If you’re looking for a hymn with pep, look no further. “Carry On” is about as upbeat and optimistic as they come. The lyrics were written in 1930 by General Young Women’s president Ruth May Fox specifically for the June centennial celebration of the Church’s organization. The theme for the meeting was “Onward with Mormon Ideals,” and this number was performed by the youth at the Sunday evening session of the conference.
Although written for the youth (the chorus, for example, specifically addresses the “youth of the noble birthright”), this hymn contains a message for all of us about how we ought to respond to our heritage.
The first thing one notices about this hymn is the surprising nature imagery: our fathers raised a banner “over the desert sod,” and we hear “the desert ringing … / Hills and vales and mountains singing.” Remember that this song was written for youth in Utah, and so the “mountains” and “desert” in question describe the landscape of the Salt Lake Valley. Why is this landscape so important? The very first line tells us: we are to be “firm as the mountains around us.”
I really like this idea of drawing strength from the landscape, especially a landscape forged by our ancestors. It was hard work for the early pioneers to eke out a living in the desert conditions of Utah, and the continued growth of that region is a testimony to their success. But we don’t have to live in Salt Lake to feel inspired by our ancestors or to have a visible reminder of what they left us. There are other things that can be as inspiring to us as the Rocky Mountains are to those who lived in Utah in the days of the early church. I can draw the same kind of strength by looking at photographs of my grandfather, or admiring my grandmother’s needlework, or working at a desk handcrafted by my uncle. The imprint of those who went before us can be seen and felt in what they left behind, and their legacy encourages us to ensure that we leave behind a righteous legacy, as well.
We are also encouraged to be “stalwart and brave.” “Stalwart” is an Old English word combing the roots stal (place) + weorth (worth)—in other words, “to be worthy of your place.” Our ancestors left us an impressive platform on which to stand, and it’s our job to be worthy of it. In fact, the hymn frequently describes that platform as a “rock”—“the rock our fathers planted,” “the rock of honor and virtue,” and our task is to “build on the rock they planted.” The imagery is really straightforward, but powerful for its directness: our ancestors laid us a foundation, and we’re going to build upon it.
The hymn even informs us what it is that we’re building: “a palace to the King.” Our forefathers left behind a tangible legacy, of course, but more importantly they left behind a religious legacy of faith and devotion to the Lord. We’ve been invited by our heritage to continue building the Kingdom, and when it’s complete, we are told that we will march straight “into its shining corridors” bringing “songs of praise.” Surprisingly, those anthems of praise will not be for the Lord, but “for the heritage … left us” by our fathers.
We’ve been invited to “carry on” the same work and glory to which our predecessors gave their lives, we’ve been inspired by their example, and if we prove faithful, God’s kingdom itself will ring with the sounds of children praising their ancestors.