11. Welsh Immigrants began The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Not the least of the enormous contribution that the people of Wales made to the early growth and eventual success of the latter-day Church of Jesus Christ (the Mormon Church) was that of music, especially choral singing. The world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir owes much to the efforts of Welsh pioneers in keeping alive the musical heritage of their nation.
Elders from the early Mormon Church found willing converts in Wales when the Overton Branch was formed in Flintshire in the fall of 1840. Other branches quickly spread throughout the principality mainly through the missionary zeal of Captain Dan Jones who had left Wales to settle in the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo. Jones had carried many emigrating Saints up the Mississippi River on a small river steamer The Maid of Iowa during the early 1840's. Because Jones impressed Joseph Smith with his enthusiasm for the cause and was blessed by the soon-to-be martyred Smith (they shared a jail cell together until one hour before the Church leader was murdered), Jones was given the task of converting the people of Wales. The mission was confirmed in a meeting with Brigham Young and other Church Elders in May 1843.
Jones began his missionary work at Merthyr Tydfil, at the time the largest town in Wales, where he found "the prospects good for a plentiful crop of good souls." By 1846, the Welsh District consisted of 28 branches with 687 members. By 1848, there were 12 conferences, 10 branches and a membership of nearly 5,000. The next year, following his great successes in Wales, Jones returned to the United States along with 249 Welsh converts on the Buena Vista. Many of these emigrants had rich musical backgrounds.
Of the mass emigration that took place after the missionary activities of Jones and others (three-fourths of the first Mormon settlements came from the British Isles), and taking note of the high quality and educational level of many of the emigrants, author Charles Dickens lamented that England (sic. Britain) appeared to be "losing her finest."
Reaching Kanesville, Iowa by train in May 1849, with Jones as captain, the emigrants then traveled 1300 miles to cross the plains in 25 wagons (and pushing handcarts carrying provisions limited to 17lbs. per person). Their arrival in Salt Lake City marked the introduction of considerable Welsh blood and influence into the Church. This large company was then strengthened when Jones undertook a second mission to his homeland, bringing back 703 converts on the Samuel Curling in July 1856. Upon their arrival in the Valley, this second group of Welsh settlers was met by Mormon President Young and a brass band.
A key factor in Jones's success in attracting converts in Wales was the conversion of Williams Howells in 1847 at Aberdare, who made his town a chief rival to Llanelli as Mormon's second center in Wales after Merthyr Tydfil. Another important convert was Baptist David Bevan Jones (Dewi Elfed) who attracted great crowds with his enthusiastic preaching and displays of the Welsh "hwyl" (intense emotion or spirit). Jones succeeded in taking most of his Baptist congregation over to the Mormons. At Llanelli, Jones wrote 57 hymns that appeared in a Latter-Day Saint hymnal in 1852. He was responsible for over 700 converts leaving for America in May 1860.
Some Welsh emigrants had left Liverpool in September 1843 before Jones's first arrival. As their ship, the Metoka, was towed out of the Mersey to enter the sea-lanes, they gave expression to their feelings at leaving their homeland by singing hymns. The intensity of their singing surprised the bystanders lining the docks as the ship departed. They continued singing when they reached the New World. Because musical instruments were not a priority on the difficult journey across the barren landscape, the blending of the human voices in the glorious Welsh hymns and melodies helped relieve the monotony (especially since quite a few of them dealt with travail in the desert).
It can be said that the early Welsh settlers literally sang their way across the plains and mountains, thus fulfilling a prophecy of Joseph Smith that "the righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy." Less than two weeks after their arrival at what became Salt Lake City, the settlers completed a shelter to house their cultural activities. In this temporary meeting house, a log structure they called "the Bowery," the choirs that later became united as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang their first program on Sunday, August 22, 1847. Under Welsh conductor John Parry, the choir soon grew in numbers and importance.
By 1855, the rapidly growing town of Provo had formed a permanent choir under the leadership of James Daniels, who maintained his position for the next 35 years. Another settler from Wales, John M. Jones, became the first director of the Deseret Philharmonic Society upon its founding in the winter of 1854-5. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir put the stamp on all these early efforts.
By 1890, under the dynamic leadership of yet another Welshman, Professor Evan Stephens, the Choir was so well known that it became a sort of American national institution. Before that, the Welsh Wards of Salt Lake City had held regular Eisteddfodau and boasted of having the best choirs in the Church. It was inevitable that they would unite to form a single choir.
Evan Stephens (1854-1930) came from the little village of Pencader, in Carmarthenshire, where he was baptized into the Mormon faith. Along with his family, he immigrated to Salt Lake City in October 1866. He discovered his musical abilities because of attending choir practice during his employment as a sheepherder on a farm in Willard. He then practiced on his brother's four-octave organ, later becoming organist and chorister at the Willard Ward and composing Church music.
In 1879, Stephens became the organist for the Logan Tabernacle Choir where he also taught music. He then organized singing classes for the Deseret Sunday School Union. After a brief spell studying music at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Stephens returned to Utah to become the first director of the Salt Lake Choral Society in 1889. Within six months, the choir had over 300 members.
Evan Stephens worked long and hard to keep music alive in the state of Utah. From 1885 to 1900 he directed the study of vocal music at the University of Utah also instructing the same subject at the Latter-Day Saints University. He also influenced the strong emphasis on music in the public schools of Salt Lake City. Under his direction, the choir sang outside the state of Utah, taking second place to a Scranton Welsh choir at the Columbia Exposition of 1893 (the Chicago World's Fair, where the first National Eisteddfod outside Wales took place). In July 1929, the Choir began regular weekly radio broadcasts.
Stephens died on October 27, 1930. His contribution to the cultural growth of the state of Utah is incalculable, especially his leadership of congregational singing and the development of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to its exalted position among the great choirs of the world. An editorial from Life magazine, dated July 26, 1954 sums up some of the achievements of his great choir.
Before the H-bomb, before the atomic age,
before WW II, before "the long Presidency",
before Hitler, before the Japanese seized
Manchuria, before the Great Depression, and
even before the Wall Street Crash, long,
long ago on July 15, 1929, a great 375 voice
choir began broadcasting coast-to-coast from
the Salt Lake City Tabernacle. Every Sunday
morning in the intervening years, winter and
summer, war or peace, rain or shine, it has
broadcast its half-hour of hymns, old and new,
of Bach and Handel and of all sweet, and stately
and spine-tingling sounds from the whole
library of Christendom's sacred music.
All this from a group of hardy pioneers from the hills and valleys of Wales, who sang their way across the dusty plains, inhospitable deserts and rugged mountain ranges on their way to the Promised Land.
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