Literary Joseph Fielding Smith #15: The Marriage Vow

July 8, 2014 | 6 comments
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While the marriage practiced in the Church and taught in chapter 15 of the Joseph Fielding Smith manual is different than that taught and practiced outside of the Temple and the Church, still the underlying commitment to marriage and many of the promises made are very similar. Even after the Church under Joseph Smith introduced celestial marriage in the 1840s, the protestant views of marriage common in the U.S. still resonated for Mormons (as they do today) In fact, the following non-Mormon poem about marriage was published in the Nauvoo Mormon newspaper The Wasp on the last day of April of 1844, more than 3 weeks after the Prophet Joseph Smith had delivered the King Follett Sermon, which discusses the doctrine of eternity and eternal life.

And somehow it seems almost Mormon.

Originally dated May 1840 in New York, this poem by “M. N. M.” (Mary Noel MacDonald) was first published in the New York magazine The Knickerbocker in June of that year. It was subsequently republished in dozens of other periodicals, and also appeared in a book anthology that she published in 1844 (see comment by Sarah Reed below). Exactly how editor William Smith found this poem isn’t known, but it is clear that Smith and other editors of periodicals collected poetry and other material from many different sources for later publication.

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The Marriage Vow

by Mary Noel MacDonald

Speak it not lightly!—’t is a holy thing.
A bond enduring through long distant years,
When joy o’er thine abode is hovering,
Or when thy eye is wet with bitterest tears;
Recorded by an angel’s pen on high,
And must be questioned in eternity!

 

Speak it not lightly!—though the young and gay
Are thronging round thee now, with tones of mirth;
Let not the holy promise of to-day
Fade like the clouds that with the morn have birth,
But ever bright and sacred may it be,
Stored in the treasury-cell of memory.

 

Life will not prove all sunshine! there will come
Dark hours for all: O will ye, when the night
Of sorrows gather thickly round your home.
Love as ye did, in times when calm and bright
Seem’d the sure path ye trod, untouched by care,
And deem’d the future like the present fair?

 

Eyes that now beam with health may yet grow dim,
And cheeks of rose forget their early glow;
Languor and pain assail each active limb,
And lay, perchance, some worship’d beauty low;
Then will ye gaze upon the the altered brow,
And love as fondly, faithfully as now?

 

Should fortune frown on your defenceless head,
Should storm o’ertake your bark on life’s dark sea;
Fierce tempest rend the sail so gaily spread,
When hope her syren strain sang joyously;
Will you look up, through clouds your sky o’ercast,
And say, ‘Together we will bide the blast?

 

Age, with its silvery locks, comes stealing on,
And brings the tottering step, the furrowed cheek,
The eye from which each lustrous beam had gone,
And the pale lip, with accents low and weak;
Will ye then think upon your life’s gay prime,
And, smiling, bid love triumph over time?

 

Speak it not lightly! Oh, beware, beware!
‘Tis no vain promise, no unmeaning word;
Lo! men and angels lisp the faith ye swear,
And by the high and holy ONE ’tis heard;
Oh, then, kneel humbly at His altar now,
And pray for strength to keep your marriage vow!

New York, May 1840

The Wasp, v1 n3
30 April 1844, p. 3

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For Mormons, the last line of the first stanza seems to hint at the doctrine of eternal marriage. It is certainly possible that non-Mormons felt that marriage should survive death, even though the doctrine of their churches didn’t accommodate it. And with the Victorian ideal of romantic love, we should actually be surprised if some folk belief of relationships lasting after this life didn’t exist.

But the author of this poem is not a starry-eyed romantic about marriage. He sees difficulties and challenges arising in all marriages—”dark hours for all,” “languor and pain” assailing the physical body, and “fortune frowning on your defenceless head.” But he also asks those entering the “marriage vow” to “speak it not lightly,” and “love as ye did, in times when calm and bright” “deem’d the future like the present fair.” And he urges couples “should storm o’ertake your bark” to “say, ‘together we will bide the blast’.” His last advice is to “pray for strength to keep your marriage vow!”

That sounds like great advice for any marriage today, and not unlike the counsel we hear about marriage all the time—including that from Joseph Fielding Smith.

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6 Responses to Literary Joseph Fielding Smith #15: The Marriage Vow

  1. M Buxton on July 9, 2014 at 8:17 am

    Very nice, Kent. The penultimate line’s mention of kneeling at an alter also has resonance with Mormons who have been married in the temple.

    I was wondering if the first line of the second stanza should be “though the young and gay” not “through the young and gay.” That seems to make more sense.

  2. Kent Larsen on July 9, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    You are correct! I’ve changed the text above to reflect the correct language.

  3. Ellie on July 10, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    I was wondering how you know the author is a man.

    Beautiful poem. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Kent Larsen on July 11, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    I don’t. I was using “he” in the ambiguous sense, instead of using the clunky “he or she.”

    We won’t get into an argument here about whether that is correct or not — its just a choice I made, just like thousands of authors do every day.

    I apologize for any lack of clarity.

  5. Sarah Reed on July 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    The author appears to be a Mrs. Mary Noel MacDonald (later Meigs). The poem appears in an anthology of hers titled “Poems” in 1844. Her entry in Allibone’s “Critical Dictionary of English Literature” suggests she published in periodicals under the initials M.N.M.

  6. Kent Larsen on July 11, 2014 at 11:52 pm

    Thanks, Sarah. I’m changing the post to reflect this.

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