Evan Stephens was born in Wales in 1854. By the time he was 12 years old, his family had moved to Willard, Utah, where he sang in the town choir. But when Evan learned that President Brigham Young was coming to hear the choir, he had a problem.
Evan looked down at the dusty road and dragged his feet as he walked home from choir practice. Everyone else in the Willard town choir had cheered at the invitation to sing for President Brigham Young. The men clapped each other on the back, while the women whispered excitedly from behind their books and fans. No one noticed the glum look on 12-year-old Evan’s face as he slumped down in his chair. The “Boy Alto,” as he was known, quietly slipped through the church doors and left practice by himself.
The problem wasn’t that Evan didn’t want to sing. He loved music. When his family settled in Willard, a town about 50 miles (80 km) north of Salt Lake City, he had been delighted to learn about the unusually good town choir. As the 10th child in the Stephens family, Evan had found little time between farm chores to learn much about music. In the Willard choir, he could finally learn more about it. He found himself moving in rhythm as he worked and dancing as he herded the cows. He felt music everywhere now.
No, the idea of singing for the prophet didn’t upset Evan. But choir members would need to dress in their best Sunday clothes for the performance, and Evan didn’t have any good clothes. His family didn’t have much money. He had never owned a nice coat or a pair of black Sunday shoes. He was ashamed to sing in front of the prophet while looking so shabby.
Evan looked down at his dusty feet. They were covered with dirt from the trail. He would have to scrub them hard before going to church Sunday morning. Otherwise, his feet would look black. Evan’s heart jumped at this thought. He could get black feet—really black feet—by using polish. Everyone would be looking at the faces of the singers, so no one would notice that Evan had black feet instead of black shoes.
On the day the choir was to sing to the prophet, Evan felt sweat on his forehead and the palms of his hands as he looked down at his black feet. He knew he must go—the choir needed him—but he wanted to hide so the prophet would not see him. With tears racing down his cheeks, he ran toward the bowery where the choir was going to sing.
At the bowery, Evan stopped. What if the prophet did see him? What would he think of a poor farm boy with painted black feet and no coat? Evan couldn’t let the prophet see him. Turning around, he bolted like a frightened colt. He ran right into the very man he had hoped not to see.
President Brigham Young grabbed the frightened boy by the shoulders. “Now, now, what’s this?” he asked. “What’s the matter? Why are you running away?”
Tears filled Evan’s eyes as he bowed his head and whispered, “I have no coat for the program and no shoes.” Swallowing the lump in his throat, he continued, “I painted my feet black with polish.”
The grip on Evan’s shoulders relaxed, and he felt the prophet pat him on the head. Looking up, he was surprised to see a kind look on President Young’s face and tears in his eyes too. “Never mind that,” he told Evan. “Don’t you hesitate a moment. Go right on in.”
Relief wrapped around Evan like a soft, warm blanket. He blinked away the tears and returned the prophet’s smile with one of his own. He hurried to take his place with the choir. Happy to be accepted by the prophet, Evan sang his part perfectly.
President Young gave Evan an encouraging word and courage to do his part. This kindness influenced Evan long after the choir performance. He continued to study music and taught himself new skills.
When Evan grew up, he became director of the Tabernacle Choir. He served in that position from 1889 to 1916. Evan also wrote many sacred hymns and patriotic songs. He remained humble and always remembered the lesson he had learned from the prophet. Evan treated people like he did his music—with love. And like President Young, he listened with his heart.
Evan Stephens later wrote a hymn about courage, including the words, “Courage, for the Lord is on our side” (“Let Us All Press On,” Hymns, no. 243).
Seventy-fifth Anniversary of Music and the Spoken Word
This month the Tabernacle Choir will finish a special yearlong celebration of its famous program Music and the Spoken Word. This program has been broadcast on the radio every week for 75 years—longer than any other network program in the world. Your grandparents and great-grandparents could have listened to it when they were your age!
On 15 July 1929 a radio station in Salt Lake City placed a microphone on a stand atop the pulpit of the Tabernacle on Temple Square to broadcast the first Music and the Spoken Word. A young man stood on a tall ladder near the microphone throughout the program so he could announce each song the choir sang. He couldn’t climb down between the songs because he would make too much noise!
Every week since then, first on Tuesday and now on Sunday morning, people around the world have listened to the beautiful music and peaceful words of the 30-minute program. While the choir usually performs and records Music and the Spoken Word at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, it has also recorded the program in Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America.
Today millions of people in 19 countries hear or see Music and the Spoken Word on radio, network television, cable, or satellite. Have you ever watched or listened to this record-setting program?
To learn other interesting facts about the Tabernacle Choir, go to www.tabernaclechoir.org. See also Lisa Ann Jackson, “Church, Choir Celebrate Broadcast’s 75th Anniversary,” Liahona, Apr. 2004, News of the Church.