Tabernacle organ unique in its era

Published: Tuesday, March 29 2011 6:00 a.m. MDT

According to the conventional wisdom of the 19th century, the Mormon Tabernacle organ is situated all wrong.

The historic practice was to have an organ placed at the rear of the church, cathedral or other building in which it was to provide the music, said Kirk Henrichsen, a senior exhibit developer for the Church History Museum.

But when the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came into possession of a pipe organ in 1857, church President Brigham Young either did not know that, or chose to ignore it. Instead, a pipe organ has been a visual focal point for those visiting the Tabernacle on Temple Square, and when the Conference Center was added, a pipe organ again was front and center in the design.

When tens of thousands of LDS faithful flock to the buildings this weekend for meetings of the 181st Annual General Conference of the church, music will hold a large place in the programs. Music is so much a part of the LDS tradition that it is hard to imagine the use of music in religious meetings might ever have been a subject of debate.

However, Henrichsen noted that in the 1800s, when the restoration of the church unfolded, the eastern part of the United States was embroiled in a religious revival. One of the many points of controversy among the various sects was the question of whether music was a desirable addition to church services. There were those who thought it frivolous or even profane, while others believed it to enrich worship.

Whether early leaders of the LDS Church ever debated the question, the status of music in LDS worship was firmly settled only months after the formal organization of the church on April 6, 1830. Section 25 of the Doctrine and Convenants, dated July of the same year, directed Emma Smith, wife of founding Prophet Joseph Smith, to "make a selection of sacred hymns" for use in the church, for "my soul delighteth in the song of the heart."

Music bolstered the pioneers as they trekked across the plains to the gathering place in the Great Basin and poured from the simple boweries that sheltered their worship services before more substantial buildings were erected.

But a pipe organ, the ultimate in musical instruments, in a valley where sagebrush still outnumbered people? How it came to be in the Salt Lake Valley is a story unique among pioneer annals.

Joseph H. Ridges was trained as a youth in England as a carpenter. But he was intrigued by the work of creating pipe organs that went on in a building near his home, Henrichsen said. In the 1850s, the Ridges family was lured by the discovery of gold in Australia to emigrate to that country. While there, young Joseph built a pipe organ, thought to be the first of its kind in Australia, based on the knowledge he had gleaned visiting the English factory.

When he became a convert to the LDS Church, he brought the instrument, disassembled for traveling by boat, to California, where he joined other Saints in San Bernardino, Calif. He continued his journey to Utah Territory by wagon, and the pieces for the pipe organ were along for the ride.

Arriving in Great Salt Lake Valley in 1857, Ridges received a hearty welcome from Brigham Young and an invitation to install his organ in what came to be known as the Old Tabernacle, built in 1852. It supplanted the brass bands that had accompanied the vocal music in the church's earliest gathering places.

President Young wanted an organ powerful enough to enrich the singing of the thousands who were pouring into the territory to join their fellow religionists. The original organ had 2,500 to 3,000 pipes, and initially it was placed where the "experts" said an organ should be, at the back of the tabernacle. It sat at the top of a floor that followed the natural slant of the terrain on the ground of the southwest corner of Temple Square, Henreichsen said.

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