Photo of Joseph H. Dean and his second wife Florence Ridges Dean, with baby Wilford and toddler Jasper Dean. Photo taken in Samoa in 1890, shared courtesy of the Polynesian Cultural Center, Laie, Oahu, HI.
The author of this hymn, Joseph H. Dean, was a British immigrant who sailed across the Atlantic with his parents, Joseph and Cathrine Dean, in 1860 when he was just five years old. They trekked across the United States to join the Saints in the West, a journey that took them three months by ox and wagon. Cathrine went into labor before entering the Salt Lake Valley and delivered a baby girl who would die twelve days later. Her name was Cathrine Deseret, and they carried her body into Salt Lake City to be buried there.
Besides working as a stonecutter and later a custodian for the Salt Lake temple, young Joseph went on to serve three different missions in the Pacific Islands. On his third mission (1916-1919), with the help of his son Harry and Elder Kipeni Su’apa’ia, he translated and compiled “0 Pese A Siona” (Songs of Zion) in Samoan. He later translated a book of LDS hymns into Hawaiian. Wrote Dean, “I consider these two hymn books as one of the main achievements of my life.”
This background, I think, is significant. Joseph Dean and his parents came to Zion in the teeth of adversity. They suffered heart-wrenching loss and hardship, yet spent the rest of their lives in service in the LDS church. The way I see it, this hymn is Brother Joseph H. Dean’s pleading with the Lord for the strength to sacrifice.
My heart is full; mine eyes are wet.
Oh, help me, Lord, lest I forget.
One of the corresponding texts for this hymn is in the 97th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, and speaks to the Lord’s qualifications of what makes an acceptable sacrifice–not blood sacrifice, but a broken heart:
8 Verily I say unto you, all among them who know their hearts are honest, and are broken, and their spirits contrite, and are willing to observe their covenants by sacrifice—yea, every sacrifice which I, the Lord, shall command—they are accepted of me.
9 For I, the Lord, will cause them to bring forth as a very fruitful tree which is planted in a goodly land, by a pure stream, that yieldeth much precious fruit.
This promise in verse 9 is incredible to me. If we sacrifice, the Lord accepts it and our sacrifice becomes almost a living thing, bearing precious fruit. As a mother myself, I weep to think of little Cathrine Deseret, only her little shell entering the valley of Zion. Her story as well as her mother’s are one of hundreds like it in the Mormon Exodus. And yet, the Lord promises that even a sacrifice such as that will be expunged of its pain and made beautiful.
The third verse is my favorite. In it I feel like I can taste some of Brother Dean’s sorrow threaded through the message of hope. Sometimes we feel chained to Earth instead of within spitting distance of Heaven. Sometimes we feel like the Spirit is far from us. Sometimes this is because we are linked to other mortals in this journey to eternity, and they make mistakes. Maybe sometimes we are the ones stumbling and bringing down the chain gang, so to speak.
Break off the shackles of the earth.
Receive, my soul, the spirit’s birth.
And now as I go forth again
To mingle with my fellowmen,
Stay thou nearby, my steps to guide,
That I may in thy love abide.
I would add to Brother Dean’s supplication a little prayer of my own: