Impossible Hymn

Ezra Taft Benson
Ezra Taft Benson

The course of study for Relief Society and Priesthood for 2015 is the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson.  Lesson 11 is titled “Follow the Living Prophet”.  This lesson has all ready generated some discussion as much of it is based on President Benson’s controversial talk given in 1980 at BYU “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet.” But in this discussion, an historical inaccuracy in the lesson has been missed.  The last section of the lesson is titled “We will be blessed as we follow the living prophet.”  The next to last statement in that section quotes a 1972 General Conference talk by then Elder Benson entitled “Civic Standards for Faithful Saints,” where Elder Benson tells the following:

The story is told how Brigham Young, driving through a community, saw a man building a house and simply told him to double the thickness of his walls. Accepting President Young as a prophet, the man changed his plans and doubled the walls. Shortly afterward a flood came through that town, resulting in much destruction, but this man’s walls stood. While putting the roof on his house, he was heard singing, “We thank thee, O God, for a prophet!”

Ephraim K Hanks
Ephraim K Hanks

The notes at the end of the lesson cite both the Conference talk by Elder Benson as well as stating “see also Sidney Alvarus Hanks and Ephraim K. Hanks, ‘Scouting for the Mormons on the Great Frontier [1948], 78–80.” Sidney Hanks was the son of famed Mormon scout Ephraim Hanks and the primary author of his biography that is cited in the lesson. Chapter 7 of the biography, “Romance In The Rockies” tells the story that Elder Benson paraphrased.  Here is the story as told by Sidney Hanks:

On many occasions Hanks was rewarded for his obedience to the Prophet, Brigham Young. One spring morning he was at work, building an adobe house in the city (Salt Lake City). The basement was almost completed and he was just beginning to lay the sundried brick when Brigham drove up in his carriage and said, “Ephraim, how thick is that rock wall?”

Eph answered that it was eight inches thick.

Brigham said, “Tear it all down, Ephraim, and build it twice as thick.” Then, as if to avoid argument, he turned his carriage around and drove away.

Eph had been hauling rock from Ensign Peak for many days, and had paid a mason a good price to lay it in lime mortar. He dreaded the extra work and expense of doing it all over again.

The mason, too, showed his disapproval by swearing and remarking, “Brigham Young may be a saint, but he’s no kind of a prophet about building stone walls!”

Nevertheless, Eph recontracted With the stonemason to double the wall and the next morning started hauling rock again.

A month later, they had laid on this Sixteen inch wall much adobe brick and mud. As they were putting up the rafters, a terrific storm started. Rain fell in sheets, causing streamlets of water to run in all directions. In a few minutes the basement of the new house was flooded, but the sturdy, thick walls stood safe and strong, supporting the house. A few days later when the water had drained out and they finished laying the rafters, Eph drove in the nails to the tune of “We Thank Thee, Oh God, for a Prophet.”

It is a very inspiring and faith promoting story.  It demonstrates perfectly the blessings associated with following the prophet and has the wonderful ending touch of having the story end with the now blessed Hanks singing, whistling, or humming the tune to the beloved hymn “We Thank Thee, Oh God, For a Prophet” to really drive the point of the story home.  It’s no wonder that Elder Benson quoted the story and that the Curriculum writers used it in the manual.

William Fowler
William Fowler

There is just one problem with this awesome and inspiring story – It never happened, at least not as Sidney Hanks tells and frames it.  “We Thank Thee, Oh God, For a Prophet” was written by William Fowler while he was on a mission in his native England, sometime between 1860 and 1863.  It was first performed in an LDS Church service held in England in 1863.  Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, later president of the Church, was present at the meeting and recorded how he heard the hymn when it was performed for the first time.  It was first published in an LDS hymnal in 1863, that is when it became known in Utah.

Chapter 7 of “Scouting For the Mormons on the Great Frontier” is set in 1848.  The previous chapter, “Mormon Battalion” tells of Hanks’ time in the Battalion and ends in 1847.  Chapter 8, “Lariats and War” recounts Hanks’ activities in the early 1850’s.  So, the story just does not work as Sidney Hanks tells it in the biography.  There is no way that Hanks could have been singing, humming, or whistling a hymn in 1848 that was not written and transported to Utah for another 15 years.

The story of course could still be true.  Sidney Hanks could have put it in the wrong place in the biography and it really happened as written but in the 1860’s.  But as the story is written it seems to be about Hanks first, or at least an early house built soon after his arrival in Salt Lake City.  It is still possible that the story is mostly accurate, that Hanks really was building a house, that Young really did warn/prophesy to him about changing the thickness of his foundation, and that his house was really preserved when he followed the instruction and the only addition/alteration to the story was the  denouement at the end that finds Hanks working to the tune of “We Thank Thee, Oh God, For a Prophet.”  It is also possible that the whole story is a fabrication by Hanks or his father.  I do not know.  I want to believe that most of it happened as written, but unfortunately, it just could not have happened the way that the biography tells it , as Elder Benson recounts it, and as the lesson manual presents it.

I first read “Scouting For the Mormons on the Great Frontier” shortly after returning from my mission.  I enjoyed and was inspired by most of the book.  It reads as much like an adventure novel as it does a biography.  It presents Hanks as a colorful adventurer who did much for the Church.  Reading the book made Hanks one of my heroes.  But as a 23 year old returned missionary something did not seem right about this story of his house and “We Thank Thee, Oh God, For a Prophet.”  It just did not feel right.  For some reason it just did not seem like it could have happened.  After reading that part of the biography I consulted the LDS Hymnal to see if it said when the Hymn was written.  I then took a trip to a local library and read “Stories of Our Mormon Hymn” by J Spencer Cornwall and “Our Latter-Day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages” by Karen Lynn Davidson.  With that small amount of research I, as an untrained, amateur, 23 year old historian, figured out that the story of Hanks working on his house to the tune of “We Thank Thee, Oh God, For a Prophet,” after heeding Brigham Young’s advice in 1848, could just not  have happened.  If I could debunk this story so easily, by myself, with no formal training, with one trip to the library; it makes me wonder how the Church Curriculum Department could miss it /let it slide by with the resources of the entire Church History Department at their disposal.  I find this unfortunate.  When this lesson is given, many are likely to be inspired by the story of Hanks, Young, and the preserved house.  But if they then learn of the holes in the story some of those some people who had been inspired by it may then feel as if they have been deceived.

One comment

  1. Lloyd says:

    Good catch. And interesting story, and one I recall hearing years ago. Very interesting to hear “the rest of the story”, so to speak. Thank you. Looking forward to when this lesson is taught.

    By the way, as long as we’re on the subject of accuracy, you may want to correct on inaccuracy in your information as well. As Joseph Fielding Smith was not born until 1876, it’s not likely he was there in England to hear the hymn performed that first time. His father, Joseph F. Smith could have been (and that is what the link you included indicates as well.)

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