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Pioneer anthem caught on quickly

'Come, Come, Ye Saints' was set to an already popular American tune

As Church members have done for the past 160 years, Latter-day Saints observing Pioneer Day this July 24 likely will sing "Come, Come, Ye Saints," William Clayton's stirring and pervasive anthem of the 19th century gathering of modern Israel to the Intermountain West.

Many Church members are acquainted with the story of Brother Clayton penning the words to the hymn while camped with the saints on the plains of Iowa in 1846, scarcely two months after the beginning of their forced exodus from Nauvoo, Ill.

What is far less known is the origin of the hymn's music, which Brother Clayton, of course, did not compose personally. Heretofore, the general understanding has been that the melody was adapted from an English folk song (see Hymns, No. 30).

New information uncovered by Wade Kotter, Ph.D., social sciences librarian at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, indicates the tune was almost certainly American in origin. Moreover, the melody likely would have been well-known to Mormon pioneers before Brother Clayton put his words to it, as the original "All Is Well" was a popular hymn at Protestant camp meetings and revivals from 1836 on.

The painting by Glen Hopkinson on this week's Church News cover depicts the occasion when Brother Clayton wrote the words at a location along the trail in southern Iowa known to the pioneers as Locust Creek Camp No. 2. A marker placed by the Church and the Wayne County Historical Society in 1990, adjacent to a country cemetery near the campsite location, tells the story of the hymn being written there .

In an April 15, 1846, journal entry, Brother Clayton recorded that he had received word that his wife, Diantha, left behind in Nauvoo because she was pregnant, had given birth to "a fine fat boy" on March 30. "Truly I feel to rejoice at this intelligence," he added. Motivated, no doubt, by his exultant mood, Brother Clayton that morning "composed a new song — 'All Is Well."'

In an e-mail message, Brother Hopkinson wrote: "When I did the painting I took the above quote (from Brother Clayton's journal) and imagined that on the day he wrote the song "All Is Well," (renamed "Come, Come, Ye Saints") he gathered some willing singers and they performed it, for themselves if for no one else. The shivers and tears it brought to the performers and listeners were maybe even more intense than when we sing it today."

Such listeners likely were already acquainted with the melody, according to Brother Kotter, who presented his research in a paper delivered May 25 at this year's Mormon History Association Conference in Salt Lake City.

"Over the last few years, I have located the text of the original "All Is Well" in over 90 19th and 20th century American collections, the earliest dating to 1836," he reported. "In contrast, I have found the text of the original "All Is Well" in only one English hymn book belonging to the same period."

Brother Kotter said two very early American publications of the hymn refer to the text as "The Last Words of Bishop McKendree."

"Bishop William McKendree, who died in February 1835, was the Methodist bishop of Nashville," he explained. "In accounts of his last days extracted from a newspaper report on his death, Bishop McKendree is described as saying 'All is well' several times when he was asked how he felt. He is also said to have quoted the following couplet from an old Charles Wesley hymn: 'There's not a cloud that does arise To hide my Jesus from my eyes.' Both of these phrases ended up in the text of the original 'All Is Well."'

Brother Kotter hypothesizes that the original author published the poem in 1835 or early 1836, perhaps anonymously, after reading the newspaper accounts of Bishop McKendree's last words.

He has identified several American publications of the hymn with musical notation, the earliest dating to 1838. "Importantly, each of these versions varies somewhat from the others in rhythm, melodic line and harmony," a distinctive characteristic of folk tunes, especially during the period when they were first being written down, he said.

"One fascinating aspect of the 'All Is Well' tune is that the beginning of the chorus is very similar to the beginning of the chorus in several other American and British folk tunes with a similar phrase structure," he noted. That is attributable, he said, to a process called centonization, in which nearly identical melodic phrases are reused in the same structural position in a variety of otherwise unrelated folk melodies.

Thus, the chorus of "All Is Well," sounds similar to that of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," an Irish folk song that became popular in America.

That the original "All Is Well" was likely one of the most popular songs in America between 1836 and 1846 is evident, Brother Kotter said, from 35 primary sources he has found from the period that include the text and sometimes the tune.

As popular as it likely was before, the tune gained new life and fame after Brother Clayton adapted it to his new words. It quickly became a universal favorite of Church converts moving west to the Salt Lake Valley throughout the Mormon pioneer epoch. Today, it is arguably the song most closely associated with the Church.

And "Come, Come, Ye Saints" has been borrowed and adapted by other Christian faiths. Its message of faith and optimism in the face of trial and adversity has transcendent appeal.

Today, the Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County in Corydon, Iowa, located on Highway 2 along the Mormon Trail, features a permanent exhibit honoring the writing of "Come, Come, Ye Saints." The museum characterizes it as "The Hymn That Went Around the World."

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