Literary DCGD #36: Past, Present, Future

September 15, 2013 | no comments
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Henry W. NaisbittThe place of Utah in LDS history is occasionally a topic of lessons like Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson 36. And while today not all church members live in Utah or want to live there or feel that it is a place to admire, still, it is hard to argue with the fact that Utah played an important role in the formation of what Mormonism is today. As the lesson observes, the pioneers went to a place that no one wanted, a veritable desert, and created an impressive civilization.

Its hard to say what they would think of Utah today. In some ways its not what they intended, or what they achieved some 30 or more years later when the following poem was written. Like all geographical locations, Utah, and its place in Mormonism, continue to evolve.

The author is Henry W. Naisbitt (1826-1908), the prolific but lesser-known Mormon poet. Born in England, when his father died when he was still a boy, Henry neglected school to help his mother, but somehow managed, despite the family circumstances, to develop a great love for reading, leading to 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.

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Past, Present, Future

by Henry W. Naisbitt

How many a moon hath passed away,
How many a year hath swept around,
Since a few pilgrims—travel-stained,
Where now this city stands, were found.

 

They o’er the desert plains had passed,
Had reached this valley, thought it fair,
Although they felt they were at last,
“A thousand miles from anywhere!”

 

A thousand miles from human aid,
A thousand miles from white man’s home;
These had by him been robbed, betrayed,
And forced an unmarked land to roam.

 

No books, or school, or papers here,
No telegraph, or daily mail,
No railway did with whistle cheer;
The thousand miles was but a trail!

 

But dauntless men led on a host—
Progressive men, and men of thought;
Though destitute of food almost,
A nation’s corner stones they brought!

 

They laid them deep, and firm as e’er
The mountains which begirt them ’round,
And now in lands afar, as near,
The work those pilgrims wrought hath sound.

 

We call them Pioneers, ’tis true,
They were in all that makes a state;
The Schoolhouse rose, the Press, it grew,
The Church and Sabbath did not wait.

 

God prospered them, and blessed their hand,
But for that fact they would have failed,
And perished on the desert sand;
But with it, brave hearts never quailed!

 

Till now, gaze on the pictured scene,
This central city loved and fair;
With pleasant homes and farms between
The nestling towns of Utah rare!

 

The railroad binds us to the east,
Its lines grasp firmly to the west;
By spanning wires, this world, at least,
In Utah finds a welcome rest!

 

And every day there comes from far,
The countless items of mankind,
The rising sun and evening star,
Give each their quota for the mind!

 

Change—’tis a mighty, mighty change,
Undreamt by those of early times,
And there will come a grander range
E’er thirty more years ring their chimes.

 

We may not see that crowding host,
Who shall these valleys fill that day;
But they will not forget to boast,
Of those who dauntless came this way.

 

O! when these festive times come round,
With gift and gladsome wish to them,
May truthful manhood there abound,
The tide of self and wrong to stem!

 

So, shall this mountain nation be
To all the world a shining light,
Its Press a force from sea to sea,
Its aims for God, for man and right.

 

Each sterile waste, strong arms shall wrest,
Their silence give to bud and fruit,
And life shall swell with tropic haste,
To song of birds and sound of lute.

 

O land, how blest! O manhood, crowned
Blessings of earth and heaven are thine,
God and His priesthood here hath found
Room for a Paradise enshrined!

The Contributor, January 1881, p. 121

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Its quite a utopian view. Naisbitt not only recognizes the geographic remoteness of where the pioneers went (…they felt they were at last, / “A thousand miles from anywhere!”) but also their remoteness from the comforts, benefits and latest innovations of the day (“No books, or school, or papers here, / No telegraph, or daily mail, / No railway did with whistle cheer;”). They started from nothing.

But while these things are generally well known, Naisbitt also hints at one of the pioneer attitudes often forgotten today. Arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they not only had left the United States and entered Mexico, but their intentions favored neither:

But dauntless men led on a host—
Progressive men, and men of thought;
Though destitute of food almost,
A nation’s corner stones they brought!

Even in Naisbitt’s day, perhaps especially in his day because of anti-polygamy prosecution, some Mormons still held out the original hope that settling “a thousand miles from anywhere” would lead to a separate nation, a nation that would be a light to the world:

So, shall this mountain nation be
To all the world a shining light,
Its Press a force from sea to sea,
Its aims for God, for man and right.

Its hard to argue with Naisbitt’s contention that the pioneers were blessed:

God prospered them, and blessed their hand,
But for that fact they would have failed,
And perished on the desert sand;
But with it, brave hearts never quailed!

Or with his suggestion that future change would make Utah unrecognizable:

Change—’tis a mighty, mighty change,
Undreamt by those of early times,
And there will come a grander range
E’er thirty more years ring their chimes.

But, if the changes we see now in Utah were unimaginable to Naisbitt in 1881, he did get one thing right, at least:

We may not see that crowding host,
Who shall these valleys fill that day;
But they will not forget to boast,
Of those who dauntless came this way.

Indeed, this lesson is, if nothing else, evidence that we Mormons have not forgotten, and still “boast” of those who established Utah.

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