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 â€œMormon History.â€
One question which has provoked considerable discussion is: Who authored the beautiful and well-known hymn, â€œPraise to the Manâ€?
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, â€œPraise to the Man: was published with its authorship attributed to Miss Snow, as follows: â€œLines written by Miss Eliza R. Snow, upon the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer.â€ (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:
â€œDuring the past years there have been many discussions as to whether the poet who wrote â€˜Praise to the Manâ€™ 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 â€˜O My Fatherâ€™ â€¦Iâ€™m certain that she should receive credit for the writing of the poem.â€
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?