Songs of Joel

First published: June 2014

I grew up in the city of Enoch. It was not the city of Enoch, and not actually a city, either. The Southern Utah farm community was founded in 1851 by a Mormon poet and songwriter, Joel H. Johnson. He is most well-known today for his lyrics to the hymn, “High on the Mountain Top,” but Johnson wrote 736 hymns. My family ran sheep in Enoch, and I had heard of Johnson’s Fort as a boy without knowing the connection to this settler/poet. Recently, as I studied Early Mormon folk music of Southern Utah, I encountered Johnson’s life’s work, Hymns of Praise for the Young, Selected from the Songs of Joel. I think it’s sort of genius.

Here’s a picture of Johnson. He was born in Massachusetts in 1802 and converted to the Church in 1831. He served missions, founded settlements, was driven from them, and he witnessed the persecution and trials of the early Saints. All the while, he composed songs and captured them in his diary. It is as if the writing of hymns was the balm for his pain. Still, they are filled with such hope and joy. In the preface of his volume of hymns, he writes, “Most of the hymns in this volume have been written under very trying circumstances. The spirit that indited them would sometimes rest so powerfully upon the author, that his sleep would depart from him. At these times, the words of John the Revelator, when on the Isle of Patmos, would often be impressed on his mind: ‘And he said unto me, write.’”

For me, the power of Johnson’s hymns rise from their immediacy. They read like an intimate journal. He writes about leaving his family to serve a mission, about illness and death of family, about blessing his home that it will be a place of God. His hymns survey the landscape of the gospel as experienced in Deseret. He makes casual reference to the belief in a Mother in Heaven and Kolob, among other things. He seems to have responded to the events of his life by creating hymns that placed his experience in a gospel context. Most of the hymns are four to six verses. Here are a few excerpts

Hymn 27

With joy my heart did leap,

When Zion’s children said,

To Zion’s mount we’ll go, and keep

The solemn vows we’ve made.

 

For there, within her gates,

In safety we shall be;

While justice there on judgment waits

The hypocrites shall flee.

 

Hymn 161

Prayer is the atmosphere—the breath,

That keeps the Saints alive;

A principle that conquers death;

By it the righteous thrive.

 

Prayer, is desire that God hath given,

Through faith in Jesus’ name;

A sacred fire within; the leaven

That gives to love its flame.

 

Hymn 175

O Father, wilt thou now draw near,

In this sad hour,

And to this sick one, lying here,

Make known thy power.

 

Hymn 217

Go mother, to thy long sought rest;

Go to thy peaceful home;

Go thou and mingle with the blest;

Thy Father bids thee come.

 

This earth has now one gem the less,

And heaven must richer be;

Then may we in thy footsteps press,

And gain our rest with thee.

 

Hymn 228

To Kolob now my thoughts repair,

When God, my Father, reigns above;

My heav’nly Mother, too, is there,

And many kindred whom I love.

 

My Father sent me here below,

A tabernacle to obtain,

That I might good and evil know,

And endless lives and glory gain.

 

Oh, let me, then, return again!

To see my parents, whom I love,

And with my brethren live and reign,

In worlds where once I lived above.

 

Hymn 242

Farewell, my dear and loving friend,

The partner of my youth;

I am resolved my life to spend

In teaching men the truth.


I go in other climes to rove,

My babes with thee I leave,

The tokens of our constant love,

Thy care let them receive.

 

Hymn 267

Here may our little ones,

Be taught to seek thy face,

And shine like polished stones,

When they shall take our place.

And be prepared thy cause to roll,

In mighty pow’r, from pole to pole.

 

Here may thy prophet’s voice

Be ever heard to sound,

To make thy Saints rejoice,

Through all the nations round;

Till Zion’s cause the nations own,

And wickedness shall not be known.

 

Hymn 289

Forgive me, Father, all my wrongs,

And lengthen out my days,

That I may write a thousand songs

In honor of thy praise.

 

When mortal tongue shall cease to move,

And pen shall cease to write,

I’ll sing in nobler strains above,

With transport and delight.

 

Hymn 313

Alas! dear Lord, how frail am I;

I know that I am born to die;

My mortal body is but clay,

And soon must go the downward way,

 

To lay and moulder in the dust.

My spirit will return, I trust,

To him who sent me here below,

To prove me in a world of woe.

 

Joel H. Johnson culled his songs from his journal, and one year before he died, they were printed in a volume published by Deseret News Company in 1882. He died in a town called Johnson, Utah, September 24, 1883.