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Whistling while walking: Hymns from the pioneer trail

Pioneer Day is approaching. Here are some hymns that were sung by pioneers

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Pioneer Day reenactment of Latter-day Saint pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley taken on July 24, 1912.

Pioneer Day reenactment of Latter-day Saint pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley taken on July 24, 1912.

Harry A. Keller, Wikimedia Commons

Open up a Latter-day Saint hymnal and there will be a number of hymns that are sung to popular tunes. In part, this is due to the fact that in the 19th century, most hymnals only included lyrics to hymns. Many hymns and songs were sung to familiar tunes. Pioneer hymns are no exception.

As pioneers trekked into the Salt Lake Valley, they composed and sang songs that have become popular today. The most popular pioneer trail hymn is “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

William Clayton penned this hymn on April 15, 1846, after he received the joyous news that his son was born in good health and the dismal news that his wife was suffering from illness. According to The Church News, Clayton wrote in his journal, “This morning I composed a new song — ‘All Is Well.’ I feel to thank my heavenly father for my boy and pray that he will spare and preserve his life and that of his mother and so order it so that we may soon meet again.”

Eliza R. Snow also composed a hymn on the trail in September 1847 called “Hail to the ‘Twelve’ and Pioneers.” This hymn was sung to the tune of “Yes, My Native Land I Love Thee.”

Although this hymn is not sung in Latter-day Saint chapels today, it was sung on the pioneer trail. The first verse of the hymn reads, “Hail, ye chosen men of Israel,/ Who the hiding place have found;/ The Eternal God has blessed you,/ You have stood on holy ground.”

While Clayton and Snow are names familiar to many Latter-day Saints, lesser-known pioneers wrote hymns, too. James Sylvester joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1842 before he sailed for America. After he trekked to Utah, he lived in Springville before moving to Pintura in Washington County.

He penned the hymn, “I Am Going Away to Zion!” The first four lines of this hymn read, “With my sheaves upon my back and my sickle by my side,/ I am going away to Zion to join the ready Bride;/ With my blessings on my head and the song that’s in my heart,/ I’ll bid adieu to Babylon, for you and I must part.”

The details of the original publication of Sylvester’s hymn are unknown, and the only known copy of the hymn is printed in John Freeman’s “Collection of Songs.”

The sacrifices that the pioneers made along the trail inspired many Latter-day Saint composers to memorialize the pioneer trail as a symbol of Latter-day Saint consecration. Written long after pioneers walked the trails, Ida R. Alldredge penned the hymn “They, the Builders of the Nation.”

In the first verse, she wrote, “They, the builders of the nation,/ Blazing trails along the way;/ Stepping-stones for generations/ Were their deeds of ev’ry day./ Building new and firm foundations,/ Pushing on the wild frontier./ Forging onward, ever onward,/ Blessed, honored Pioneer!”

Pioneers continue to have a special place within Latter-day Saint history. John Daniel Thompson McAllister wrote, “When pioneers moved to the West,/ With courage strong they met the test./ They pushed their handcarts all day long,/ And as they pushed they sang this song:/ For some must push and some must pull,/ As we go marching up the hill;/ So merrily on our way we go/ ntil we reach the Valley-o.”

As Pioneer Day approaches, these pioneer hymns can provide reflection on the joy that the Saints had as they sacrificed.