Literary Joseph Fielding Smith #04: The Old Folks

January 26, 2014 | no comments
By
Joseph L Townsend

Joseph L Townsend

While ‘strengthening the family’ might seem like code for a political position these days (please, no politics on this post), lesson 4 in the Joseph Fielding Smith lesson manual seems to boil the idea down to the ways in which we live together. The lesson says stronger families come from “spending time together, loving each other, and living the gospel together.”

In most of our poetry, this is something assumed—background to another message the poet is trying to communicate. So in the following poem the ideas behind strengthening the family are part of another message, celebrating those who have the most practice at being part of a family.

The author of this poem, Joseph L. Townsend, is best known as the author of many well-known hymns, 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. The following poem was written for the “Old Folks’ Jubilee” in 1881.

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The Old Folks

by Joseph L. Townsend

Who once were full of childhood’s joys,
As happy, careless girls and boys,
And loved to play with many toys
To them a priceless treasure?
Who sought earth’s wonders to espy,
In birds and flowers, and wood and sky,
In that sweet time when seasons by
Flew on the wings of pleasure?
We old folks? Ah, the very same!
What cared we then for labor’s claim?
Our days like sunbeams went and came
From May-day to December.
And scarce a ripple in life’s stream,
Disturbed our smooth and quiet dream,
And all was happiness supreme,
As well do we remember.

 

Who once were young and blithe as they
We call the young folks of to-day?
And loved full well to romp and play
As oft they met together?
Who went a wooing maidens fair?
Who waited for the wooer, where
The moon alone looked on the pair,
Who plighted vows forever?
The old folks? Yes, the old folks dear
Who now in frosted age appear,
To here enjoy this later cheer
Of love, and sweet communion.
A meeting of the brave and free,
As sweet as early childhoods glee,
While gathered to this jubilee
Enjoying their re-union.

 

Who once were planning life’s career,
In visions of the future clear,
All pictured thro’ and thro’ with cheer,
And filled with many a blessing?
Who found a thorny, rocky road,
O’er which the chilling tempest blowed?
With trials every day bestowed,
Their hopes of life repressing?
Who but ourselves, we wise old folks,
Still full of plans that time revokes,
And still as full of merry jokes
As when our teens were flying.
Ah! though we’re old we’re children still,
But little changed as down life’s hill
We swiftly glide, our course fulfil,
As children, living, dying!

 

Who gladly heard the Gospel true,
And sought the Savior’s will to do,
And soon by revelation knew
The knowledge God has given?
Who now are knocking at the gate,
And patiently the summons wait,
To enter in their royal state
As kings and queens in heaven?
We old folks? Ah! God bless the day
When we the Gospel did obey,
And learned in charity to pray,
With faith forever growing.
Thank God for Priesthood, truth and life,
For marriage, sealing man and wife,
For knowledge, in the Priesthood rife,
By revelation flowing!

 

Ah me! it seems but yesterday
When I was young, with spirits gay,
But now, these locks are growing gray,
Old age is o’er me creeping.
With my companions here, I’ll soon
Close life’s long busy afternoon;
My spirit gain bright heaven’s boon,
My clay be sweetly sleeping!
And ere another jubilee,
Full many here, that now I see,
Will gain the heavenly portals free,
And homes of life eternal.
Enjoying all they can enjoy,
With not a thought that can alloy
Their pleasure, as they all employ
Their time in bliss supernal.

 

Who then regrets their brief old age
Upon life’s ever changing stage?
Beyond, there lies our heritage;
Who here could wish to tarry?
We old folks? No, we would away,
While young folks enter, in array
To do the labors of to-day,
And life’s full burden carry.
Be happy then in life’s decline;
Let hope’s bright vision o’er us shine;
And faith, and charity divine
Increase our hearts with treasure.
God bless the old folks, staunch and true,
Who long have sought His will to do;
And let their time, as days ensue,
Be filled with love and pleasure.

The Contributor, v3 1882, p. 312-313

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The family life that Townsend assumes is clearly idealized, from the “happy, careless girls and boys” to memories of those “who went a wooing maidens fair.” But he also recognizes the trials that “the old folks” have passed through, “their hopes of life repressing,” and recognizes the end-of-life realities that his “old folks” face:

With my companions here, I’ll soon
Close life’s long busy afternoon;
My spirit gain bright heaven’s boon,
My clay be sweetly sleeping!

But along the way, he also explores many of the stages of life—the stages in which family is most important. He starts in the first stanza with childhood, then in the second talks of young adults. His third stanza hints at the cares of the married and of parents, who often find their plans and dreams diverted by the trials of life.

Strengthening the family is, I think, found in all of this. But the fourth stanza is perhaps the most focused on the role of the gospel in life:

We old folks? Ah! God bless the day
When we the Gospel did obey,
And learned in charity to pray,
With faith forever growing.
Thank God for Priesthood, truth and life,
For marriage, sealing man and wife,
For knowledge, in the Priesthood rife,
By revelation flowing!

Indeed. If nothing else, Townsend’s lines should help us gain perspective on life, and thus help us realize the importance of family in all that we do and try to be.

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