The Problem with “Praise to the Man”

I recognize a few things that others like about this song as being positive. I just also recognize lots of problems with it as well, and feel that there are more problems with it than there is good that comes from it. I would not feel comfortable promulgating this song in any setting, by playing piano or organ, or leading the music. Maybe it’s just because I had an MTC teacher who liked singing “Praise to the Man” and disliked singing the Doxology. I think I quipped, “If we’re allowed to sing “Praise to the Man” we should also be allowed to sing “Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

My mother-in-law explained to me that she likes the song because it teaches a respect and love for Joseph Smith and his mission. I agree that we should love and respect the prophet Joseph Smith for his faithfulness to Christ, his obedience to God, and everything he did to serve as an instrument in God’s hand to restore the Gospel and Priesthood to this church. I just simply don’t feel that this song does it well. And I think the problem is emphasis.

I’ve placed all of the text into categories, only one of which is positive, in my view.

Doctrinal Truths:
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.

I believe that there are scriptures that teach that Joseph Smith “opened the last dispensation”, that his name “should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues,” 1 and that Parley Pratt taught that he received a revelation from God that “Joseph still holds the keys of my kingdom in this dispensation.” 2 And I think that we should teach each other and our children, as Elder Eyring taught3

…Jesus is the Christ and that He lives and leads His Church. We must also know for ourselves that the Lord restored His Church and the priesthood keys through the Prophet Joseph Smith. And we must have an assurance through the Holy Ghost, refreshed often, that those keys have been passed without interruption to the living prophet and that the Lord blesses and directs His people through the line of priesthood keys which reaches down … to us, wherever we are and no matter how far from the prophet and the apostles.

However, I feel the rest of the song just has the emphasis wrong. I feel that it is riddled by un-doctrinal statements, statements which are easily misunderstood by even the most sincere saints, and statements which are unnecessary and even in some cases unhealthy.

Un-doctrinal Statements:
I can find no scriptural statements which directly correspond to these statements…
Jesus annointed that Prophet and Seer.
While I believe that Joseph was chosen by Jesus, there is no scripture that teaches that Jesus anointed him. I can find no scriptural statements which directly correspond to this statement… I think it’s meant to be poetic rather than “true” and for my purposes, the poetry here does not justify the artistic license of teaching our saints “doctrine.”
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
While I certainly believe that Joseph will be exalted, we have no scripture that states that he has been, or even that he is currently meeting with the Godhead and “planning for his brethren.” I believe he’s at work, but again, this feels more like poetry that doesn’t teach scripturally based principles.
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
While I certainly believe that Joseph will have great glory given to him through the Savior’s atonement, and that he holds an endless priesthood, I do not feel it proper to call it “his” priesthood any more than it is “his” or President Monson’s church, or that the Urbana Ward is “Bishop Johnson’s ward.” It all belongs to God. And while everyone will shake their heads and say, “Well of course, we all KNOW that!” I ask, “Why can’t our hymns reflect what we ALL know?”
Earth must atone for the blood of that man.
While I recognize there are scriptures that talk about the earth calling unto the heavens for vengeance4 on behalf of the faithful martyrs, I know of none that teaches that the earth itself has to atone for Joseph’s blood. Too much of this phrase sounds too familiar to statements from the Journal of Discourses encouraging a belief in mortal “blood atonement” which the Church has officially denounced5 as doctrine. Too much of this phrase sounds too familiar to the “Oath of Vengeance” formerly included as part of the endowment ceremony: wherein members covenanted to pray for God to “avenge the blood of the prophets upon” the United States, and that they would teach the “same to your children and to your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation.”6 I’ve never made that promise, and I feel no obligation to continue any form of that teaching. I want to follow the example of Heber J Grant who had the oath removed in 1927.

Easily Misunderstood:
I feel that this statement is too easily misunderstood, by members and by non-members…
Faithful and true he will enter his kingdom,
I believe that Joseph Smith was faithful and true to Jesus and His gospel. However, the song isn’t clear in teaching whose kingdom he will enter into. The whole song is about Joseph Smith. If the lyrics were at least, “the kingdom” or “Christ’s kingdom.” this phrase would work. As it stands it is just too ambiguous. Again, while everyone will shake their heads and say, “Well of course, we all KNOW that!” I ask, “Why can’t our hymns reflect what we ALL know?”

Unnecessary:
I feel that these statements are just unnecessary.
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Death cannot conquer the hero again.
Praise to his mem’ry, he died as a martyr;
Honored and blest be his ever great name!

Unhealthy:
I feel that these statements are unhealthy.
Long shall his blood, which was shed by assasins,
Plead unto heav’n while the earth lauds his fame.
Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;
Wake up the world for the conflict of justice.
Millions shall know ‘Brother Joseph’ again.

My wife wants me to recognize the song as a specific type of literature, namely the genre of eulogy and hyperbole. I can understand the emotional connection the saints who had lost their beloved Prophet would have felt to this poem. I wouldn’t be too terribly upset if they had used the poem and the song as part of their grieving. My problem is that the song has endured far past its usefulness. The focus is incorrectly on the wrong person (as most eulogies are). Facts are hard to come by and emotionally charged and laden language is used. My life would have been better without this poem as part of my religious upbringing, and I do not feel the spirit when it is sung. I do not doubt the spirituality of those who do feel the spirit when it is sung. However, I would feel incredibly dishonest if I were to contribute in any way to this song being learned, performed, or even enjoyed.

I personally believe, that if the song’s focus were on the Savior, and if it more written more in line with Alma 26, I’d be OK with it… but as it is, I am not.

I have included the lyrics, and color coded the references to persons within the song. I believe it makes it easier to determine if the emphasis in this song is on the correct person. Jesus. Joseph. Others.

Text of “Praise to the Man”

Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus annointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.

Chorus
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.

Praise to his mem’ry, he died as a martyr;
Honored and blest be his ever great name!
Long shall his blood, which was shed by assasins,
Plead unto heav’n while the earth lauds his fame.
Chorus

Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.
Chorus

Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;
Earth must atone for the blood of that man.
Wake up the world for the conflict of justice.
Millions shall know ‘Brother Joseph’ again.
Chorus

An analysis of these references in the lyrics show that 6% of the lyrics refer to Jesus, 62% refer to Joseph Smith, and 36% refer to other persons. A similar analysis of even “O How Lovely Was the Morning” shows that 67% of the references are to a member of the Godhead and only 33% refer to Joseph Smith. So it’s not like we’re incapable of writing songs with Joseph Smith that have the right emphasis, but rather Praise to the Man is just an incorrectly included “hymn”.

According to the preface of the 1985 LDS hymnal, hymns are meant to:

[I]nvite the Spirit of the Lord, create a feeling of reverence, unify us as members, and provide a way for us to offer praises to the Lord. Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns. Hymns move us to repentance and good works, build testimony and faith, comfort the weary, console the mourning, and inspire us to endure to the end.

By my estimation, the hymn “Praise to the Man” fails to adequately invite the Spirit of the Lord, create reverence for God, or offer praises to God. Some may argue that the song “unif[ies] members, inspire[s] to testimony, and inspire[s] us to endure to the end.” but it is at best a mixed bag. As far as I’m concerned, my conscious requires me to not participate in this song, either as a musician or a congregant. And I intend to give this document to every person who ever calls me to a music calling, from the primary to the stake. Because I just think that’s the right thing to do.

Notes:
[1] JS-H 1:33
[2] Quoted by Robert D Hales in ” A testimony of Prophets” Fireside at BYU June 5, 1994.
[3] Faith and Keys, Elder Henry B Eyring, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
[4] Genesis 4:10; Alma 1:13; 2 Nephi 26:3.
[5] “However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.” Deseret News.
[6] text Dialogue.

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8 Responses to “The Problem with “Praise to the Man””

  1. Alex T. Valencic Says:

    I remember learning on my mission about the original text of “Praise to the Man”: “Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins, stain Illinois while the earth lauds his fame.” *sigh*

    While I agree with your wife that this song is very much a eulogy of Brother Joseph, written by his grieving friend W.W. Phelps, I also agree with you. I think that words written to help assuage grief by giving credit to what Joseph had done and telling the world that the work of the Lord would move on have been taken to a level of … well, can we coin a new term and call it Josepholatry?

    I think a much better example of a hymn that gives praise without bordering on worship is “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet”. This hymn places all of the focus on the blessings that God has given through prophets, rather than the blessings prophets have been to us.

  2. Alex T. Valencic Says:

    Oh, one other thought: I love the use of “Praise to the Man” at the end of the Nauvoo Pageant because then it IS fitting. But in our Sacrament and PH/RS meetings? Eh, not so much.

  3. kvicksilverman Says:

    Ah, Alex. Perhaps you’re trying to tell me there are some suitable venues that I could be OK with. Maybe, as long as it’s out of the hymnbook and sacrament meetings.

  4. Clean Cut Says:

    I [am] with you. I could have practically written the post. However, as much as I’ve struggled internally with my personal thoughts about this song, I’ve had to go ahead and sing the first and third verses in primary since I’m the primary chorister and the primary program requires those two verses be sung. (In fact, it’s the “song of the month” this month church-wide.

    Each time “we” sing it, I feel like I’m having to plug my nose (figuratively) to avoid my discomfort with some of the lyrics (and doctrinal issues you brought up) and just focus on the music/tune (which I do like). But maybe there is a little dishonestly there, but I’m just not sure how else to present my dilemma without making a scene. Consequently, I don’t stop to analyze the lyrics with the kids (like I do with other songs). I’ve kind of just plowed through with a tempering comment here or there. Any suggestions for me? It’s tough.

    • kvicksilverman Says:

      Clean Cut,

      My wife is the primary chorister. I was asked to substitute for piano, and I listed my conditions. You may be stuck this go around, but as soon as the program is over you can always express your unwillingness to perform the song during a sacrament meeting. As Alex as pointed out, there may be some occasions that are appropriate (such as firesides or pageants), I just don’t feel that Sacrament meeting is one of them.

  5. Alex T. Valencic Says:

    We started attending the summer PoGP Institute class last night. Paul is out of town for a couple of weeks, so he had a fill-in. We were covering JS-H. The teacher started with “PttM” and it kind of went down-hill from there as a 90-minute Josepholatrous discourse that made me internally head-desk several times.

    Worst was when he cited “the quality of Joseph Smith’s followers” as an example of his prophetic calling. I challenged that and was severely rebuked.

    *sigh*

    • kvicksilverman Says:

      Wow, that’s annoying. You should send me a personal message on facebook to let me know who it was..

      WRT the song choice, there’s not much you can do except abstain from singing.

      WRT “rebuking” for disagreeing with a substitute teacher’s non-doctrinal opinion, I think you may be justified in complaining either to the Institute director, or to the Stake President.

      Or you could blog about the lesson and tear down the assertions.

      Or you could go to a different institute class (such as one 90 degrees out of phase with reality. AKA imaginary).

  6. Fixing the problems with “Praise to the Man” « Kvicksilver's Blog Says:

    […] One of my philosophies in life, is that one shouldn’t just complain about life. If you see something that you don’t like, try to fix it. Today I’ve followed that philosophy. A year ago a wrote about the problem with the LDS hymn “Praise to the Man.” […]

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