One of my favorite Christmas carols is a beautiful contribution to the world by a Mormon musician called “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains”. It has a miraculous backstory.
John Menzies Macfarlane (1833-1892) was converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Scotland, at the age of thirteen. His widowed mother and siblings were part of the very first pioneer company whose journey to Utah was entirely funded by the church’s innovative Perpetual Emigration Fund. This fund provided critical immigration loans to indigent European converts who wanted to gather with the Saints to Utah’s “Zion”.
After the Macfarlane’s arrival in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, they moved north and settled in Bountiful (my beloved former home).
John Macfarlane was a talented musician and became a gifted composer and arranger of music. He was a highly sought-after choir director, organizing and instructing many choirs throughout Utah. In early 1869 Macfarlane received a calling from the prophet Brigham Young to be the choir director for the congregation in St. George, Utah.
As the holidays approached, John decided his new choir needed a new carol for their Christmas program. He asked his friend Charles L. Walker to write a text and he would compose the music. But, Macfarlane struggled in vain to write a suitable melody. One night he awoke from a vivid dream! He had dreamed an entire carol, with words and melody, which he quickly transcribed from memory. Macfarlane originally tried to put his friend Charles Walker’s name as credit for the text, however Charles told him “these are not my words, John. You have written both the words and music yourself, and you must take the full credit!”
John Macfarlane wrote no other hymn texts in his lifetime. This is the one and only exception. Although music composition was his talent he has become most famous for his divinely inspired hymn text and tune which has endured the test of time and is a beloved part of the Christmas tradition – especially for Latter-day Saints.
This Christmas carol also happens to be my husband’s favorite LDS hymn. Not just “favorite Christmas carol” but actually “favorite hymn” in the entire LDS hymn book. True story! And, I also have a special personal connection to this song. My final musical audition for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir required that I prepare several musical selections, including choosing a hymn. It apparently could be any hymn since the instructions were open ended. Mr. Mo immediately suggested I sing his “favorite hymn“. Of course, I knew exactly what that meant and I laughed out loud thinking he was joking. But, then I realized he wasn’t joking. To his delight, I agreed to honor his wish – because, “Why not?! At least it will be memorable!” My audition took place in October 2007, and it was very memorable indeed. My hymn choice was definitely “unique”. I think it was rather amusing to directors Craig Jessop and Mack Wilberg.
Mr. Mo likes to believe it was my “secret good luck charm” for gaining membership in the Choir. 😉 Who knows? I guess it isn’t too far a stretch to believe that a hymn conceived under miraculous circumstances would possess some miraculous powers.
In this video, you will see me singing Mack Wilberg’s glorious arrangement of John Macfarlane’s special hymn. And you will see me singing with a big smile on my face (because, how could I sing it any other way?)
This is truly a joyful Christmas carol, and a gift from heaven! – MoSop
Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains
Text and music by John Menzies Macfarlane, 1833–1892
Far, far away on Judea’s plains,Shepherds of old heard the joyous strains:Glory to God,Glory to God,Glory to God in the highest;Peace on earth, goodwill to men;Peace on earth, goodwill to men!
Sweet are these strains of redeeming love,Message of mercy from heav’n above:Glory to God,Glory to God,Glory to God in the highest;Peace on earth, goodwill to men;Peace on earth, goodwill to men!
Lord, with the angels we too would rejoice;Help us to sing with the heart and voice:Glory to God,Glory to God,Glory to God in the highest;Peace on earth, goodwill to men;Peace on earth, goodwill to men!
Hasten the time when, from ev’ry clime,Men shall unite in the strains sublime:Glory to God,Glory to God,Glory to God in the highest;Peace on earth, goodwill to men;Peace on earth, goodwill to men!