Conventional wisdom would say a soul must choose between going to church on Sunday or going fishing.

You can’t do both.

Well, conventional wisdom is wrong.

It all depends on what you fish for.

During a lull in the action last Sunday, I went fishing — fishing for information about a giant among hymn writers I had overlooked for 50 years.

His name was Joseph L. Townsend.

I attend a Spanish-speaking ward, and on Sunday we sang the Spanish version of “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words” ("Hymns," No. 232), The translation always makes me smile.

In Spanish ("Himnos," No. 151), the opening line says, “Let’s talk together in tender tones.”

While singing the hymn, I got out the English version and compared the two. I was struck by how elegant the English verses were as poetry. The lines sounded like “the warbling of birds on the heather” themselves.

I checked the name at the bottom of the page.

Joseph L. Townsend, 1849-1942.

I flipped to the index.

Brother Townsend had contributed 10 hymns to our book; the same number as Eliza R. Snow and even more than Charles Wesley, the man considered the finest hymn maker since the Psalmist.

I looked up the titles of Townsend’s hymns.

Several were favorites: “The Day Dawn is Breaking” (No. 52), “The Iron Rod” (No. 274). When he wrote “Choose the Right” (No. 239), Townsend had unwittingly become the godfather of the CTR ring.

My Sunday morning fishing expedition had yielded “a real lunker” — as dad would say.

Once home, I checked the internet and dug through books like Karen Lynn Davidson’s “Our Latter-day Hymns.

I wanted to get a sense for the man and his musical poetry.

Joseph Longking Townsend was born a Pennsylvania farm boy. He went to college in Missouri, where he added reading and thinking to his plowing and planting skills. At age 23, he headed west for his health. In Salt Lake City, he met members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and became one of them.

For the most part, Townsend lived an unassuming life. He taught penmanship and served as the Payson High principal. For 15 years he ran a little neighborhood drugstore.

By day he was as mild and mannered as Clark Kent himself.

By night … well, by night he’d take out his fountain pen and, in script lovely enough to flutter a widow’s heart, he poured his passions onto the page.

This from “Hope of Israel" (No. 259):

Strike for Zion, down with error,

Flash the sword above the foe!

Every stroke disarms a foeman,

Every step we conquering go!

Hidden inside the soft-spoken pharamcist was a warrior, a warrior of words.

As for “Let Us All Speak Kind Words,” the hymn that started my whole fishing trip, just months before he died, Brother Townsend told author George D. Pyper how it came about.

While serving in the Payson Sunday School, Townsend heard several members bickering in the hallway. That night he penned a hymn, hoping to rid the ward of backbiting.

View Comments

And according to accounts, it worked. Just singing the first line of the hymn would soothe people's feelings.

As I read about that hymn, I remembered my mother singing it whenever my brothers and I got into it.

Perhaps your mother sang it, too.

As do hundreds of Hispanic mothers when their kids bicker. Except those mothers sing “Hablemos con tiernos accentos” (Let’s talk together in tender tones).

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.