In August 1844, still reeling over the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the LDS newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois published a new Mormon hymn. William W. Phelps wrote the words of this song about Joseph Smith and set it to music, using an old Scottish folksong for the tune.
“Praise to the Man” identifies Joseph Smith as “the man who communed with Jehovah” while proclaiming that “Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.” The lyrics of the chorus are,
Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.
The hymn goes on to praise Smith’s “mem’ry, he died as a martyr; honored and blest be his ever-great name!” It speaks of Smith’s blood pleading to heaven (or, before 1927 when the words were changed, Smith’s blood stained Illinois) while “the earth lauds his fame.”
More eulogizing proclaims Smith’s “great glory” and “endless priesthood,” speaks of him being “faithful and true,” and warns, “Earth must atone for the blood of that man.”
Today, just as when it was first written, this Mormon hymn is cherished by Latter-day Saints all over the world.
In early July (2009) I attended the Nauvoo Pageant: A Tribute to Joseph Smith in Illinois. This musical drama, presented live by the LDS Church and its members, ”celebrates the legacy of early Latter-day Saints” who settled Nauvoo in the 1840s.
The pageant began with a procession of bagpipers marching behind an American flag. As the flag-bearer approached and ascended the steps of the outdoor stage, the audience rose to its feet. Each person in the predominantly LDS audience placed a hand over his or her heart with high emotion. After this the audience would be invited to sing the Star Spangled Banner, but at that opening moment of the performance, the flag-bearer marched to the notes of a different tune.
I didn’t recognize the song. I would expect a procession of the American flag to be accompanied by an American song: “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”; “America the Beautiful”; “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” But the song used in the Nauvoo Pageant was a Scottish tune. So I wondered, What was the song and what was its significance in relation to the flag?
I later learned that the song chosen for the flag processional was “Praise to the Man.” And again I wondered.
The people who stood with tears in their eyes and hands on their hearts – what were they responding to? Were they exhibiting patriotic respect for the United States of America? Or were they, as Mormons very familiar with the song, exhibiting veneration of the Prophet?
And the non-Mormons in the audience — what would they have done in the midst of this emotional scene if they had known the pledge-posture of the moment was not only vowing allegiance to the flag, but was also a declaration of praise for the man Joseph Smith?