Literary Joseph Fielding Smith #02: A Stranger Star O’er Bethlehem

December 29, 2013 | 5 comments
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0---Orson_F._WhitneyThe second lesson in the Joseph Fielding Smith manual, used in Priesthood and Relief Society lessons in the coming year, discusses the life of Jesus Christ and his role in the plan of salvation; quite a lot to cover in a single lesson. In the texts included, Smith ranges from Christ’s birth as the only begotten son of God, to his role establishing a pattern for us to follow, to how we are His sons and daughters through the atonement and through our obedience to His teachings.

Fortunately, Mormon poetry, like our teachings, emphasize the role of Christ, making it relatively easy to find poetry that covers similar territory, like the following text, once a hymn included in LDS songbooks.

Its author is Orson F. Whitney, an Apostle who served during the first half of the 20th century and a strong proponent of Mormon literature. Born in 1855, Whitney worked as a politician, journalist, poet, historian and academic. He was a journalist for the Deseret News in 1878, edited the Millennial Star while serving a mission in Europe in 1881 and taught English at Brigham Young College in Logan in 1896. In 1899 he was called as Assistant Church Historian, serving in that position until his call to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1906. In 1888 Whitney, then serving as a Bishop, gave his “Home Literature” talk, widely credited with transforming Mormon literature1 Whitney wrote several hymns currently in our hymnal, and the epic poem Elias. He died in 1931.

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A Stranger Star O’er Bethlehem

by Orson F. Whitney

A Stranger Star O’er Bethlehem
Shot down its silver ray,
Where, cradled in a manger’s fold,
A sleeping infant lay
And guided by that finger bright,
The Orient sages bring
Rare gifts of myrrh and frankincense,
To hail the new born King.

 

He wandered thro’ the faithless world,
A Prince in shepherd’s guise;
He called His scattered flock, but few
The voice would recognize
For minds upborne by hollow pride,
Or dimmed by sordid lust,
Ne’er look for kings in beggar’s garb—
For diamonds in the dust.

 

He wept o’er doomed Jerusalem,
Her temple, walls and tow’rs;
O’er palaces where recreant priests
Usurped unhallowed pow’rs;
“I am the Way of Life and Light”
Alas! ’twas heeded not—
Ignored Salvation’s message, spurned
The wondrous truths He taught.

 

On Calv’ry’s hill they crucified
The God whom world’s adore.
‘Father, forgive them!’ drained the dregs—
Immanuel was no more.
No more where thunders shook the earth,
Where lightnings thwart the gloom,
Saw that unconquered Spirit spurn
The shackles of the tomb.

 

Far flashing on its wings of light—
A falchion from its sheath—
It cleft the realms of darkness and
Dissolved the bands of death.
Hell’s dungeon burst! wide open swung
The everlasting bars,
Whereby the ransomed soul shall win
Those heights beyond the stars.

 

Juvenile Instructor, v33 n24,
December 1898, p. 856.
[H.T. Keepapitchinin]

.

Unlike so many poems and hymns about Christ, this work attempts to cover his entire earthly life and purpose, tying together both his birth, the later atonement and crucifixion, and his resurrection. As such, I think it works well as a complement to Smith’s expositions on Christ found in the lesson.

As published in the Juvenile Instructor, the above was a hymn, set to music by E. F. Parry, which continued in LDS Hymnals at least until after Whitney’s death. [I suspect it was dropped because Whitney’s language uses generally unfamiliar vocabulary, such as “falchion” and “recreant”]. Along with Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains, it is one of the few Mormon Christmas songs.

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5 Responses to Literary Joseph Fielding Smith #02: A Stranger Star O’er Bethlehem

  1. JB on December 29, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Splendid! I’ve always loved Whitney’s poetry. I thought Elias in particular really sublime. Interestingly, the last two verses of this poem/hymn appear there nearly word-for-word at the close of the third canto, save that “On Calvary’s hill they crucified” becomes “Transfixt He hung – O crime of crimes!”

    The second and third verses here also reappear a couple pages earlier in Elias, but because of the shift from a Christmas perspective to a retrospective, “the voice would recognize” became “the voice did recognize”. Moreover, “He wept o’er doomed Jerusalem” becomes “Wept He above a city doomed”; “I am the Way of Life and Light” becomes “I am the way, the life, the light”; and the last two lines of the third verse here become “Ignored – nay, mocked God’s messenger, / And spurned the truth He taught”.

    Finally, even the first verse here appeared yet another page earlier, though with still more extensive alterations. No reference to Bethlehem is found: the opening lines are, “A stranger star that came from far, / To fling its silver ray”. The description in the next two lines is also altered: “manger’s fold” becomes “lowly cave”, while the “sleeping” infant becomes a “lowlier” infant. In the next line, “guided by that finger bright” becomes “led by soft sidereal light”. Finally, the customary reference of “hail our new born King” becomes the much more daring “greet the homeless King”. I have to say that, in this verse at least, I rather like the Elias version! Still, interesting that specific place references seem to be culled out (‘Calvary’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Bethlehem’), perhaps with the intent of conveying a more epic feel to greet the story anew. But certainly, to reuse so much of this poem/hymn in Elias later on, Whitney must have quite liked what he had written.

  2. Kent Larsen on December 29, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Its got even a longer history that that, JB. This poem is a re-working of the second part of Whitney’s 1883 poem, A Christmas Idyl (The Contributor v5 p. 151-153.)

    So, yes, I’d say he liked this poem a lot, and couldn’t stop tinkering with it — at least not until 1904.

    [And, since you are a fan of Elias, you’ll appreciate that my copy (1914 revised and enlarged edition) is signed, with a notation that it is a Christmas gift to my great grandfather, who in 1904 had given my grandfather the given names “Orson Whitney.”]

  3. Jared Bernotski on January 3, 2014 at 12:12 am

    With all respect to Brother Whitney, I revised his poem as follows:

    A Star That Woke O’er Bethlehem
    by Orson F. Whitney & Jared Bernotski

    A star that woke o’er Bethlehem
    Cast wide its silver ray,
    As, cradled in a manger’s fold,
    A sleeping infant lay,
    And caught the gaze of sages wise,
    Whom treasures rare did bring
    Of gold, of myrrh and frankincense
    To hail the newborn King.

    He’d mark the path for faithless world,
    A Prince in shepherd’s guise
    Calls home His scattered flock, but few
    Meek voice would recognize
    As minds bedimmed by hollow pride,
    Or sparked by sordid lust,
    Look not for kings in humble garb—
    Miss diamonds in the dust.

    For doom waiting Jerusalem,
    Christ wept by temple tow’rs;
    Passed palaces where priestly greed
    Usurped once hallowed pow’rs;
    “I am the Way of Life and Light”
    Alas! ’twas heeded not—
    Salvation’s message, they did spurn
    The priceless truths He taught.

    On Calv’ry’s hill they crucified
    The God whom worlds adore.
    “Father, forgive them!” drained the dregs—
    Immanuel lived no more.
    Nature groaned, earth’s foundation shook,
    But He would thwart the gloom,
    All conqu’ring Christ, in triumph broke
    The shackles of the tomb.

    Far flashing on its wings of light—
    A falchion from its sheath—
    Swift cleft the realms of darkness and
    Dissolved the bands of death.
    Hell’s dungeon burst! Wide open swung
    The everlasting bars,
    Whereby each ransomed soul shall win
    Bright heights beyond the stars.

    I would welcome any opinions. I love so much about the poem, but my goal was to use more accessible language unless esoteric words achieve greater insight. For example, I don’t see any need for “recreant,” However, I like “falchion,” though the last stanza as written has extra feet that would make a purely strophic hymn problematic.

    I’m still dabbling with music to see if something more memorable than E. F. Parry’s setting comes to mind.

    Thanks again for sharing, and hope that readers don’t mind my attempts at improving the text.

  4. Jared Bernotski on January 3, 2014 at 12:37 am

    I should make that “more memorable to me.” Parry’s setting was nice. Mainly, I’m glad to see these old hymn texts and tunes revived. Certainly, grappling with this one is bringing it to life for me.

    And I love “homeless King” instead of “newborn King” at the end of the firsst stanza.

  5. Jared Bernotski on January 3, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    In setting this to music, I came up with other minor improvements:

    A star that woke o’er Bethlehem
    Cast wide its silver ray,
    As cradled in a manger’s fold,
    A sleeping infant lay,
    And caught the gaze of sages wise,
    Whom treasures rare did bring
    Of gold, of myrrh and frankincense
    To hail the homeless King.

    He’d mark the path for faithless world,
    A Prince in shepherd’s guise
    Calls out to scattered flock, but few
    Meek voice would recognize
    As minds bedimmed by hollow pride,
    Or sparked by sordid lust,
    Look not for kings in humble garb—
    Miss diamonds in the dust.

    For doom waiting Jerusalem,
    Christ wept by temple tow’rs;
    Passed palaces where priestly greed
    Usurped once hallowed pow’rs;
    “I am the Way of Life and Light”
    Alas! ’twas heeded not—
    Salvation’s message, people spurned
    The priceless truths He taught.

    On Calv’ry’s hill they crucified
    The God whom worlds adore.
    “Father, forgive them!” drained the dregs—
    Immanuel breathed no more.
    As nature groaned, foundations shook,
    But He would thwart the gloom,
    All conqu’ring Lord, in triumph broke
    The shackles of the tomb.

    Far flashing on its wings of light—
    A falchion from its sheath—
    Swift cleft the realms of darkness and
    Dissolved the bands of death.
    Hell’s dungeon burst! Wide open swung
    The everlasting bars,
    Whereby each ransomed soul shall win
    Bright heights beyond the stars.

    At first, I had thought that the last stanza wouldn’t fit without musical modifications, but it works nicely.