Friday, April 11, 2014

In Defense of "Praise to the Man"

I was telling a friend of mine how I hear various complaints about the hymn "Praise to the Man" from people who feel it presents Joseph Smith as some kind of perfect Being - and how I personally really like the song.  She wrote back to me and shared the following perspective - and I agree with almost all of it.  (I have edited it only slightly, to add a little perspective of my own.

First I sense where and how the song can stick in someone's throat. When everyone else is singing it with all their gusto, some people picture a flawless man in a soft blue coat gazing majestically into the horizon. Once the picture becomes less polished - once someone sees the real, complex man and not just the caricature of an infallible prophet, it can make it harder for some people to shout, "Hallelujah."

If you don't mind though, I've come to think of it another way.
No matter how someone sees him - flawless or fallible, Joseph Smith died an untimely death by assassination. Often we mortals experience an intense response to that. Just look at Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy. At the time of both of their deaths, they were not beloved like they were afterward. It was rumored that Kennedy wouldn't win re-election. Many in America had lost faith in the man. But his death and the morbid events that caused it pushed him to a greatness he may have never achieved otherwise. The images burned painfully in our minds brought something unexpected to the forefront. Though no hymns were written for him, his works and images became land marks for everyone. His PT109 story was the stuff heroes are made of . His "Profiles in Courage" continues to be a go-to book for leadership. All this from a bullet. Lincoln's untimely death was very similar. The South still didn't love him, no matter how we would like to imagine it. The North had questions and concerns, as well. But that bullet shifted many people's feelings toward him and about his legacy.

In the American West this band of people experienced something similar. The hymn itself was written by a man who once hated Joseph Smith - and many people don't realize that. Of anyone who could have decided either to mourn or vilify Joseph, Brother Phelps was close to number one. In his grief he wrote a song, and that song is now an anthem. Why it didn't get lost in history, I don't know. Other songs written for the saints did.
I take a deep breath and try to remember what those left behind might have felt. They lived it. They lived with Joseph. How much they knew, we may never know, but like other leaders his death was a beacon for them. This song was their anthem of hope.

I have not decided what Joseph would think of it. Some of his final addresses would make it seem like he would be thrilled to have his own hymn. But other parts of him lead me to believe differently. For all the ego that we suppose he had, I have found it intriguing that he rarely preached from the book "he wrote". (Those quotation marks are important, since I'm not saying he didn't translate it.)  Many of his addresses were platforms from the bible - especially Paul. I don't read of meetings that began with, "As King Benjamin taught us . . . " or, "Like Nephi of old said . . ." From my vantage point, I would expect an egotistical soul to pulpit-pound his magnum opus. Yes, he never rejected it; he testified of its origin and his conviction of it. However, it wasn't his platform. Something else was.
So, for me, "Praise to the Man" is a hymn I hum or sing in remembrance of a man who inspired bands of people to cross oceans, deserts, and mountains in the hope of something deep that burned in their hearts - and in remembrance of those people whose hope burned so brightly. 

I also should add that Mormons use the word "praise" very differently than many other Christians do, and understanding that simple fact removes so much of the concern.

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