Truth

In 1851, young Mormon Apostle (and British Mission President) Franklin Dewey Richards did a remarkable thing:

1851 Pearl of Great Price Title Page

The booklet, produced by Richard James, the Church’s contract printer in Liverpool, England, contained a much wider selection of texts than the present “standard work.” Here is the last bit of the table of contents:

PoGP Table of Contents

Click the image and you’ll see that the last item in this tome is titled “Truth.”

“Truth” was a poem by Leicestershire native John Jaques. Jaques converted to Mormonism in 1845 and was called as a missionary in his homeland. While in his digs at Stratford-on-Avon(!) he was inspired by Pilate’s question to Christ: “What is truth?” Jaques’s reply to the question:

Oh say, what is truth? ‘Tis the fairest gem
That the riches of worlds can produce,
And priceless the value of truth will be when
The proud monarch’s costliest diadem
Is counted but dross and refuse.

Yes, say, what is truth? ‘Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire;
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies.
‘Tis an aim for the noblest desire.

The sceptre may fall from the despot’s grasp
When with winds of stern justice he copes,
But the pillar of truth will endure to the last,
And its firm-rooted bulwarks outstand the rude blast,
And the wreck of the fell tyrant’s hopes.

Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Though the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.

Sounds Prattian, don’t you think? While “Truth” didn’t make the final cut for the 1880 canon, it did find its way into LDS hymnody and currently exists in two arrangements in the modern LDS hymnal.[1] It’s always been one of my favorites, and it occasionally makes an appearance with the men’s chorus in the General Priesthood segment of General Conference. I still recall an impressive a capella performance from a few decades back.

The near canonical poem was not Jaques’s only memorable part in Mormonism: his family was part of the ill-fated Martin company. His oldest daughter perished in the trek. Jaques later became editor of the Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star and then an editorial writer for the Deseret News and finally an Assistant Church Historian.[2] Jaques played an important role in the aftermath of Wilford Woodruff’s 1894 revelation, assisting none other than Franklin D. Richards in planning and organizing the Genealogical Society of Utah and becoming its first librarian. Jaques died in 1900.

———————
[1]The poem was set to music by Scottish convert Ellen Knowles Melling with the title “Oh, Say What is Truth.” It was sung at the September 11, 2011 CES fireside with Elder Dallin H. Oaks.

[2] Jaques was a seemingly reluctant polygamist, marrying into the principle in 1872.

Comments

  1. My very favorite hymn (really!) and now I know a bit of it’s history–thanks for this post, WVS.

  2. It probably has a better life as a hymn than in canonical backwaters.

    “The sceptre may fall from the despot’s grasp
    When with winds of stern justice he copes”

    Lots of fun lines.

  3. This is wonderful. Thanks, WVS!

  4. That is a great hymn. It is even better in Russian translation.

  5. We need more poetry and hymns in the canon!

  6. This is one of the hymns we learned as a family a few years ago when we learned of its origins in the PoGP. Glad my 5-year-old had occasion to learn what a diadem is! It’s the 1950 hymnal that has two arrangements. The current 1985 hymnal has just one version (harmonies have been stripped down, if you ask me). I also remember hearing several variations on this hymn in the score of the mid-80s video “How Rare a Possession, The Book of Mormon.” (During the Parley P. Pratt story, if I remember correctly.)

  7. Thanks, guys. Joanne, still two arrangements: 272, 331.

  8. The men’s section, of course. Sorry for my error.

  9. No problem. Steve does this all the time.

  10. Jacques most significant contribution: His catechism for children, which was memorized by generations of Saints.

  11. Sunday School kids take heed!

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    When I was in seminary and it was singing time, someone would often say “Let’s sing scripture!” and then we would sing this song.

  13. There was a time that the opening lines of this song were modified to all sorts of use twixt wife and self, the most typical being, “O say, what is salmon? ‘Tis a big, pink fish.”

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