As Sisters in Zion
Laugh if you must, but “As Sisters in Zion” is one of my favorite hymns.
That’s not a usual confession from a twenty-seven year old single LDS man. However, whenever we’re sitting as a group of priesthood brethren conducting our business in the chapel during our third hour meetings, it stirs my heart to hear the tender strains of this beloved hymn from the other side of the dividers. I like to think of my future wife singing the words in some Relief Society meeting far away (or maybe even close by), and how she takes them to heart as she sings them. It really is a touching hymn. Yet the version that we hear today is a far cry from the original wording written by Emily H. Woodmansee in the late 19th Century.
Sister Woodmansee was a convert to the church in England who crossed the plains with the historic Willie Handcart Company as a tender twenty year old woman. Her life was historic (well worth your study at some point) and she was a faithful disciple of Christ throughout her life. Her “Song of the Sisters of the Relief Society” was first printed in the Woman’s Exponent on 1 November 1874 with its full ten verses as follows:
1. As sisters in Zion, We’ll all pull together,
The blessings of God on our labors we’ll seek:
We’ll build up His kingdom with earnest endeavor;
We’ll comfort the weary, and strengthen the weak.
2. We’ll turn from our follies, our pride and our weakness,
The vain, foolish fashions of Babel despise;
We’ll seek for the garments of truth and of meekness,
And learn to be useful and happy and wise.
3. We’ll wear what is sensible, neat and becoming
The daughters of Zion—the angels of light;
We’ll work with a will, while the angels are scanning
Our aims and our actions from morning till night.
4. We’ll bring up our children to be self-sustaining;
To love and to do what is noble and right;
When we rest from our labors, these dear ones remaining,
Will bear off the kingdom and “fight the good fight.”
5. Nor shall our attention be wholly restricted
To training our children or shaping our dress;
The aged, the feeble, the poor and afflicted,
Our labors shall comfort, our efforts shall bless.
6. “The Lord hath established the cities of Zion,
The poor of His people are trusting in Him,”
He makes us a source for His poor to rely on;
Oh! shall we not brighten the eyes that are dim.
7. Oh! shall we not hasten to soothe the condition
Of the humble, the needy, the honest and pure?
Oh! let us remember, whate’er our ambition—
‘Tis our duty, our mission, to comfort the poor.
8. ‘Tis the office of angels, conferred upon woman;
And this is a right that, as women, we claim;
To do whatsoever is gentle and human;
To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.
9. How vast are our labors; how broad is our mission,
If we only fulfill it in spirit and deed;
Oh! naught but the Spirit’s divinest tuition—
Can give us the wisdom to truly succeed.
10. Then, as sisters in Zion, we’ll all pull together;
The blessing of God on our labors we’ll seek;
We’ll build up the kingdom with earnest endeavor;
We’ll comfort the weary and strenghten the weak.
If my heart stirs at hearing the current version of this beloved hymn, then I am sure it would literally burst at hearing the original version, which holds so many beautiful gems of truth that they’re nearly impossible to count. If I were to count them though, I would say that there are four main gospel principles taught in beautiful simplicity in these few short verses.
Principle 1 – Pure Religion
We learn from the Epistle of James that pure religion is
To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep [ourselves] unspotted from the world”
– James 1:27
Recently the Relief Society Published “Daughters in My Kingdom” which includes an excellent chapter focused on the essence of that verse, and the principle which is taught in the original version of this hymn. “We’ll comfort the weary, and strengthen the weak…The aged, the feeble, the poor and afflicted, Our labors shall comfort, our efforts shall bless.” The entire sixth, seventh,and eighth verses are forthright declarations of service. No where can the Savior’s love be felt more strongly that in those times of need for our fellow brothers and sisters. It is a binding tenet of our faith to serve those that are down-trodden, and as I hear the sisters of the 19th Century singing these words in my mind’s eye I see them visiting, ministering, and loving those of whom they sing.
Principle 2 – We Are Not of the World
We have been told countless times that although we are to live in the world, we are not to be of the world. Alma’s words come to mind when he said to the church in Zarahemla, “And now I say unto you, all you that are desirous to follow the voice of the good shehperd, come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate, and touch not their unclean things.” (Alma 5:57)
In 1874 there wasn’t network television, the internet, or the skimpy clothing fashions of today’s world. Yet Sister Woodmansee’s words are more applicable now than ever. “We’ll turn from our follies, our pride and our weakness, The vain, foolish fashions of Babel despise; We’ll seek for the garments of truth and of meekness…We’ll wear what is sensible, neat and becoming.” And then were words of training up children in the right ways “to love and to do what is noble and right.”
President Monson’s recent words in the past two General Conferences have reminded us just how different the world is from just a generation or two ago. And as we continue to follow the Lord’s unchanging doctrines of purity and truth our standards will only seem more peculiar and different from the world’s.
Principle 3 – Woman Hold a Sacred Calling
I love The Family: A Proclamation to the World. No other prophetic document sets forth the divine callings and responsibilities of men, women, mothers and fathers so clearly. In a world where the Adversary is trying to destroy the family unit and the moral fabric of society, the divine calling of a wife and mother has never been more at risk. Women are now taught to not “burden” themselves with marriage, children, and a home. Careers, “discovery of self”, and feeding of passions are the doctrines of the world. But Sister Woodmansee saw it differently.
She wrote that “the daughters of Zion” are the “angels of light”. Then continued, “Tis the office of angels, conferred upon woman; And this is a right that, as women, we claim; To do whatsoever is gentle and human; To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.” Even in the current version of the hymn we hear, “The errand of angels is given to women,” and in both versions “How vast are our labors; how broad is our mission.”
Women hold a sacred calling. They are daughters of God, wives, mothers, and angels of light who have received a divine commission from the Almighty Himself to minister in their own divinely inherent way. Sisters can perform miracles in ways that no man or priesthood holder could ever dream of performing them, and I echo the words of Elder Quentin L. Cook who will forever be remembered for saying, “Our Latter-day Saint women are incredible!”
Principle 4 – There is Strength in Unity
The Lord called His people Zion in the Pearl of Great Price because “they were of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18). The City of Enoch wasn’t called up into the sky one individual at a time, but all together at once. And you and I will never enter back into the Lord’s presence in full celestial glory unless we find a mate to unite with us and help us along the way of discipleship.
Nowhere in the original version of “As Sisters in Zion” or in the current version will you find the singular words “I” or “me”, but rather “us” and “we”. Salvation and exaltation are a team effort. “We’ll all pull together; The blessing of God on our labors we’ll seek; We’ll build up the kingdom with earnest endeavor; We’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.”
There is strength in unity. We all need one another’s help. And to truly be a Zion People we must indeed be of one heart and one mind.
Yes, “As Sisters in Zion” is one of my favorite hymns. And whether it is sung as originally written, or in its current format, it is about reaching out to, loving, and ministering to “the one” whom the Holy Spirit guides us to.