The Old, Old Path: God's Gift of Song to the Saints
By Pamela Price
The Old, Old Path, by Virginia Brown
This painting was painted from an actual photograph of the path which led to the Old Brick Church in Lamoni, Iowa—the path which inspired Vida E. Smith to write the words of the hymn, "The Old, Old Path."
The hymn, “The Old, Old Path,” is a gift from our Heavenly Father to His Saints. It was first published in 1903 in Zion’s Praises, a hymnbook for use in the Church’s Sunday schools. The same Spirit which moved upon Vida E. Smith to write the words and Audentia Anderson to compose the music for it, has also caused the hymn to touch the hearts and minds of thousands of Saints with comfort and inspiration.
On a summer Sabbath morn in 1903, Vida Elizabeth Smith heard the bell atop the Old Brick Church at Lamoni, Iowa, pealing its call to the Saints to come to worship. She was unaware that the Lord had chosen that very day to use her to assist in bestowing a gift of song upon the Saints of His Church. That song about an old, old path is as “strangely sweet” to the Saints now as it was when it was first published ninety years ago.
It must have been a busy morning in the Smith home, for Vida was the wife of Apostle Heman C. Smith, who was also the Church historian. The couple’s devotion to the Church was deep and genuine. She was a granddaughter of Joseph and Emma Smith, and the daughter of Alexander Smith, the presiding patriarch of the Church. Heman was a grandson of Apostle Lyman Wight, an apostle at the time of Joseph’s martyrdom. Among Vida’s many responsibilities, during the summer of 1903, was the teaching of the primary Sunday school class, and the serving on a committee which was preparing a hymnbook for the Church’s Sunday schools. Vida was thirty-eight years old and the mother of four active children, ranging in age from ten to sixteen years.
No doubt Vida was well prepared to teach the primary class when she entered the Old Brick Church. The record states that the day was hot, and at the end of the class Vida was weary. Her classroom was in the basement and was poorly ventilated. She very likely had a large class, since the worship sanctuary in the church had a seating capacity of five hundred and all seats were usually filled for Sunday morning services. She must have struggled to teach the uncomfortable primary pupils. But whatever happened in that classroom to cause her weariness, the Lord was about to give her an outstanding gift—one that she would always give Him the honor for bestowing by inspiration. History states of Vida’s experience:
It was a hot day, and she wearily picked up the materials and put them away. When she had finished, she felt tired and was only too glad to climb the steps to the upper auditorium. A breeze blew through the window as she passed before it and saw her friends coming up the green pathway to the open church door. A feeling of security and warmth swept over her as she took her usual seat and the service began.The choir sang, and someone offered the opening prayer. Then the minister read a text from the Scripture and spoke of finding old paths and walking in them. (Georgia Metcalf Stewart, How The Church Grew [Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1958], 273)
The name of the minister has so far eluded researchers; however it is known that for his scriptural text he read Jeremiah 6:16. Vida listened as he read, “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.”
Suddenly she felt a change come upon her tired body as the Spirit touched her. She later testified:
He [the minister] soon faded from my realization as my eyes rested on the swaying branches of the trees outside and the soft clouds against the blue sky, and I felt the nearness of congenial friends. I felt at home in the house of God and I felt at ease before his mercy seat. The glory of the message of the ancient prophet [Jeremiah] flooded my soul and opening my quarterly I wrote on the fly-leaf the words of the song [“The Old, Old Path”] exactly as they appear in the book [Zion’s Praises]. (Carlyle F. Keuffer, Stories of Our Hymns, [Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1938], 136)
Vida wrote these words on the flyleaf of her quarterly:
There’s an old, old path
Find the old, old path,
In this old, old path
‘Tis an old, old path,
That evening Vida gave a copy to her cousin, Audentia Anderson, who was also a member of the hymnbook committee. She, too, was a granddaughter of Joseph and Emma and a daughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith III and Bertha Madison Smith. Audentia was the wife of Benjamin Anderson, a devoted Saint and superintendent at the Herald Publishing House in Lamoni. She was thirty-one years of age and the mother of three children, the youngest just a few months old. She had studied piano, organ, voice, harmony, and music composition. Audentia was gifted with many talents, which she used for the Kingdom. She took the words Vida had written and set them to music. A few nights later the five members of the committee met at Vida’s home. Audentia went to Vida’s organ and played the tune and sang the words. All agreed that the hymn, which was given the title of “The Old, Old Path,” should be included in the first edition of Zion’s Praises. It was assigned number 207 in the book.
Throughout their long lives Vida and Audentia testified that the Lord had inspired the writing of the words and the composing of the music of the hymn. In 1961, when Audentia was eighty-nine years of age, she once again gave her testimony. Alice Bayne, who conducted the interview, wrote:
Audentia’s name is known to many as the composer of a number of hymns for the church. One of our best loved hymns is “The Old, Old Path,” which she set to music. The story of this hymn is interesting. While Vida Smith, Audentia’s cousin, was sitting in church in Lamoni one Sunday, the words of this hymn came to her. She wrote them out on the fly sheet of a quarterly from which she had been teaching a class and that evening she gave the copy of the words to Audentia. The next morning, after her children were on their way to school, Audentia sat down to compose a melody for the words. She read them over carefully and then immediately began to play the tune which is used with the hymn today.
At that time both Vida and Audentia were serving on a committee to prepare hymns for a new hymnbook for the Sunday schools for the church. At the next committee meeting in Vida’s home, Audentia played the music for the words Vida had written. When she turned to look at Vida, she saw that her eyes were filled with tears. “Audie, that is the very tune that came to me as I wrote the words, but not being a musician, I could not put it down on paper,” she said. Both women felt that the words and tune were inspired. (Alice Bayne, “Living Witnesses for the Prophet,” Saints’ Herald [Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House], May 1961. 108:12)
Twenty-seven years passed, and Church leaders felt it was time to compile a new edition of the Saints’ Hymnal. A church-wide survey was conducted to find the “most-wanted” hymns of the Saints. When the Saints voiced their opinions, it was found that “The Old, Old Path” ranked first (Roy A. Cheville, They Sang of the Restoration, pp. 145-146)!
In 1931 the Old Brick Church where Vida wrote the words to “The Old, Old Path” burned. As the flames rushed rapidly through the structure they licked at the old bell and it began to ring. Its peal rang out for one last time as it plunged downward into the burning inferno. A stunned and weeping crowd of Saints gazed upon the scene—a scene so hurtful that it must have seemed unreal. The clarion ring of the bell which had invited the Saints to worship would be heard no more. Vida Smith recalled:
Sometimes, standing in the farm meadow [on her parents’ farm] we could hear the beautifully clear tones of the bell on the church at Lamoni, five miles away... when the atmosphere was particularly clear and the prairie winds favorable. (Journal of History, 6:396)
After World War II a new church and parking lot was built at the site of the Old Brick Church. The new construction covered the actual path that Vida had gazed upon that summer day. But the fire and reconstruction had no power over the path—the spiritual “Old, Old Path,” for it is a pathway that only God has control of—the one He is now and will be ever inviting His Saints to travel on. The actual pathway that Vida saw became a heavenly pathway of beauty to Saints throughout the Church—a symbol of the spiritual pathway that each and every baptized member must walk with the Savior, in order to attain Celestial Glory.
If we are to remain on the old path, we must heed the words of the Prophet Jeremiah—and come what may, “Stand in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and . . . find rest for . . . [our] souls.”
(Vision 14 [October 1993]: 8–9)
Prints of The Old, Old Path are available in various sizes for purchase at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.