Hymn text by Eliza R. Snow, 1804-1887. View the full text of this hymn.

O My Father holds a prized place within the LDS hymnal, both historically and theologically. Its author, Eliza R. Snow, is one of the most prominent female figures in early church history, and the hymn itself is best known for mentioning Heavenly Mother in its third and fourth verses.

Eliza wrote this hymn at the resolution of a particularly difficult period in her life. Although living in Nauvoo and hearing the Prophet Joseph teach new doctrines was intellectually and religiously exhilarating, Eliza struggled to feel connected. She was unmarried, and most of her family had not come west to Illinois, meaning that she had to board with a number of different families over a short period of time. In 1842 she became a plural wife to Joseph Smith, something that gave her the connection she craved, but in another sense left her further isolated because of the secret nature of the doctrine and her own personal struggles with the principle. Two years later her husband would be martyred, followed just a few months afterward by the death of her own father. It was as she grieved and found solace from these events that she penned the poem originally titled “My Father in Heaven,” the last poem she would write from Nauvoo.

This context helps explain the profound sense of longing we find in the first verse:

O my Father, thou that dwellest
In the high and glorious place,
When shall I regain thy presence
And again behold thy face?

Feeling deep loss, isolation, and displacement, Eliza here expresses her desire to find the connection and inclusion she knows awaits in her heavenly home. This desire permeates the rest of the hymn, which Jill Deer describes as “a hymn of orientation. It speaks of place, habitation, sphere, wandering, residing, and dwelling.” [1]

Sister Snow goes on to express renewed resolution and assurance that we’ve been placed on earth “for a wise a glorious purpose.” Still, a sense of longing remains:

Yet ofttimes a secret something
Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
And I felt that I had wandered
From a more exalted sphere.

This sense of longing deeply resonates with me, and I think it’s a feeling which most of us have experienced. We feel that there is something beyond this world, and we long for it, whatever it is. C.S. Lewis said the following about this emotion:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” ~ Mere Christianity

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” ~ The Weight of Glory

These are sentiments to which Eliza R. Snow would whole-heartedly agree. We see as much in the way she crafts the next two verses. Her longing draws her to picture what heaven will be like, and the picture she paints is of a home with a “Father” and a “Mother,” with whom she wants to “come and dwell.”

When tragedy strikes us, or when that sense of longing grows a little too poignant, our natural impulse is to drown it out with busyness or entertainment or other remedies offered by this world. I’m impressed by Sister Snow’s testimony and how it leads her to find comfort in the doctrines of the gospel, and I’m touched by the reminder that my ultimate goal is a heavenly home where all of my longings will find both their source and their fulfillment. Faced with our frail existence, our task is to remember that we are only strangers and wanderers, and to place our hope in a more exalted sphere and the exalted father and mother who await us.

 

[1] Jill Mulvay Deer, “The Significance of ‘O My Father’ in the Personal Journey of Eliza R. Snow,” BYU Studies 36:1 (1996–1997), 85–126.

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