"AS SISTERS IN ZION: The Story Behind the Song," by Debbie J. Christensen, Deseret Book, $15.99, 86 pages (nf)
It took one missionary meeting in 1848 for Emily Hill to know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was true. It was four years before she was baptized against her family's will. Another four years to save money to join the saints in Utah. Six weeks on the Thornton ship and five grueling months in the Willie Handcart Company in 1856 to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley.
And it took more than 130 years for a promise a priesthood blessing Emily Hill received to be fulfilled.
In the recently-released book, "As Sisters in Zion: The Story Behind the Song," author Debbie J. Christensen delves deep into the lives of Emily and Julia Hill, two sisters from southern England, and the widow Martha Campkin and her five children in the 1850s.
Christensen's extensive research gives life to a story that has lain dormant for many years.
Emily was a gregarious 12-year-old girl who readily accepted the gospel when her cousin, Miriam, invited her to hear the Mormon missionaries. Emily's older sister Julia gained a strong testimony soon after. The sisters remained faithful over the years despite their family's disapproval and forbidding missionary contact.
However, prior to the missionaries' departure in 1848, a member named John Halliday was brought by to give young Emily a priesthood blessing.
She was told in her blessing that if she remained faithful to her testimony of Jesus Christ throughout her life, she "would write in prose and in verse and thereby comfort the hearts of thousands."
Little did she know that her poem would touch millions.
Back in 2000, Christensen was preparing for a ward trek in Provo and was encouraged to find her ancestors. She knew Emily Hill was her great-great-grandmother, but while doing further research, Christensen discovered that Emily penned the words to the beloved song "As Sisters in Zion." Emily wrote the poem 13 years after arriving in Salt Lake about her experience with "her own sisters in Zion."
"The priesthood blessing given to Emily about touching thousands with her prose is fulfilled every time we sing this song," said Christensen. "I felt obligated to write it. I know that if a faithful priesthood holder gives a blessing to a faithful recipient, the blessings will always be fulfilled. This one was fulfilled more than 100 years later."
Emily Hill's poem remained in the LDS Church archives until the 1980s when those putting together the new hymnbook searched for a song for the Relief Society women, Christensen said. They found Emily's poem and had Janice Kapp Perry write music to accompany the poem, making "As Sisters in Zion" the theme song for women worldwide, Christensen added.
For the last 11 years, Christensen has been documenting all of her discoveries in a diary, which are full of inspiring testimonies and stalwart examples of faith and endurance. In "As Sisters in Zion: The Story Behind the Song," Christensen spares no detail of the hardships and miracles that the Hill sisters and Campkin experienced on their travels to Utah.
Campkin and her five children were told not to make the trek so late in the season — the weather and her physically demanding haul would make the trip difficult for this widowed woman. However, Emily and Julia stepped up and volunteered to join this family, care for the children and take turns pulling the cart.
Together these women and children traveled more than 1,300 miles to the Salt Lake Valley, all surviving. This intimate book captures the essence of what women in the church are capable of when they rely on each other and genuinely serve.
The women profiled truly understood their purpose and responsibility as the verse says, "The errand of angels is given to women, and this is a gift, that, as sisters we claim; to do whatsoever is gentle and human; to cheer and to bless in humanity's name."