In 1844, there were approximately 26,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet, when W.W. Phelps penned a song of tribute to his beloved, fallen prophet, he promised that "millions shall know Brother Joseph again."
Those words were truly prophetic, says Mack Wilberg, conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which will be releasing a special Joseph Smith tribute album, "Praise to the Man," on Tuesday, the 203rd anniversary of the prophet's birth.
Now known not only to the millions of members of the LDS Church, but also by countless more around the world, Joseph Smith has taken a unique and respected place in American and religious history.
More than any other album the choir has done, Wilberg says, this one is focused on the history and heritage of the early church and its founder.
An advance copy of the CD was presented President Thomas S. Monson, the current prophet the church at a gathering following the choir's broadcast on Sunday.
This is the 16th CD the choir has done since establishing its own recording label, noted Sheri L. Dew, president and CEO of Deseret Book, who made the presentation. "Since then we've sold around 2 million albums. But the choir has never done one more meaningful for the members of the church. This is magnificent."
President Monson praised the efforts of the choir for "utilizing their God-given skills. You never know how many hearts have been touched and lives have been changed," he said.
He reminisced about serving as a mission president in Toronto, "the only area outside his own, where Joseph Smith taught." He also noted that he's always appreciated the fact that Joseph Smith was born in the season in which we celebrate the birth of Christ. "I think very little happens by coincidence," he said. And at this season, he's happy that our thoughts can be drawn to Joseph Smith. "He gave us everything."
The new CD pays a stirring and joyful tribute to the early prophet. "There were many directions that we could have gone," Wilberg says, "but we decided to keep it hymn-based. I think those early hymns really capture the essence of Joseph Smith."
The story of the restoration is told through songs such as "The Morning Breaks" and "I Saw Another Angel Fly" and "Adam-ondi-Ahman." Joseph's own story is highlighted though the title song as well as "Joseph Smith's First Prayer" and "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief."
There are Primary songs, and a rendition of "We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet" that takes on even more meaning in this context. There are arrangements by Wilberg, of course, but also by such musicians as Nathan Hofheins, Sam Cardon and organist Richard Elliott.
They all are songs most members of the church are familiar with, says Scott Barrick, general manager of the choir. "But to hear them with full orchestration, with such triumph and zeal is so uplifting," he says.
The purpose of the CD is many-fold, says Barrick. "We wanted something that would coordinate with the general church curriculum, which will again focus on the prophet's teachings. But we also wanted to honor Joseph Smith. There aren't many songs written just about him, but those that are have such substance."
"This is going to be one of the great ones," says choir president Mac Christensen. "This one is going to go on and on and on. The music is absolutely wonderful, the musicians and crew have done a magnificent job. This is one every single family will want."
The music "takes your thoughts where they should be," Christensen says. "You listen, and shivers run up and down your spine. You listen, and you smile, and you are thankful. You listen, and you wonder how Joseph Smith could do all he did. He was obviously chosen by our Heavenly Father and was the right man at the right time, but you still appreciate again all that he did."
Music does that for us, adds Wilberg. "It touches us so deeply." And he, too, sees this collection as "a reminder of where we came from, where we started." Knowing and appreciating our roots can be so important, he says. "It can strengthen us as we face trials; it can bolster us in times of need." It can fill our hearts with gratitude and praise for that man and all who have come since, he says. "It reminds us the importance of what we are all about."