JOHN PARRY AND THE
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
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
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.]