Pioneer Poetry at the CHL

by Jeffrey Tucker, Church History Library
19 October 2021

Filters in the Church History Catalog let you search specifically for poetry. Learn about how to find pioneer-era poetry—and see examples of it—here.

The pioneer era of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brims with poetry on myriad topics: pushing handcarts, yes, but also verse about ocean voyages, militia skirmishes, legal injustice, missionary service, plural marriage—the list goes on. And while many people have heard of “Zion’s poetess,” Eliza R. Snow (and rightly so), there are plenty of other noteworthy Latter-day Saint poets from the pioneer era who have contributed to our literary history.

Fortunately, if you are interested in researching poetry related to the Church, its members, and its history, the Church History Catalog has a filter that allows searching exclusively for items and collections labeled as poetry:

Select the box next to “Poetry” and click “Apply Filters” at the top of the sidebar; only the records identified as poetry will be displayed. You can also enter a date range at the top of the sidebar to confine your results to a given time period; for the poems below, the search was narrowed to the early- to mid-1800s.

To help those interested in researching pioneer-era poetry at the Church History Library, here is a sampling of what is available, along with a brief description of each item, arranged chronologically:

1. “Mysteries of God, as revealed to Enoch, on the Mount Mehujah, and sung in tongues by Elder D.W. Patton, of the ‘Church of Latter Day Saints,’ (who fell a Martyr to the cause of Christ, in the Missouri persecution,) and interpreted by Elder S. Rigdon” by David W. Patten [M288.1 M998 184-?]

David W. Patten (November 14, 1799–October 25, 1838; note the spelling error in the broadside’s title) was an early Church leader who served as one of the original Twelve Apostles called in this dispensation. He is mentioned twice in the Doctrine and Covenants: in section 114 the Lord asks David to settle his business interests in preparation to serve a mission, and in section 124, after David’s death, the Lord says that David is with Him.1

David occupies a unique place in Church history for several reasons. Aside from his appearances in the Doctrine and Covenants, David was an extremely active missionary, serving 12 missions in total. He helped defend the Saints against mob attacks, which earned him the nickname “Captain Fear-Not.”2 David is primarily remembered, though, for his role in the Battle of Crooked River (October 25, 1838), when he led a group of 75 Latter-day Saint militiamen to rescue three Saints who had been taken hostage in Missouri by a violent mob. Ambushed by the mob as they crossed Crooked River, David’s group returned fire. The brief but intense skirmish would ultimately claim the lives of one mob member and three Latter-day Saints, including David. Sometime prior to the battle, David had confided to Joseph Smith that he had asked God for the opportunity to die as a martyr to his faith, to which Joseph sadly replied, “When a man of your faith asks the Lord for anything, he generally gets it.”3 It appears that both men’s words came true.

At a time when some members of the Church spoke in tongues when acted upon by the Holy Ghost, David was known to sing in tongues. David sang this song on February 27, 1833, and it was recorded in Revelation Book 2.4 The context surrounding David’s song is unclear; perhaps it was part of a meeting, as there were others present to hear it. In this case, Sidney Rigdon acted as the “translator” of David’s song, telling others what his words meant. Later, this translation was put into poetic form—with rhyming couplets and iambic tetrameter—and was even sung as a hymn; this is a broadside of that adaptation.

2. “A contrast between superstition and religion” by Joel Hills Johnson [M288.1 J675c 1838?]

Joel Hills Johnson (March 23, 1802–September 24, 1882) was an early Church leader; he served as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, a branch president, and a bishop. Three years after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1848, Joel was sent to southern Utah, where he spent the rest of his life. He was a prolific writer; his hymn “High on the Mountain Top” is still one of the most performed songs in our hymnal.5

This poem describes a dream in which “Superstition” is represented by

An object clothed in rags all o’er,

Whose age was four score years or more.

With wrinkled face and fiery eyes […]

Her hair was gray, her teeth did grin,

Her hands had whips and scorpions in.6

Having frightened the narrator, Superstition proceeds to terrorize him with the aforementioned whips and scorpions. She tries throwing him into a river “whose waters were as black as ink”7 until he is saved by a damsel representing “Religion”:

Whose face was brighter than the sun,

Her hair did all in ringlets flow,

Her garments were as white as snow.8

Needless to say, Joel prefers religion over superstition.

3. “Time and Change” by Eliza R. Snow [M288.1 S674ti 1841]

This poem by Eliza R. Snow (January 21, 1804–December 5, 1887) is notable for being written in blank verse, as opposed to her frequently employed rhyme. In it, she joins the ranks of poets throughout the ages who have written about the passage of time and its unrelenting march forward. She also uses her temporal motif to chronicle prophets’ actions throughout earth’s history. The booklet also includes odes to Revolutionary War soldiers and the Fourth of July.

4. “A Deluded Mormon” [M288.1 C622de 1841?]

William Clayton (July 17, 1814–December 4, 1879), the author of “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” was another prolific pioneer-era writer. This poem, which was sung as a rallying cry by emigrating British Saints as they crossed the Atlantic with him, was written in 1841. Featuring a tongue-in-cheek title, the poem describes the mixture of hope and longing felt by converts leaving their homeland.

5. “To the scattered and peeled Britons” by Rees E. Price [M288.1 P947t 1845]

Rees E. Price (August 12, 1795–January 20, 1877) lived a very interesting life. Born in Wales, he came to the United States with his parents as a boy in 1801. Settling in Cincinnati, Ohio, the family built a successful business that suffered a sudden reversal of fortune when Rees was 21, forcing Rees to go into business for himself and save his family from insolvency. Rees would ultimately pursue a variety of professional ventures: he started a brickyard, a sawmill, and a construction business. By the time he reached his 30s, Rees had turned his family’s financial situation around and earned a reputation as a prominent businessman.9 Later, he would build a railway up a large hill in Cincinnati. His influence was such that a school in Cincinnati still bears his name.

Rees joined the Church on March 13, 1842.10 We do not know much about his Church activity. Historian Russell Stevenson notes that Rees was a staunch abolitionist and joined the Church in Cincinnati at a time when Elijah Able11 was also active in the congregation, where the two likely interacted. Stevenson also notes that by January 1844, Rees had left the Church and started his own movement.12

He was also a self-styled poet, hence this unique broadside. Starting off with a fairly traditional poetic form, it soon transitions into a theatrical script in which a ghost, a lion, the pope, and “General Polk” (James K. Polk, perhaps?) trade dialogue. The broadside ends with a paean to Queen Victoria. The “Mount Zion” listed as the place of publication on the broadside is Price’s estate in Cincinnati, now known as Price Hill.

6. “New Citizen Doggerel” [M288.1 N532 1846]

This anonymous poem—together with its companion piece on the same page, “The Boys of Nauvoo”—was written to commemorate events occurring near Nauvoo on June 16, 1846. A large mob led by Levi Williams had assembled at an area known as Golden’s Point. From there, they intended to march into Nauvoo and plunder the city, as many Saints had left their homes and it was, they thought, undefended.13 However, the city was far from empty; many Saints had sold their homes upon leaving, and the city’s newer residents—referred to as “New Settlers” in the poem—didn’t like the idea of being plundered any more than the Saints did. (For example, the “Backenstos” mentioned in the poem was Jacob Backenstos, a member of the Nauvoo Legion who was not a Latter-day Saint.) Additionally, an officer in the Nauvoo Legion named Stephen Markham had returned to Nauvoo, supposedly with several hundred armed men in tow. (In reality he was alone, but such was the rumor.)

In the face of the perceived opposition, the mob retreated, much to the delight of the Nauvoo citizenry. It is unclear whether Williams’s mob also hid from a herd of cattle, as described in the poem.

7. “A Mormons song with its introduction” by James Gledhill [M288.1 G555m 1849?]

Not much is known about James Gledhill (February 27, 1807–February 12, 1889), the author of this poem. We know that he was born in England and came to Utah in 1864 as part of the William S. Warren pioneer company. Apparently, before coming to the United States he was a member of the Manchester Conference in the British Mission, and he was familiar enough with the Saints there to write this poem, which mentions many Saints and branches by name. If you’re interested in researching the history of the Manchester Conference, this poem may be helpful.

8. “To Cyrus H. Wheelock, pastor of the Manchester, Liverpool, and Preston conferences. December 18th, 1852” by John Lyon [M288.1 L991t 1852]

Cyrus H. Wheelock (February 28, 1813–October 11, 1894) was, by all accounts, an incredibly stalwart person—he served three missions to England, led a pioneer company across the plains, helped rescue the stranded handcart pioneers at the Sweetwater River, and spent two years as the mission president of the Northern States Mission. He also wrote the popular hymn “Ye Elders of Israel.”

Thus, it’s not surprising that someone would want to thank Cyrus for his service. This poem was written to him while he served one of those missions to England; at the time, Cyrus was the president of the Manchester, Liverpool, and Preston conferences of the mission.

9. “Testimonial presented to Elder Henry Clegg, President of the Rose Place Branch...” [M274.2 T344 1855]

Henry Clegg Jr. (June 7, 1825–August 30, 1894) was among the first group of Saints baptized in Preston, England, after hearing Heber C. Kimball and his missionary companions speak. Henry’s father, Henry Clegg Sr., has his own special place in Church history—he was second in the famous footrace along the River Ribble to see who would be baptized first.14

Henry Jr. would leave England for Utah in 1855 with his wife and two young sons. Sadly, after cholera swept through their pioneer company, Henry’s wife died, and he was forced to bury her in an unmarked grave along the trail. Later that evening, Henry’s youngest son also died. Henry, who was sick with cholera himself, carried his son’s body back to his wife’s grave. He uncovered her, laid the dead boy in her arms, and then buried the two together. By that point, the company had moved on. Henry walked five miles alone to rejoin his remaining son.15

After arriving in Utah, Henry would remarry and become a prominent member in Heber City, Utah, serving as a bishop for 10 years.

Before departing England, Henry served as the president of the Rose Place Branch near Liverpool. This poem and tribute, signed by four members of the branch, was given to him as he left. (It is unknown who wrote the poem.) Hopefully it gave him comfort and strength during the trials he later faced.

10. “Thougts [sic], on reading the ‘Resolution’ introduced into Congress by Mr. Morrel [sic] of Vermont, to prohibit polygamy in Utah” by Curtis E. Bolton [M288.1 B694t 1862?]

The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was sponsored by Justin Smith Morrill, a senator from Vermont. Signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on July 8, 1862, it outlawed plural marriage in United States territories and limited the amount of property that a church could own to $50,000. This acerbic poem by Curtis E. Bolton (July 16, 1812–December 6, 1890) was dedicated “to poor old Uncle Sam who is nearly demented” from “his nephews in Utah who are not represented.”16

The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act had little effect on day-to-day life in Utah, though, as Abraham Lincoln effectively gave Brigham Young permission to continue practicing plural marriage if Utah would stay out of the Civil War.17 However, it did pave the way for future acts such as the Edmunds Act (1882) and the Edmunds-Tucker Act (1889) that would ultimately end the Saints’ practice of plural marriage in the United States.

If you have questions about researching a Church-related history topic at the Church History Library, such as pioneer-era poetry, we have prepared a page with several resources to help you get started. Additionally, if you have a question, you can always ask one of our research consultants via our Ask Us online service.