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Parry, John - Mormon Tabernacle Choir




By Ronald D. Dennis


Here is a question that will give pause to even the most accomplished trivia buff: What does the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have in common with President Spencer W. Kimball, King Henry VIII, Charlene Wells, Donny Osmond, Mary Queen of Scots and St. Patrick?

Answer: they all have Welsh ancestry!

Other famous names could be added to the list: David O. McKay, Paul H. Dunn, Marvin J. Ashton, Thomas Jefferson, LaVell Edwards, Richard Burton, Bob Hope, Capt. Dan Jones, and 18 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The foregoing are not the only ones who can point to Wales, that segment of Great Britain which lies just across the Irish Sea from Ireland, for their roots. Tens of thousands of modern-day Mormons can do the same.

In fact, there were so many Welsh Mormon emigrants during the 19th century that Willard, Spanish Fork, Malad and Samaria were originally Welsh communities filled with Saints who needed an interpreter to understand Brigham Young and other speakers at General Conference.

There was such national pride among the early Welsh pioneers that at one time there was even talk about setting up a separate kingdom to the west of the Jordan River with the wealthy Sister Elizabeth Lewis (from Kidwelly) as their “Welsh Queen,” a title which she carried with her to the grave.

But devotion to the gospel overshadowed patriotic considerations, and separate Church meetings were settled for in place of a Welsh kingdom. Marriage of the children and grandchildren of Welsh Mormons to non-Welsh speakers thwarted efforts to preserve the language and culture of the old country.

The oldsters, however, continued to have a periodic “Eisteddfod” (competitions in song and verse, a Welsh tradition), and to carry on with each in their preferred tongue. Many, in fact, did not ever take the trouble to learn English.

The fame of the Welsh for singing came with them as they crossed the plains in 1849. The other pioneers of the G. A. Smith Company were enchanted by the melodious strains from the Cambrians for whom singing was as natural as breathing.

William Morgan, a participant in the “Welsh Choir,” recorded: “As we sang the first part of ‘When the Saints shall come,’ we saw the English and the Norwegians and everyone, I would think, with their heads out of their wagons. With the second part, in an instant the wagons were empty and their inhabitants running toward us as if they were charmed.

“I heard good singing in Wales, but nothing like the strength and sweetness of the last song I heard sung by my brothers and sisters, co-travelers, on the land of Honuhous.

“Some asked me where they had learned and who was their teacher? I said that the hills of Wales were the schoolhouse, and the Spirit of God was the teacher. Their response was, ‘Well, indeed, it is wonderful; we never heard such good singing before.’”

When this group of approximately 85 Welshmen reached the valley, President Brigham Young asked John Parry, their leader, to organize a choir to sing at General Conference in the Bowery. Brother Parry, a former Campbellite minister and a first-rate musician, responded with enthusiasm. The choir that he directed was the nucleus of what would become the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

As conductor of a group of singers who lived a thousand miles from the nearest music store, Brother Parry had to overcome numerous obstacles in preparing his vocalists for their performances.

Printed music was simply not available; consequently, part of each rehearsal had to be devoted to just memorizing the words of the songs. Until they learned the lyrics those who had no books “mumbled” the tune in their respective parts.

Another complication was that many Welshmen could not sing in English, and no one but the Welsh could sing in that ancient Celtic tongue.

At a time when cultural events were practically non-existent among pioneers who longed for the finer things of life, the choir was received with great appreciation. Its fame grew, as did its numbers, and the result is a choir now known and esteemed all over the world.

The following are names of the first group of Welsh Mormon pioneers (over the age of 18) who came to the Salt Lake Valley with Capt. Dan Jones in 1849, many of whom would have been members of the original nucleus of the Choir: Albert Bowen, William and Elizabeth Clark;, Daniel and Mary Daniels, Thomas Daniels, Elizabeth Davies, Hugh Davies, Mary Aubrey Davies, Margaret Davies, Sarah Davies, Sarah Davis (daughter), Ann Davies, Daniel Davies, Charlotte Evans, Mary Evans, Ricy James, Thomas and Sarah Jeremy, Thomas John, Anne Jones, Dan and Jane Jones, John Jones, Daniel and Anne Leigh, David Lewis, Elizabeth Lewis, William Lewis, Isaac and Eliza Nash, Cadwallader Owen, Margaret Owen, Anne Parry, Caleb and Catherine Parry, John Parry, David and Laura Peters, David and Mercy Phillips, Evan Rees, Owen Roberts, Ann Thomas Benjamin and Lettice Thomas, Margaret Thomas, Rees Thomas, Samuel Thomas, Edward and Sophia Williams, Rice Williams and Samuel Williams.

In honor of Utah’s Welsh tradition stemming from pioneer days, the College of Fine Arts and the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University sponsored a Welsh Festival (Eisteddfod) on March 1, St. David’s Day.


[The foregoing article was published in the April 1985 issue of Y Drych.]














Parry, John


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