Rare photo identified as first director of Tabernacle Choir

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Ron Fox
Credit: Ron Fox
Credit: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

Who was the man in the photograph? It was perplexing. Glen Beckstead, a Salt Lake resident and Church member, recently acquired an old leather case measuring about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide. Inside was the photo of a distinguished gentleman wearing dress clothes from the 19th century. No one knew who the man was. Eventually he was identified by Ron Fox, a local photo historian from the Salt Lake 14th Ward, who has made several important recent discoveries.

The man identified in the daguerreotype photo is John Parry, the first director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The existence of the photo was unknown to scholars and historians and appeared only once in the Deseret News in about 1900. “This early photograph is rare and important,” said Brother Fox. “It was taken by Marcenas Cannon, the first photographer in Utah, who learned his trade from Samuel F. B. Morse, father of American photography and developer of the Morse code.”

John Parry Sr. was an early Welsh convert to the Church who was a gifted vocalist and musician. In addition to creating music, he worked as a master stonecutter on both the Salt Lake and Logan temples. He was born Feb.10, 1789, in Newmarket, Flintshire, Wales. Prior to his baptism into the Church, John led a congregation in Newmarket called “John Parry’s Association,” based on the teachings of Alexander Campbell (Campbellites). In 1846, he and his wife, Mary Williams, met missionaries from the Church. They were baptized Sept. 12. Elder Thomas Wilson performed the baptism and Elder Dan Jones was influential in their conversion.

“At the time, the Parry’s were well known in the community,” said Brother Fox. “John was known as one of the finest singers in Wales and had performed for the Prince of Wales. John and his wife were important to the growth of the Church in Wales, it caused great excitement among other Welsh members.”

Deciding to join their brothers and sisters in America, the Parrys and about 100 Welsh Saints sailed from Liverpool, England, aboard the Buena Vista. Arriving successfully in America, the group traveled on to Iowa. Mary Parry died of cholera the same day the party arrived at Council Bluffs, Iowa. John accompanied his son Caleb and daughter-in-law Catherine to Utah in 1849, arriving with apostle George A. Smith in October.

At general conference in 1849, John directed 85 Welsh converts in several musical numbers. President Brigham Young commented, “Now I know what angels sound like.” Shortly thereafter John was asked by President Brigham Young to form a choir with his singing group as the core. The new choir evolved into what is now known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and John Parry was the first director. “John Parry is a crucial key to the history of our great Tabernacle Choir,” said Brother Fox. “He was a gifted vocalist and music director.”

As the years passed, John was called to be a high councilor in Salt Lake in 1851 and helped build the wall around the Salt Lake Temple. He married Patty Bartlett Sessions in 1851 and during the next two years married Grace Ann Williams, a sister of his deceased wife Mary, and Harriet Parry, one of his first cousins. John Parry was the father of 12 children, the last of whom was born when he was 73. He lived on the Northwest corner of 5th West and South Temple in Salt Lake City. He died in Salt Lake City on Jan. 13, 1868.

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