The Hymn
The Author
The Composer

It does not matter how old we are, we are still our parents' child. And if we are not schoolchildren, saving the best apple for our teacher as used to be the custom, we are still children of God also.

‘Dearest Children, God Is Near You’ was originally written for children, however, the message is applicable to everyone. The doctrines that are taught in its verses concerning our relationship with God and the Holy Spirit are based in scripture.

The author, Charles L. Walker, teaches in the first verse that God is watching over all. In the Bible Old Testament Jeremiah records the following regarding the last days: “…so will I watch over them, to build, and to plant, saith the Lord.”

The word “own” in the second line has several meanings. In connection with blessings, the one that seems most likely to have been intended by the author is ‘acknowledge.’ Reading the phrase with this substitution brings additional insight: “And delights to acknowledge and bless you, If you strive to do what’s right.”

In the Bible, King David wrote in his Psalms, “Blessed is that man that maketh the Lord his trust…” In the Book of Mormon we read, “…yea, we can see that the Lord in his great infinite goodness doth bless and prosper those who put their trust in him.” At the end of the first verse the author gives this truth additional emphasis by repetition.

The first two lines of the second verse teach us of our accountability to God by mentioning a record kept in heaven. In the Old Testament of the Bible Job wrote, “Also now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and my record is on high.” In the New Testament John wrote of the ‘Book of Life’ and that “…the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”

Knowledge of our ‘record in heaven’ gives us great reason to “cherish virtue.” The term “virtue” has a number of meanings; however, the author’s intent to encourage moral excellence is evident. It is interesting to note that the Latin root virtus can be translated as: power, strength, excellence, valor, merit and goodness.

The third verse tells us that God wants to teach us and he teaches us through the voice of the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Ghost. In the New Testament of the Bible John wrote, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things…” It is instructive that the author uses the term ‘heed,’ meaning ‘to pay attention,’ in connection with the promptings of the Spirit. He then promises that if we heed the promptings of the Spirit we will have cause to rejoice.

The hymn text ends with a plea to be faithful to God, and to Zion’s cause. What is “Zion’s cause?” Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe that the ‘cause of Zion’ is to prepare a people who are pure in heart to receive the Lord at his coming. The author was a member of the church and it seems apparent that this was his meaning.

One of the great works in preparing a Zion people is teaching the children and the rising generation. Dearest Children, God Is Near You has been sung by parents and grandparents to their children for more than five generations, bringing comfort and giving instruction. It has also been a valuable tool for teaching the gospel in church settings.

In 1849, the second year after the first LDS pioneers settled in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, it is noted that Richard Ballantyne invited neighborhood children to a Bible class in his home. This idea spread and by 1867 the Deseret Sunday School Union had become a formal LDS church organization. In 1877 music became a standard part of the instruction. Dearest Children, God Is Near You is said to have first been published in the LDS Sunday School Magazine ‘The Juvenile Instructor,’ that same year.

In 1878 concern for the future of rowdy boys led the LDS Church to form a Primary Association, where instruction could be given in principles and values. Singing was considered a necessary part of the program for boys and girls. In 1880 Dearest Children, God Is Near You was included in the first edition of the “Children’s Primary Hymn Book.”

The hymn was subsequently published by the Sunday School Union in the 1894 and 1909 Deseret Sunday School Songs, and included in the 1948 edition of Hymns, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Hymnal). In the 1985 edition of the LDS Hymnal, the music in ¾ time was transposed to a lower key, with some slight modifications to the notation and harmony.

The soprano and alto duet on the repeated phrases add emphasis to the message of each verse, and the hymn continues to teach and comfort each new generation.

Dearest Children, God Is Near You - Text:

Dearest children, God is near you,

Watching o’er you day and night,

And delights to own and bless you,

If you strive to do what’s right.

He will bless you,

He will bless you,

If you put your trust in him.

Dearest children, holy angels

Watch your actions night and day,

And they keep a faithful record

Of the good and bad you say.

Cherish virtue!

Cherish virtue!

God will bless the pure in heart.

Children, God delights to teach you

By his Holy Spirit’s voice.

Quickly heed its holy promptings.

Day by day you’ll then rejoice.

Oh, prove faithful,

Oh, prove faithful

To your God and Zion’s cause.

Charles Lowell Walker was born in November of 1832 to William and Mary Godwin Walker at Leek, or Bath, England. It is said that his parents moved to Manchester in his childhood where they were introduced to and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) about 1839. The first LDS missionaries had arrived in England at Liverpool, about thirty miles west of Manchester, in July of 1837. Charles was said to have been baptized into the church in 1845 by his father.

Some refer to Manchester as the world’s first industrial city, and in the mid-nineteenth century it was a center of the cotton industry. Charles was said to have been employed making tassels and braid, but was displaced by the invention of machines. In 1849, at the age of about seventeen, this circumstance may have led him to follow his sister, who had preceded the family to the United States to join the LDS church members (Saints) in Utah.

Charles sailed to New Orleans with other emigrating Saints and worked his way to St. Louis.

He then began saving to help his parents emigrate. They arrived about 1850 and the family made preparations to go on to Utah, however, his mother died of typhus fever before they could leave.

In 1855 Charles engaged to drive a team of horses bringing farming equipment and merchandise to Utah. They left St. Louis in April and arrived in the Salt Lake valley in September.

It is noted that Charles was primarily a self-educated man, learning from scripture and literature, and was said to possess above average intelligence. It is believed that about this time he began a practice of keeping a journal which he continued the rest of his life.

Upon his arrival in Salt Lake he stayed for a few months with his sister and worked for his brother-in-law, Parley P. Pratt. That winter food was scarce and the Pratts could not provide for him, so he had to find what he could on his own. For the next two years he recorded that he experienced “…hardships, hunger, starvation. Digging roots to subsist upon – living on greens, cornmeal, siftings – and not enough of that.”

Charles took up the trade of blacksmithing and gradually improved his circumstances. He obtained a small home and in 1861 married Abigail Middlemass, whose family had come from Nova Scotia.

When the LDS pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, there were no permanent farms or settlements. Church members continued to gather there, immigrating from the east and other countries. By the second winter, about 4,500 people were living in the valley and more were on their way. It was necessary to spread out and find places for farming and important industries to help them be self-sufficient. By 1857 over 100 colonies had been founded.

Cotton cultivation was begun about 1855 in the warm southern region of Utah. When the Civil War began in 1861, concern for cotton supply led the LDS church leaders to call for more settlers to go to Washington County to raise cotton and warm weather crops. Lacking volunteers, on October 13, 1861 President Young issued mission calls to two hundred men (and their families) from the pulpit and others were called later.

Charles L. Walker was one of these called to the ‘Dixie Cotton Country Mission.’ Only about two-thirds accepted the call. Charles’ response is an indication of his convictions and character. He recorded, “Well, here I have worked for the last seven years through heat and cold, hunger and adverse circumstances and at last have got me a home, a lot with fruit trees just beginning to bear and look pretty. Well, I must leave it and go do the will of my Father… I pray God to give me strength… obedience is a great principle in Heaven and on Earth.”

Charles and Abigail packed up and moved south, joining the new colonists in the Rio Virgin valley in a new settlement named St. George in honor of LDS Apostle George A. Smith, counselor to President Young, who had a significant role in its settlement. St. George is about 300 miles southwest of Salt Lake City and 120 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The trip from Salt Lake to St. George by horse and wagon took over three weeks. Charles recorded that St. George was “…a barren looking place… very windy, dusty, blowing nearly all the time.” He continued blacksmithing and built a home on a city lot, planting and irrigating. The area only received an annual rainfall of about eight inches, and the pioneers had to construct dams on the Santa Clara River, a tributary of the Virgin River, and canals to irrigate their crops. Occasional major rainstorms caused flash floods which would damage their water works.

The settlers built a Tabernacle for worship services and in 1871 voted to build a temple which was completed in 1877. Charles worked as a stone cutter on both of these buildings. He recorded, ‘…many weary toilsome days have I labored in the St. George Tabernacle, lifting the heavy rocks in the wind, dust, cold and scorching heat of this climate, yet I have felt happy and contented.”

In addition to physical labor, Charles was involved in the intellectual life of the community, participating in a literary club and attending lectures on various topics. It is noted that he had a God-given talent for mirth. He wrote prose, poems and songs for various occasions. It is said that when hunger and death stalked the colony, Apostle Erastus Snow would turn to him and say, “Charley, write a song to lift our sadness.”

It is said that one Sunday during a long Sacrament meeting, Charles amused himself by writing some lines that began, ‘Dearest children, God is near you.’ The completed poem came to the notice of local musician John Macfarlane, who wrote a tune for it that he named SINCLAIR after his mother’s family, and it was used locally in the Sunday Schools before becoming more widely known.

Charles was referred to as “The Dixie Poet” and the “Poet Laureate” of the Cotton Country Mission. He was a great example of a dutiful Christian man who put others before himself. One of his poems, titled “Dixie Pioneers” aptly depicts his attitude and attributes.

“Forty years have we spent in this country so dreary,
Subduing the mineral, thorns, cactus and sands;
Our spirits are bright, though our bodies are weary,
In filling the mission required at our hands.”

Charles Lowell Walker endured well and passed away at the age of 71, in January of 1904. He left behind a large family and a legacy of faith, work, good humor and obedience.

John Menzies Macfarlane was born in October of 1833 to John and Annabella Macfarlane at Sterling, or Stirling, Scotland. Stirling is a town with medieval origins, complete with a castle, located about thirty-five miles northwest of Edinburgh on the River Forth. John’s father is believed to have been a duke’s coachman and is said to have once driven the coach of the visiting Queen of England.

Missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) first arrived in Scotland in December of 1839 at Glasgow. Their proselyting efforts in the area between Glasgow and Edinburgh were fruitful as it was a time of religious tension in Scotland as well as in England and it is said there were many seekers of truth. By 1848 seventy branches (small congregations) had been organized, and some members began immigrating to the United States to join the main body of the church in Utah. Between 1852 and 1856 over one thousand Scottish LDS church members (Saints) emigrated.

It is presumed that the family members of John Macfarlane were some of these LDS church converts. It is said that John’s father had passed away when he was young. John and other family members immigrated to the United States about 1852 when he was around nineteen years of age. Travel by railroad was not an option until the late 1860’s so it is presumed that they traveled across the plains by wagon. They settled in Cedar City, Utah, about 250 miles south of Salt Lake City.

The first settlers had arrived in Cedar City in November of 1851. They were men intent on establishing an iron works under the direction of LDS Apostle George A. Smith. The first group of structures was called Fort Cedar, named for the abundant “cedar” trees, which were a type of Juniper growing at this elevation of 5,800 feet. When sufficient homes had been built of the straight cottonwood logs, families joined the men from Parowan, twenty miles northeast.

More iron workers and settlers arrived and John Macfarlane and his family were apparently some of these immigrants. Not long after his arrival John met Anne Chatterley, who had been born in Manchester, England, and they were married.

Hostilities with the Native American tribes caused many difficulties for the settlers in these early years.

Iron mining, the blast furnace and iron works were the primary occupation until 1858 when the iron works were discontinued. Iron mining and farming continued on.

In the midst of the hardships John’s musical talents became well known and he organized a choir. It is said that he was able to play on almost any musical instrument.

It is likely that John was impacted by the closing of the iron works in 1858 and may have been in need of a change. It is noted that some time after St. George was founded in 1861, about fifty-three miles southwest, John took his choir there and gave a concert to lift the people’s spirits. After the concert it is said that Apostle Erastus Snow told him that they needed a choir in St. George and requested that he sell out and move there.

Several children had been born to John and Anne in these rugged circumstances. They packed up their family and moved to St. George where John did indeed organize a choir. His musical abilities added much needed joy to the difficult pioneer life.

In the late 1860’s silver was discovered about eighteen miles northeast of St. George and the Silver Reef mining town boomed for about ten years. The town had a Catholic Church and it is said that Catholic Bishop Scanlan came to visit and had a desire to hold mass in St. George. The LDS church authorities generously offered the St. George Tabernacle and it is said that John Macfarlane trained his choir for six weeks and they performed the Latin Mass.

John evidently enjoyed the acquaintance of Charles Walker, which resulted in the publication of ‘Dearest Children, God is Near You.’ It is believed that they collaborated on other works as well.

In addition to his musical activities, John was involved with community life. It is said that he served as a district judge, and was a surveyor and builder.

John Macfarlane is also known as the author and composer of the Christmas hymn, ‘Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains.’ His gifts have continued to lift people’s spirits these many years after he passed on in 1892, at the age of 59.

Information in this article came from:

Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1985, #96)

J. Spencer Cornwall, Stories of our Mormon Hymns, p. 40-41, 189-191. (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1963)

George D. Pyper, Stories of Latter-Day Saint Hymns, Their Authors and Composers, pp. 81-83, (Deseret News Press, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1939)

Karen Lynn Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns, pp. 125-126, 406, 453. (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1988)

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, (G & C Merriam Company, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1975)

Russell R. Rich, Ensign to the Nations, pp. 174-176, 313-314. (Brigham Young University Publications, Provo, Utah, 1972)

Ivan J. Barrett, Joseph Smith and the Restoration, pp. 344-349. (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah, 1967)

Holy Bible, King James Version, Jeremiah 31:28, p. 986; Psalms 40:4, p.739; Job 16:19, p. 692; John 14:26, p. 1353. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1979)

The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ Helaman 12:1, p. 395. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1981)