Thomas and the Tabernacle Organ

By Paula Hunt

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Praise the Lord with … music (D&C 136:28).

Note: Although Thomas, his family, and some of the other people in this story were not real people, the author made them up according to how people really lived in that area at that time. And the story of how they found the wood for the Tabernacle organ is true. See the sidebar for other interesting facts about it.

Thomas hoed a stubborn weed out of the corn as the sun beat down on his back. Wiping the sweat from his face, he lifted his eyes longingly to the cool mountains. How he wished he was in the whispery shade of the trees there!

He loved the rustle of the white pines and the cool breezes that created soothing music among their branches. He loved the smell of the fresh wind filtering through the pines. Those ancient trees standing straight and tall seemed to him like soldiers on guard.

How he loved it when it was time to head for the hills! Every fall they took their team up to the mountains to cut firewood. He knew that they needed the wood to keep their family warm, yet every time one of those giant pines fell, he hurt inside. He felt a reverence for them. They had lived so long. They were so tall and straight.

When they brought the wood down to their farm, they sawed and chopped the logs into firewood. Thomas had a natural love for good wood and saved any exceptionally nice pieces. Then, during cold, snowy, winter days, he carefully sawed, carved, and fitted wood pieces together to make fine furniture. He loved the feel of this good wood in his hands.

Thomas remembered Grandfather Heiler. He, too, had a feel for wood. Before he had left Germany, Grandfather was a master cabinetmaker. He had planned to teach Thomas his craft but died in Winter Quarters before he could teach the boy much. Crossing the prairies was not a good place to learn woodworking. Still, it made Thomas feel good to turn this beautiful white pine wood into pieces of furniture that his grateful mother lovingly polished.

Returning to his hoeing, he stopped dreaming of cool pine forests. It wasn’t likely that he’d get up to the mountains for weeks. There was too much to do here. Even craftsmen had to delay their work to grow crops. There were no stores to buy food at in this pioneer land. His family must grow what they ate, and they worked hard to get it.

As he hoed, he spotted a carriage pulling up to their home. He watched as their neighbor, Brother Erickson, got out. Ether, Thomas’s little brother, ran to the fields to fetch his father. What was happening? What would bring a neighbor out during farming season on a Tuesday morning?

Thomas kept one eye on his hoeing and one eye on the house. When his father came in from the field and greeted Brother Erickson, Thomas worked his way closer to hear their conversation.

“The word is out that Brother Brigham [President Brigham Young] is looking for some fine wood to help build an organ for the new tabernacle,” Brother Erickson told Father. “I thought you’d like to know that.”

“Yes,” Father said slowly. “That’s interesting. But what has it to do with me?”

Brother Erickson pointed to their cabin. “Just look at those logs. The finest logs I’ve seen anywhere. They’re long and smooth, and there is not a knothole in the whole of it!”

“That’s true,” Father said. “Those logs made a snug cabin for us. Are you thinking we should let Brother Brigham know about the pine we have around here? It’s over three hundred miles to Salt Lake City! Couldn’t they find some closer?”

“Brother Robert Gardner and his son William have been traveling all over the territory, searching out good wood. Brother Brigham charged them with that responsibility. I don’t think the distance would be a problem if the wood was good.”

Father nodded. “Pine Valley would be proud to help with the furnishing of that great building. Let’s do it! Let’s send a piece of one of our very best logs.”

Over the next weeks, several men from the valley gathered at their cabin to help select and cut just the right wood to send to Salt Lake City.

Thomas wished that he could be the one to take the wood there. He ran his hand over the smooth surface of the pine chest he was making. He knew that when the Gardners saw this wood, they would want it.

“We’ll send it with one of the missionaries heading that way,” Bishop Johansen told the men. “There’s no need for a special trip.”

Hanging his head, Thomas went back to work. He longed to travel to Salt Lake City and see how the work on the organ and the tabernacle was getting along. But he knew that his family still needed every spare moment they had to provide a living for themselves. There just was no time for trips anywhere.

Over the next months, Thomas waited to hear if their beautiful white pine had been chosen for the organ. No word came. Then in the spring, men came with ox teams to haul the superb logs to Salt Lake City.

“Dad,” Thomas exclaimed happily when he saw the teams snaking up the mountain, “they’re going to use our wood!”

His father smiled at him. “It was the best they found in the territory. They’ll use our wood for some of the pipes. The metal pipes are being made back East by the Simmons company. But the largest of the wood pipes are of our wood. And they’re encasing some pipes in pine that comes from a canyon close to Salt Lake City. They’ll paint that wood to look like oak.”

Thomas grinned from ear to ear. “I sure would like to hear that organ when it’s completed.”

His father put his hand on his shoulder. “I think we could manage a trip, even one that far, to attend general conference one of these years.”

It was a promise he kept, but Thomas had to wait two whole years for the organ and the Salt Lake Tabernacle to be ready for a conference. However, in September 1867, after the crops were safely in their bins, Thomas’s family began the slow wagon ride to Salt Lake City. They arrived in plenty of time for the conference on October 6.

That morning, Thomas slid into his seat. He listened in awe to the partially finished organ. He knew that it would take Brother Ridges several more years to finish it, but he loved the sound.

Here in the wilds of Deseret, beautiful music was forming. The organ would someday be world famous. Thomas knew that as it was completed, it would only become better. For now, he was happy just to listen to its beautiful strains.

Later that day, his father introduced him to Joseph Ridges. When he found that Thomas was interested in the instrument, he showed him what they were doing. Then he introduced him to Niels Johnson, Shure Olsen, David Anderson, William Pinney, and John Sandberg, men he had been training to work on the organ, too. They were all there that day to hear its beautiful tones.

The following Wednesday, as his family traveled home, Thomas was still marveling at what he’d seen and heard. Here in the wilds of Deseret, the Lord had helped his servants use what materials they had, and what skill they had, to begin building one of the greatest organs in the world. He had felt the Spirit very strongly as its music flowed through that great building. He thrilled at the messages of the prophets. He loved the music the choir sang, accompanied by the organ. How proud he was that some of the wood inside it came from his valley.

The Tabernacle Organ: Fascinating Facts

When the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, was being built, President Brigham Young wanted an organ built for it that was just as special as the Tabernacle itself. He asked Joseph Ridges for a plan. When he saw what Brother Ridges wanted to build, he was stunned. “Can we do this thing?” he wondered. Then he declared, “Yes, we can! … Go ahead with this, Brother Ridges.”*

Neither the Tabernacle nor its organ were complete when the organ was first played for general conference in October 1867. In fact, the organ was only one-third finished! The finished organ had 27 pedals, 35 stops, and 2,648 pipes—some metal, some wood. Over the years, changes have been made. Today the organ has 11,623 pipes!

Although, like a piano, an organ uses a keyboard, it is really a wind instrument. Air forced through its pipes is what makes them sound. In those early days, men below the organ ran on a treadmill connected to a bellows that forced air through the pipes. A big electric fan driven by a 30-horsepower motor does the job now.

The littlest pipes in the Tabernacle organ are less than 3/8″ (1 cm) long! The largest are 32′ (37.5 m) high! The bigger the pipe, the lower the sound. Some notes are so low that they are felt rather than heard, and the highest notes are so high and soft that only those with really keen hearing can hear them.

Foot pedals play the lowest sounds and control the loudness of the notes. The organist uses both feet, and both heel and toe, to play the pedals needed.

The Tabernacle organ has five keyboards, each of which can create different sounds. The sounds of trumpets, violins, flutes, and many other instruments can be made by pulling round knobs called stops. These make certain sets of pipes sound. To read the music, set stops, play with two feet and two hands, and follow the conductor at the same time takes a lot of skill and practice!

The first Tabernacle organist was Joseph Daynes. President Brigham Young had heard Joseph play a small pump organ when he was only eleven years old. He was just sixteen when he played the Tabernacle organ for the 1867 conference. His feet didn’t reach the pedals, so he added pieces of cork to the soles of his shoes.

Joseph Daynes wrote the music for many hymns. The two we probably sing the most often now are “Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice” and “Lord, Accept Our True Devotion” (Hymns, nos. 21 and 107).

Another Tabernacle organist was Alexander Schreiner. He became famous all over the world for his organ playing. He played his first recital on the Tabernacle organ when he was a teenager, and he wrote music for many Primary songs, including “Jesus Is Our Loving Friend” (Children’s Songbook, page 58).

Near the end of his life, President Spencer W. Kimball said, “As I listen to the lovely melodies of the Tabernacle Choir and organ, I am comforted by the assurance that there will be beautiful music in heaven.”

Illustrated by Brad Teare

Show References

  • From “Organ Music,” Friend, October 1976, page 16. Other information for this article are from the following Friend issues: January 1971, page 47; March 1974, page 16; October 1986, page 45; October 1987, page 36; and October 1989, pages 8–9; and from Ensign, October 2000, page 42, and November 1982, page 4.