“Do What Is Right,” with its unknown origin and authorship, was aptly described by George Pyper in the first Latter-day Saint hymnal companion as “a waif in the realm of song.” It was borrowed first as a poem, and published by the Saints on September 3, 1859 in a short-lived newspaper entitled the Mountaineer. It was reprinted in the Latter-day Saint’s Millennial Star on March 24, 1860, and from there entered the Latter-day Saint hymnal in the twelfth edition of Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1863).
“Do What is Right” was first paired with OAKEN BUCKET, the tune to which we sing these words today, in Eliza Snow’s Tune Book for the Primary Associations of the Children of Zion (1880). This tune is more familiarly known as the musical setting for Samuel Woodworth’s poem “The Old Oaken Bucket,” hence the tune name.
The composer of OAKEN BUCKET remained a mystery for many years, but some time before the publication of the 1948 hymnal, the melody was found to be adapted from the song “Araby’s Daughter” by British composer George Kiallmark (1781-1835). Despite this discovery, Kiallmark’s name has never been printed correctly in the Latter-day Saint hymnal. In the 1948 and 1950 editions his name was given as “E. Kaillmark.” Early printings of the 1985 hymnal correctly changed the spelling of his last name to Kiallmark, but kept the wrong first initial “E.” The most recent printings of the hymnal correctly list his first name as George, but revert back to Kaillmark, the incorrect spelling of his last name.
The current hymnal does not give an author name for the text, instead listing its first publication as “The Psalms of Life, Boston, 1857.” Recent scholarship, however, indicates the text was first published on October 17, 1850, in the National Era, an abolitionist newspaper published at Washington, D. C.. Although an author’s full name is not given, the poem is attributed to “J. C. S.,” and the author’s residence is listed as “Coatesville, Pa.” A search through records of Chester County, Pennsylvania has uncovered only one individual with the initials J. C. S. living in the vicinity of Coatesville in the year 1850, a man named John Clemson Sharpless (1829-1902). Sharpless was an engineer with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although Sharpless is known to have written poetry, there is no direct evidence linking him to “Do What Is Right.” His only surviving poem, “The Family Reunion,” is written in almost the identical meter as “Do What is Right,” but nothing else can be found concerning his further literary efforts, without which it is impossible to conclusively state that he is the author of this text.
*The Mountaineer was a newspaper published at Salt Lake City from 1859 to 1861. The slogan “Do what is right, let the consequence follow!” appeared at the head of each issue, beginning with the first on August 27, 1859. The poem “Do What Is Right” appeared in the second issue of the Mountaineer, September 3, 1859, entitled “Our Motto Song.”
*Samuel Woodworth, author of the poem “The Old Oaken Bucket” (the source for the tune name), is also the author of one of the anonymous hymns in the current Latter-day Saint hymnal: “God is in His Holy Temple.”
*The National Era is perhaps best remembered today as the newspaper in which Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin debuted in serial form in 1851, before it was published as a book.
*“Do What Is Right” was reprinted in the Common School Journal on December 1, 1850. The following year it was recited in a speech by Emma R. Coe at the conclusion of the second National Woman’s Rights Convention, at Worcester, Massachusetts, which took place on October 15 and 16, 1851. The highlights of this convention were published in pamphlet form in 1852. This poem was also published in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin on November 1, 1856, and in the song book The Western Bell: A Collection of Glees, Quartetts, and Choruses (1857).
*John Clemson Sharpless (1829-1902), the son of Joshua B. Sharpless and Sophia Clemson Sharpless, was born on April 22, 1829, near Downingtown, Chester County, Pennsylvania. He began his career at the Iron Works at Coatesville (probably the Lukens Steel Company), but after three years, during a period of financial difficulty, he accepted a temporary position on an engineer corps. This experience convinced him to permanently change careers, and for the remainder of his life worked at various railroads in Pennsylvania and Ohio, including the West Chester, the Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Railroads. He died July 26, 1902 at West Whiteland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. His wife was Lydia Coale Johnson Sharpless (1842-1922), inventor of the Sharpless bread machine. They had 3 children together. A lifelong Quaker, Sharpless was interred at the Downington Friends Meeting cemetery in Downington, Pennsylvania. Sharpless’s poem “The Family Reunion” was published in Gilbert Cope, Genealogy of the Sharpless Family (Philadelphia: n. p., 1887), 30-32.
George D. Pyper, Stories of Latter-day Saint Hymns, Their Authors, and Composers (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1939), 85; J. C. S., “Do What Is Right!” National Era, October 17, 1850, 167; Robert E. Carlson, Index to Chester County (Pennsylvania) Biography (West Chester, Penn., 1983); Cathy, Reference Librarian, Chester County Public Library, email message to author, November 20, 2011; Diane P. Rofini, Librarian, Chester County Historical Society, email message to author, December 15, 2011.