Perhaps the most difficult issue in discussing the idea of Zion is defining exactly what we mean. Even though D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson #46 is titled “Zion—The Pure in Heart,” its first section is titled “The word Zion has several meanings” and lists no less than six. Of these, I’ve seen evidence in Mormon poetry for two or three definitions. First, the early Mormon poets used Zion in a millennial sense, to mean “The New Jerusalem.” They also used ion to mean “The dwelling place of those who are exalted,” or perhaps even simply “Those who are exalted.” And, from the poetry I’ve read, it seems that Zion was also used to mean “The Church and its stakes” and “The members of the Church.” In the following poem John Lyon seems to use all three.
The Mormon conception of marriage is central to our theology and understanding of the next life. We see marriage as the beginning of eternal families, and a key element of eternal progression. Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson #45 explores this belief, but, I think, doesn’t quite get at how or why marriage might be so central to eternal life. The following poem may explain somewhat.
Mormons believe in being good citizens, and Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson #44 discusses a little how that is supposed to work. We are supposed to participate, obey the law and to serve others in our communities. But are there limits on this responsibility? How much should we give to our communities? Are there limits on the sacrifice we should make? Things we should not do? In the following poem, Eliza R. Snow lauds those who serve the Nauvoo community, in response to a very real need at the time: defense against mob violence. And some of the Nauvoo community ended up sacrificing their lives for the city.
What exactly is the “whole armor of God?” Lesson 43 of the Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine manual explores this concept, drawing from D&C 27:15-18, and its inspiration, Ephesians 6:13-18. But while both these scriptural texts point to principles that represent various pieces of body armor, its sometimes hard to see how these principles actually protect us. If we look at an actual struggle, what pieces of armor will we see in use? The following poem may provide some insight.
The Mormon belief in continuing revelation (the subject of Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine Lesson #42) is rare if not unique among Christian religions, and it is one of the features of Mormonism most promoted. What is perhaps less discussed is the range of meanings of this term in Mormonism. We use it to mean everything from impressions each of us receive personally to written documents produced by the Prophet and accepted by the body of the Church as scripture. Revelation is perhaps most effective when it leads to a significant change in our behavior, or the behavior of the Church as a whole—when, as the following poem describes, it ‘turns a key’ to open a whole new perception of what our duties and blessings as members of the Church are.
The idea that every member is a missionary depends on a certain kind of commitment to the Church. For the Church to make the kind of progress outlined in D&C Gospel Doctrine Lesson 41 missionaries, even member missionaries, must be willing to make the sacrifices necessary. Recently, the level of commitment that some missionaries end up making has been very public — the Church seems to have switched policy and made public information about missionaries who died in the field. At last report the number who have died is up to 12 (probably fewer than the number of currently serving missionaries that would have died had they all stayed at home — but little consolation to relatives). The subject of this poem was the first missionary to die in the field outside of the United States. Enthusiastic when he left, Barnes wrote a long poem announcing his mission entitled The Bold Pilgrim (which I excerpted for D&C Lesson #11).
Temple and Family History work (discussed in Gospel Doctrine lesson #40) are perhaps the most unique of LDS doctrines. The doctrine behind them solves both the problem of making salvation universally available and the need for high-church ceremony in a religion that focuses on low-church ideals in its regular worship. The origin of this doctrine appeared in Mormonism in late 1840, and by the following year it was popular enough that it was the subject of the following poem.
The doctrine of baptism for the dead is unique to Mormonism among religions today. Our focus on performing ordinances on behalf of those who haven’t been part of the Church in this life leads us to genealogical research to discover enough information to distinguish between individuals, and sometimes even allowing us to discover who our ancestors were—what kind of people they were and what were they like. While our family history efforts are rightly focused on getting temple work done for our ancestors, we should find value also in getting to know those ancestors, and in that way building eternal relationships with them. The records they left behind are the key to doing this, as the following poem illustrates.
Often when we discuss the principles of welfare today, we talk as if the whole idea of welfare developed in the 1930s, along with the current program. In reality, before the current program caring for the needy, poor and promoting self-reliance were largely the purview of the Relief Society. And so it is a Song of the Sisters of the Relief Society (familiar today since it is the poem on which the current hymn, As Sisters in Zion, is based — Julie also posted here on Times and Seasons about this poem) that I present below to help us understand the principles of welfare.
In Mormonism our definition for the term Prophet is usually more specific than that employed outside of the Church. To us, a prophet is not only someone who has been inspired to prophesy, but it is also the president of the Church, the leader called to preside over the membership, the person who is to receive revelation for the Church, the chief teacher and the chief person who testifies of our Savior. There are other prophets, but we focus on THE Prophet. We didn’t always mean this in quite the same way–at least before 1848 THE Prophet was Joseph Smith, who still occupies something of a special place among prophets. That is the position taken by the author of the following poem, but in the process of describing Joseph Smith, he also illuminates something of what it means to be THE Prophet.
The 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.
In recent years the attention on the tragedy of the Martin and Willie handcart companies seems to have increased. Their situation and rescue has been the subject of books and movies (and lessons) in a process that seems to mythologize the events. The current lesson (#35 in the Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine manual) explores the saving nature of the rescue, and compares that to the Savior’s atonement and our own responsibility to save those who are lost. The following poem helps to set the stage for this discussion, describing the difficulty and the courage necessary to face it.
When we discuss the Mormon trek, the focus is almost always on the physical suffering that many of the immigrants endured while traveling west. While certainly the physical struggle to cross the plains (covered in Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 34) was difficult, the pioneers suffered in other ways also. For example, many left family behind, generally compounded by their conversion to Mormonism, and often assuming that they would never see their family members again. The poem below describes just such a situation.
We often make assumptions about the past based on our perspective today, and the current Gospel Doctrine lesson about Brigham Young and succession in the presidency is no exception. We know that the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve becomes the new Prophet, and it is easy to assume that this was always understood. But following the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, that question was far from clear among many members of the Church. Even six months later, when this poem was written, those members who followed Brigham Young often assumed that he would remain president of the Quorum of the Twelve, rather than replace the prophet.
[I’m sorry for the delay in getting this posted. I’ve been traveling a lot the past week.] The martyrdom of Joseph Smith was a shock to his people and one that, as their successors, we still remember and still feel. But in the days following his assassination, the reaction of Church members was one of outrage. While we today see the martyrdom as “sealing his testimony,” then the members of the Church saw this as a failure of the state, with a feeling that the state was somewhat complicit in these murders. But despite that the brothers were immediately seen as martyrs, equal to those of antiquity. The following poem is perhaps the most immediate poetic reaction, written on July 1st and published that same day in the Times and Seasons. It was subsequently republished in all three of the other existing LDS publications that Fall and was published as a broadside as well. It was later published in other LDS publications, included in the hymnal and published in Snow’s compilation of her poetry.
The doctrine of eternal marriage, discussed in D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson 31, is clearly tied to the priesthood (the authority by which such marriages are performed) and to salvation, for salvation in the eternal kingdom is dependent on sealing, both to parents, to spouse and to children. The following poems addresses the role of sealing in our understanding of priesthood and of salvation.
Our doctrine of performing ordinances on behalf of the dead is unusual among the religions of the world. Many religions pray for the dead, Mormonism actively performs the same saving ordinances that the living must have. These teachings were introduced during the Nauvoo period, and baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi at that time, until the basement of the Temple was complete and ordinances could be performed there. At that point Mormonism learned that these ordinances belonged in the Temple, and this understanding was captured in the following poem by William Wines Phelps, written for the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple in 1846:
I’ve long thought that Nauvoo was a kind of Mormon Camelot, a shining, hopeful city built on consistent, righteous principles that fell apart amid internal dissension. While I wouldn’t push the analogy too far, I think it kind of works on the surface, especially given the standard portrayal of Nauvoo in lessons like Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson 29 and in the following poem.
Despair is, I think, one of the most difficult parts of the human condition. While the sources of our despair today are very different from those suffered by the early saints, the feelings are just as real and difficult. Where do we turn for peace? The following poem explores the despair we all feel—the same discussed in Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson #28—and provides an answer to it.
We often assume in our perception of trials and challenges that the trials aren’t our fault, that these challenges are something that happens to us instead of something that happens as a result of our choices. While it is certainly true that some trials—natural disasters for example—are not by our choice, others are at least the consequence of our own choices. And, in some cases, we actually choose to undertake things that we know will be difficult. Does that mean that they are not still trials? Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson 27 illustrates this. The Church members during the Kirtland and Missouri periods were sometimes innocent of what they were being persecuted for. But other times they brought the persecution on themselves. And, in the case of Zion’s Camp, they chose to do something difficult, even though they knew that it would be hard.
Our understanding of missionary work has changed and evolved substantially over Mormon history. Where we know assume that missionaries are young, during the 19th century missionaries were more mature and married. Where the sacrifices of missionaries today are usually parts of life postponed, during the life of Joseph Smith they meant real hardship for families, the missionary begging for food and even danger of physical assault. Still, then, as now, those brought to a knowledge of the gospel were grateful, as was the author of this poem.
What should the priesthood mean to us? How should it influence who we are and how we act? These questions are part of nearly every Mormon lesson on the priesthood these days, and lesson 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine manual is no exception. And I think the following poem fits this basic topic well.
I frequently hear claims that many church members are leaving the Church, that those who have been raised in the Church, or who have converted have become disillusioned. For a variety of reasons members do leave the Church, and it may be that they are leaving faster now than they did 50 years ago; although we don’t have the data to say for sure. It is clear that this has happened throughout the history of the Church, sometimes in greater numbers than in other times. D&C gospel doctrine lesson #24 addresses this, urging members to “be not deceived.”
I occasionally see from both inside and outside of the Church those who suggest that Mormons are somehow against education. While there certainly have been some anti-intellectual ideas floating around the Church almost from the beginning, the general tenor of Church teachings have always been supportive of education, and D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson #23 is no different. Church leaders have repeatedly, since the days of Joseph Smith, made it clear that education is not just good, it is part of the very purpose of life. Today’s poem sees education as a crucial element in the progress of man:
The word of wisdom is strongly connected with who we are as Mormons—it has become as much an identifier as pork is for Jews and for Muslims. We emphasize the importance of this teaching in lessons like the current Gospel Doctrine lesson (#22), and we teach it to kids almost from birth. But while section 89 was received by Joseph Smith in 1833, it really didn’t become an identifying characteristic of Mormons until past 1900 and, as I understand it, was only included among the Temple recommend questions in the 1950s. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that it was early in the 20th century that we first have songs for children, like the following poem, that encourage keeping the word of wisdom. In this poem keeping that commandment is not only encouraged, it explicitly says we keep it as part of our identity; Because We’re Mormons.
When we think of the second coming of Christ and the things that will happen in the last days, frequently our focus is on the prophesied destruction and the “signs of the times.” But as the focus of D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson 21 shows, we need not put our focus there, but instead we can focus on what will happen to the righteous and the millennium that will be ushered in by the second coming. That same kind of focus can be seen in the following hymn by W. W. Phelps:
It seems like a few verses in the D&C are all we know about the life after this. Lesson 20 of the Gospel Doctrine manual covers D&C 76, 131, 137, and part of 132, and in these scriptures we discover a structure for the hereafter, a segregation of the children of God into groups based on the lives they live here on earth. But the descriptions in scripture are far from specific—after all, how much information can be provided in a few hundred words? I don’t know if the poem below adds much or not. Written by Orson F. Whitney, named an apostle just two years after this was published, this poem is dense, employing sophisticated language and imagery to portray what is in the scriptures. Does it give additional insight? You tell me.
How thin is the veil? Might we remember bits of our experience there? Could a melody we heard there be familiar to us here? (assuming we even heard melodies there). The idea of the pre-existence and of the other elements of the plan of salvation, discussed in D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson 19, are a source of endless wonder and speculation. We just don’t know much about what our existence before and after this life was and will be like. But, perhaps nothing says more about our belief in the plan of salvation than our fascination with speculating about what the life before this one was like, and what the life after this one will be like.
We are a temple-building people. Today we are more removed from the process than ever. Where Mormons once donated money, materials, time and effort to building temples in Kirtland, Nauvoo, St. George, Salt Lake and elsewhere, we participate less and less in the process, first no longer providing materials, then over time less and less labor, and more recently we no longer even have fundraising specifically for building temples or any other building. So we might today be excused from understanding completely how much building temples was part of the life of early members of the Church. Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson 18 addresses the doctrine behind temple building, and the poem I’ve chosen for this lesson adds a millennial tone to the doctrine.
Its hard to find poetry about tithing! I suppose since tithing wasn’t emphasized as much by the Church before the beginning of the 20th century, Mormon poets didn’t focus on the concept. Or, it might simply be that the subject matter doesn’t work well in poetry; certainly the word “tithing” isn’t very poetic, leaving me with visions of bad poetry in which every line ends with a present participle. Its enough to set my ears ringing! But, I suspect that tithing is such a basic concept that my chronological review of poetry, still mired in the late 1840s, just hasn’t come across the poetic reactions to the principle. But I did finally come across the following poem, which gets close, mentioning “the outlay of your money for the Church.”