Praise to the Man: A Hymn By Eliza R. Snow?

September 8, 2008    By: Jacob J @ 11:02 am   Category: Uncategorized

When I was at BYU I used to spend some of my free time between classes hunting for treasures in the BYU library. I made lots of trips to Special Collections since my searches on controversial topics seemed to land me there more often than not. But those trips took time. Frequently, I would just go to the Mormon section (on the forth floor at the time before the HBLL was expanded and it moved downstairs) and look for interesting books to check out. At the time I didn’t have a very clear picture of the larger scholarly community and I assumed if I was going to find interesting things I’d have to dig them up for myself in old books.

Anyway, on one such occasion, I found a book with the following entry about the hymn Praise to the Man. I made copies of the interesting pages, but stupidly I didn’t write down the author or name of the book. If anyone can help me source this properly that would be much appreciated.

History has always been replete with controversial questions–and perhaps always will be. Oftimes these questions afford interesting subjects for discussion. This appears to be especially true in so-called “Mormon History.”

One question which has provoked considerable discussion is: Who authored the beautiful and well-known hymn, “Praise to the Man”?

In the L.D.S. hymn books used today in worshipping assemblies, the author is given as W. W. Phelps and to him since 1863, has gone the credit for its authorship.

While there appears to be no question that W. W. Phelps was in the employ of John Taylor, editor and proprietor of the Times and Seasons at the time the poem first appeared in the paper on August 1, 1844, yet its authorship is there assigned to Eliza R. Snow (see facsimile following).

In the L.D.S. paper, the Frontier Guardian, published December, 1849, in Kanesville, Iowa, the hymn, “Praise to the Man: was published with its authorship attributed to Miss Snow, as follows: “Lines written by Miss Eliza R. Snow, upon the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer.” (See facsimile following).

Under date of December 12, 1849, the Journal History of the Church also names her as author of the hymn (see facsimile following).

In correspondence written November 5, 1951, Mr. C. Cameron Johns, President of the Utah Poetry Society, stated:

“During the past years there have been many discussions as to whether the poet who wrote ‘Praise to the Man’ was W. W. Phelps or the poetess Eliza R. Snow. In my opinion there is within itself so much of that particular quality which distinguishes the writings of Miss Snow. To me the poem seems to express her personality every particle as much as ‘O My Father’ …I’m certain that she should receive credit for the writing of the poem.”

How then did the story ever get started that W. W. Phelps was the author?

Although there is no evidence that W. W. Phelps ever claimed authorship yet in 1863 it was assigned to him in an English edition of the :.D.S. Hymn Book. It is quite apparent that some employee erred and his mistake has been carried down through the years until this noblest and sweetest spirit in Mormon poetry and song is deprived of the righteous honor of the authorship of this soul-stirring and beautiful tribute to the Prophet and Seer whom she so deeply revered.

I have not reproduced the three facsimiles mentioned, but in the book, they followed the text as promised (See Times and Seasons entry here with attribution to Eliza R. Snow). Given the facsimiles, I found this entry to be credible enough that I mentally reassigned authorship to Eliza R. Snow. I was reminded of this at the FAIR conference when Ron Esplin was presenting on The Joseph Smith Papers and attributed the hymn to W. W. Phelps in a passing comment. Since I have never seen any discussion of the authorship outside this book quoted above, I wondered if there is a good argument against Eliza R. Snow being the author or if Ron Esplin was simply following the long tradition of giving credit to Phelps for the hymn.

For some reason, I like to think of it as being written by Eliza R. Snow. Of course, when/if the facts of authorship are known we will all just accept the authorship for whatever it was. But, until then, I find it interesting to ask people who they would prefer it to be. Would you rather it turn out that it was written by Phelps or by Snow? I find that I would rather it be Snow, but I’m not entirely sure why. There is something about it being a tribute from a wife for her martyred husband that is attractive to me, but even that I can’t put into words in a way that makes much sense. Who would you rather it be and why?

12 Comments »

  1. Michael Hicks briefly mentions the issue in a footnote to a 1985 article in Dialogue (139 n. 22).

    Comment by Justin — September 8, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  2. Excellent Justin, thanks. The footnote says:

    There is a rumor in the Church, propagated by Nicholas G. Morgan, Sr., ed., Eliza R. Snow, An Immortal (Salt Lake City: Nicholas G. Morgan, Sr., 1957), that Eliza R. Snow actually wrote “Praise to the Man.” The original publication, Times and Seasons 5 (1 Aug. 1844): 607, was anonymous but appeared below a section of “Poetry by Miss Eliza R. Snow.” Aside from obvious stylistic differences between “Praise to the Man” and Eliza Snow’s work, there is good evidence that Snow did not consider the poem hers. For example, in the LDS Primary organization’s Hymns and Songs (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1880), compiled and edited by Snow, the song is credited to Phelps. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s dossier on this question is on file at the LDS Church Library, Salt Lake City. (Michael Hicks, Poetic Borrowing in Early Mormonism, Dialogue 139 n. 22)

    I assume the book referred to by Hicks is the one I picked up and quoted in the post. I admit that looking at the fascimile of the original Times and Seasons entry I would not have said it was anonymous. But, that may be exactly the reason this rumor was able to get started.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 8, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  3. I admit that looking at the fascimile of the original Times and Seasons entry I would not have said it was anonymous.

    I agree. As I see it, the original news page also suggests that Snow was the author.

    Comment by Justin — September 8, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  4. I was under the impression that the poem was a part of the address Phelps gave at JS’s funeral. However, I can’t document it. Has anyone else heard that?

    Comment by Emerson — September 8, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  5. To address your actual question, I see some appeal in viewing it as Phelps’s hymn, given his earlier fallout and later reconciliation with Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Justin — September 8, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  6. I haven’t seen the facsimile, but the page linked in comment #3 would suggest to me, as a graphic designer conversant with page layout techniques, that the hymn was not written by Eliza Snow.

    The divisions visually indicate that it falls under the section of poetry, but not under the section of Eliza Snow. If it were, it would have been included above the thick triple line with, perhaps, a more minor dividing line between that poem and the one preceding it.

    Comment by SilverRain — September 8, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  7. Emerson,

    Nope, I’ve never heard that, but maybe someone else will chime in.

    Justin,

    That’s funny because my wife responded that she prefered it be Snow specifically because she never fell away and gave Joseph grief as Phelps did. I tend to see it your way though, with the fact that he fell away and was later reconciled making it more meaningful rather than less.

    SilverRain,

    If I get a chance tonight I will scan in the facsimile and link to it since that would be most helpful. I didn’t realize the anonymous claim would come up so I didn’t think it would be relevant but clearly it is. Thanks for your expert opinion.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 8, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

  8. By the way, after review, the link in #3 is better than the facsimile so I am not going to scan and post it.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 9, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  9. So, are we gonna get any conclusive opinions? I am quite interested now. I have to say that I lean towards the “by Phelps” camp because of the redemptive story about Phelps that I associate with the hymn.

    Comment by TrevorwM — September 9, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

  10. If my memory serves right, I asked Jill Derr about this and she said there is an ERS notebook with a copy of the hymn that attributes it to WWP.

    Mark Ashurst-McGee
    Joseph Smith Papers

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — September 10, 2008 @ 8:12 am

  11. Trevor,

    Yea, I’m afraid the lack of conclusive answers is par for the course in history (much moreso in theology!). It seems to me this one is leaning in Phelps’ favor at the moment.

    Mark Ashurst-McGee,

    Thanks for your comment. If the ERS notebook you refer to is different than the Hymns and Songs book mentioned in #2, that would be two different places where Snow herself apparently gives credit to Phelps for the hymn. That would seem to provide pretty solid evidence in favor of Phelps.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 10, 2008 @ 11:14 am

  12. I agree with comments #5 & #9. I have always remembered the refrain from the prophets letter—

    ‘Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last.’

    Yours as ever, Joseph Smith, Jun.

    The song from “Bye, Bye Birdie”, a spoof on Elvis Presley, and the like, made an adaptation of a refrain from a song in that musical come to mind—

    Joseph (Smith) could have said, “I’ve got a lot of (forgiving) to do…”. Not trying to be sacreligious. But, what Joseph and the Church forgave W W Phelps of a LOT.

    But, whether he or she penned it, it could certainly well carry the voice of both. It does indeed carry the voice of the membership of the Church, both then and now, regarding that Christ-like, praiseworthy man, Joseph Smith.

    Comment by diligentdave — March 6, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

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