Why Emma Smith didn’t let the destruction of her first hymn book stop her


Gathering, selecting, and editing hymns was not a typical project for women in the nineteenth century. That did not stop Emma, a visionary woman in her own sense of the word.1 She had been promised in her 1830 revelation: “Thy time shall be given to writing, and to learning much.”2 She probably gathered hymns from her hometown newspaper as well as other papers and denominational hymnals.3 The process, like so many other endeavors in her life, would ebb and flow with loss and compensation, requiring more than five years to produce.

Two years after the 1830 revelation, on April 30, 1832, Joseph attended a council of the Literary Firm, a committee responsible for Church publications in Independence, Missouri. The Firm formally approved the hymnal as well as publication of the Book of Commandments and an almanac. William W. Phelps was appointed to edit the publications.4 While Emma may have been taking time for “writing, and to learning much,” including finding hymns according to her 1830 revelation, her time had also been filled with moving between Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio; struggling with difficult pregnancies; grieving lost babies; and adjusting to adoption. 

In Independence in June 1832, William printed the first copy of The Evening and the Morning Star, a monthly newspaper devoted to communication among the Saints scattered in Missouri, Ohio, and the eastern United States. The paper printed revelations, then known as “commandments,” to promulgate faith and doctrine for Saints and their missionaries.5 In addition to scripture and instruction, the Star included hymns, many of which may have been contributed by Emma. The first issue included six hymn lyrics under the title: “Hymns, Selected and prepared for the Church of Christ, in these last days.”6 The Star printed twenty-six hymns the first year, twenty of which were included in the 1835 hymnal. Unfortunately, the printing office was destroyed in July 1833, putting a halt to the hymn project. Gone was the collection Emma had sent from Kirtland to Missouri and other paperwork for the unfinished Book of Commandments. In his personally-bound copy of recovered pages from the Book of Commandments, Wilford Woodruff copied by hand eight hymns from the paper, six of which appeared in the first hymnal.7 The loss of Emma’s hymns would have been devastating—a bit like the loss of the first section of the Book of Mormon manuscript. Two heartfelt endeavors representing two sacred assignments were lost.

Emma did what she perhaps did best in opposition: waited a bit, then dug back in. After the destruction of the Independence press office and the ejection of the Saints from Jackson County, Oliver Cowdery opened a new press in Kirtland in October 1834. The first publication there was a newspaper—The Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate—another opportunity to print Emma’s collection of hymns. The Messenger printed seven hymns by William Phelps, Parley P. Pratt, and Frederick Williams, all of which were later included in Emma’s hymnal.

The hymnal project began again in earnest in the fall of 1835 in preparation for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. On September 14, the high council met in the unfinished temple and once more formally appointed Emma to publish her hymn book, pledging their full support, again with William Phelps as publisher.8 Emma was not present at either this council meeting or the earlier 1832 meeting in Independence to hear their support; these meetings were generally conducted and held by men. She learned to work through increasing institutional bureaucracy, particularly with a direct connection to Joseph, who held ecclesiastical authority. At the same time as the council meeting, in another part of the edifice, Joseph Smith Sr. was holding a patriarchal blessing meeting. Emma’s friend Elizabeth Ann Whitney received her blessing and was promised the gift of tongues. She immediately stood and sang a song in what was determined to be the Adamic language, interpreted by Parley P. Pratt.9 Elizabeth Ann’s song revealed the same type of divine worship that the high council wanted to encourage in the production of a Church hymnal—one specific to the Restoration and to their institution. Emma hoped to capture this type of worship by tapping into her understanding of lived religion.

Emma’s hymnal was finally typeset in 1835, the date of the imprint, but the run of one thousand copies was printed in early 1836. Frederick G. Williams owned the press—the same Frederick Granger Williams for whom Emma and Joseph named their son born later that year. Emma titled the book A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The hymnal displayed the new official name of the Church, one way in which Emma contributed to the production of institutional identity. The hymnal cost one dollar.

The book contained ninety hymn texts on 127 pages. It was a small book—3½ by 4 inches—typical for contemporary hymnals, easily kept in a pocket for daily use. Also typical was the lack of printed music; instead, the book offered metrical designation, allowing lyrics to be sung to any number of familiar tunes with the same meter.10 Emma selected fifty hymns from various Protestant hymnals and forty from Latter-day Saint authors, including William Phelps, Parley P. Pratt, Eliza R. Snow, Edward Partridge, Thomas Marsh, and Philo Dibble.11 The preface, most likely written by Emma, reflected both her revelation and the Church: 

In order to sing by the Spirit, and with the understanding, it is necessary that the church of the Latter Day Saints should have a collection of “Sacred Hymns,” adapted to their faith and belief in the gospel, and, as far as can be, holding forth the promises made to the fathers who died in the precious faith of a glorious resurrection, and a thousand years’ reign on earth with the Son of Man in his glory. Notwithstanding the church, as it were, is still in its infancy, yet, as the song of the righteous is a prayer unto God, it is sincerely hoped that the following collection, selected with an eye single to his glory, may answer every purpose till more are composed, or till we are blessed with a copious variety of the songs of Zion.

The 1835 hymnal was an immediate success. After the temple dedication, the Literary Firm designated five hundred copies to be sent to Saints in Missouri, expanding its reach.12 Almost immediately, the book was sold out. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles saw the need for a second Church-approved hymnal and began selecting hymns in July 1839.13 But without their knowledge, in 1838, David Rogers had already printed a hymnal for the growing number of Saints in New York, switching out forty songs but selling it as the one compiled and published by Emma.14 This caused concern among the Nauvoo High Council, who brought charges against him in the April 1840 conference.15 Meanwhile, Brigham Young and others took the 1839 list with them on missions to England, intent on printing a hymnal for the British Saints.16 While they were away, the Nauvoo High Council again discussed the hymn book on October 27, 1839, and voted that Emma edit the second hymn book, perhaps in respect to her 1830 revelation assignment, rather than anyone in England.17 Due to the lengthy time of overseas correspondence and the high cost of importing foreign books into England for a growing number of Church members there, Brigham had already published the Manchester hymnal before Joseph’s communication of disapproval arrived.18 

Emma moved forward with her second edition during a malaria epidemic and while caring for four young children. She continued to try to find time to study and write. She wrote Joseph, “I have many more things I could like to write but have not time and you may be astonished at my bad writing and incoherent manner, but you will pardon all when you reflect how hard it would be for you to write, when your hands were stiffened with hard work, and your heart convulsed with intense anxiety.”19 Her writing was a true labor of love. The November 1, 1840, issue of the Times and Seasons called for submissions: “Feeling desirous to have an extensive, and valuable book; it is requested that all those who have been endowed with a poetical genius, whose muse has not been altogether idle, will feel enough interest in a work of this kind, to immediately forward all choice, newly composed, or revised hymns.”20 Emma’s second hymnal was ready for sale by March 15, 1841, as announced in the Times and Seasons.21 The new book included 304 hymns, using seventy-eight from the 1835 hymnal’s ninety hymns. Emma included seventy-seven new texts from the Manchester hymnal, then available in Nauvoo.22 The Manchester hymnal, however, seemed to have gained more popularity and use than Emma’s 1841 book, and it became the popular hymnal taken across the plains to Utah. The large number of British Saints in Nauvoo may have been partial to it, and Brigham Young’s connection to the book may have been a factor. A notice in the Times and Seasons indicates a third effort to compile a Nauvoo hymnal in 1843, requesting hymns be sent to “Emma Smith, immediately,” but the book was never published.23

Emma’s membership and participation in the RLDS church allowed her to utilize her musical talents thirty years after her initial assignment. In October 1860, the church commissioned a hymnal from Emma, her third such publication. The Latter Day Saints’ Selection of Hymns was published in Cincinnati in 1861, with an expanded version of the same book printed in 1864, including eight texts by David Hyrum Smith, Emma’s youngest son. He had been raised with his mother’s appreciation for music and the arts. These two hymnals formed the foundation of sacred music for the RLDS church.24

Lead Image: Cover Art for "First" by Brent Borup

From acting as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon to founding the Relief Society, Emma Hale Smith was a key figure in the Restoration. She was also her husband's anchor and the love of his life. But how much do we really know about her role, teachings, and leadership? Drawing upon letters written by Emma to Joseph and to many others, along with minutes from Relief Society meetings and other artifacts, this book sketches a more complete portrait of this elect lady. It allows each of us to become personally acquainted with Emma as we learn more about her essential work as a leader, a wife, and a mother in the early days of the Church. Learn more about First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith here

  1. Rachel Cope, “A Sacred Space for Women: Hymnody in Emma Hale Smith’s Theology,” Journal of Religious History 42, no. 2 (Jun. 2018): 242.
  2. D&C 25:8.
  3. Staker, “Isaac and Elizabeth Hale in Their Endless Mountain Home,” 61, 66–67.
  4. Literary Firm, Minutes, “Zion,” Independence, MO, 30 Apr. 1832, Minute Book 2, 25-26, JSP.
  5. Ron Romig and John H. Siebert, “First Impressions: The Independence, Missouri, Printing Operation, 1832–33,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 10 (1990): 56–57; Bruce A. Van Orden, We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout: The Life and Times of W.W. Phelps (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2018), 79.
  6. “Hymns,” The Evening and the Morning Star 1, no. 1 (June 1832): 8. Printed hymns include “What fair one is this, in the wilderness trav’ling,” “Glorious things of thee are spoken,” “The time is nigh, that happy time,” “Redeemer of Israel,” “On mountain tops the mount of God,” “The body is but chaff,” and “He died! the great Redeemer died!”
  7. Book of Commandments, 1833, incomplete copy owned by Wilford Woodruff, 167–82, CHL. Woodruff included, under the title, “Songs of Zion,” “Age after age has rolled away,” “The great and glorious gospel light,” “Ere long the vail will rend in twain,” “Come ye children of the kingdom,” “My soul is full of peace and love,” “The happy day has rolled on,” “Beyond these earthly scenes in sight,” and “There is a land the Lord will bless.”
  8. Minutes, Minute Book 1, 14 Sep. 1835, 108, JSP.
  9. Elizabeth Ann Whitney, “A Leaf from an Autobiography,” WE 7, no. 11 (1 Nov. 1878): 83; see At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women, ed. Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 7–9; churchhistorianspress.org.
  10. Poulter, “Doctrines of Faith and Hope,” 33–34.
  11. Nancy Anderson, “The Song of the Righteous,” Museum Gallery Talk, 2015, CHL.
  12. Literary Firm, Minute Book 1, 2 Apr. 1836, 199, JSP.
  13. Joseph Smith, Journal, 1839, 8–20 Jul. 1839, 9, JSP. See “David Rogers,” bio, JSP.
  14. David W. Rogers, A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of the Latter Day Saints (New York City: Vinten, 1838). See Hicks, “Emma Smith’s 1841 Hymnbook,” 14–15; Naida R. Williamson, “David White Rogers of New York,” BYU Studies 35, no. 2 (1995): 73–90.
  15. Joseph Smith, Minutes and Discourses, 6–8 Apr. 1840, T&S 1, no. 6 (Apr. 1840): 92; JSP.
  16. Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music: A History (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 23–27.
  17. Joseph Smith, Minutes, 27 Oct. 1839, JSP.
  18. Hyrum Smith to Parley P. Pratt, 22 Dec. 1839, JS Collection, CHL; Parley P. Pratt, Brigham Young, John Taylor, eds., A Collection of Sacred Hymns for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Europe (Manchester, England: 1840); Michael Hicks, “Emma Smith’s 1841 Hymnbook,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 21, no. 1 (2012): 14–18.
  19. Emma Smith to Joseph Smith, 7 Mar. 1839, JSP.
  20. “Hymns!! Hymns!!” T&S 2, no. 1 (1 Nov. 1839): 204, emphasis in original.
  21. Books,” T&S 2, no. 10 (15 Marc 1841): 355.
  22. Nancy J. Andersen, “Mormon Hymnody: Kirtland Roots and Evolutionary Branches,” Journal of Mormon History 32, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 154.
  23. “Sacred Hymns,” T&S 6, no. 6 (1 Feb. 1843): 95.
  24. Richard Clothier, “‘Cultivate the Gifts of Music and Song’: The Hymnals of the Reorganization,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 23 (2003): 138–40.
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