning the world to turn, forsake,
- And flee the harlot mystery.
- The great sectarian babel.
- Threatened with clubs and coats of tar,
- Errors’ accustomed plan of war;
- Hated by priests who truth deride,—
- The welcome that the Elders bide
- ‘Mid foes that love a fable.
- Wearily tramping day by day,
- Seeking the humble, rich and poor,
- Calling to all: Repent, obey
- The ordinance that will insure
- The Savior’s approbation.
- Over the wide land everywhere
- Swiftly the Gospel now they bear:
- Soon will the land be left untilled,
- The Gentile times be all fulfilled,
- And fallen every nation.
- Judgments and plagues, with war and fire,
- Over the world will swiftly go,
- Bringing a devastation dire,
- With millions crying in their woe
- Who heeded not the warning.
- Then will the Saints enjoy their rest,
- Gathered together in the West;
- Living beneath the laws of God,
- Secure, while His avenging rod
- Brings terror, woe and mourning.
- Yearly from Zion still they go,
- Happy are they when one believes;
- Happier still whene’er they know
- They may return with gathered sheaves
- As brands plucked from the burning.
- Tramping with neither scrip or purse,
- Sheltered by friends while foes accuse,
- Leaving it all for God above
- To mete to all, in hate or love,
- The sure reward they’re earning.
- O, when the Book of Life is read,
- There may the reapers and their sheaves,
- Named with the Church that Christ has wed,
- Be found upon its sacred leaves
- Recorded close together!
- Then will the reapers joyful be
- Greeting the souls they helped to free.
- Wearily tramping, day by day,
- Upon the lone or dusty way,
- No more, no more, forever.
The Contributor 3 (1881-1882) p. 217
Its probably good to remember that the difficulties that Townsend faced as a missionary in the 1870s (I assume) are significantly more trying than those that missionaries today face. At least transportation was more difficult, and the Southern States mission at that time had to be one of the most dangerous that a Mormon missionary might serve in—perhaps most famously exemplified in the murder of Joseph Standing by a mob on July 21, 1879.
While this poem doesn’t appear to have been made into a hymn, I get the sense that it might have, given its meter. Certainly poems with more difficult meters have been made into hymns (e.g., “Come, Come Ye Saints”). It is also much more realistic about missionary work than the songs we sing about missionary work today—for all that it is, “I hope they call me on a mission” doesn’t really recognize the effort required once the call has come.
Perhaps paired with Alma’s experiences, this poem can serve as a kind of tribute to missionary labors, although the experience is often its own reward.