Hans Henry Petersen (1835-1909), author of the hymn text and music, was born in Slagelse, Denmark. He was raised as a Lutheran but joined the LDS church with his father in June of 1853. He served as a missionary in Denmark and was later branch president in Svenstrup and district president in Copenhagen, all while still a young man in his twenties.
In 1862, Hans emigrated to America with his parents and five siblings. While on the ship, he met and married Julia Maria Larsen. She had joined the church in Helsingor, Denmark, and had been disowned by her parents for doing so. What a story that must have been! Shipboard romance – and marriage – on the way to America! Hopefully, someone kept a journal. How happy Julia must have been to have a family again.
After reaching New York and then Nebraska, the Petersens became part of a wagon company travelling to Utah. Hans was put in charge of a company of about 400. Again, what a story that must have been! For a young Danish man, literally fresh off the boat, to lead a company of hundreds of Saints across the American frontier in those days must have been a huge challenge. But that is what Mormon pioneers did. They were made of stern stuff, with a large dose of faith and an even larger portion of heavenly help. He was not the only one accomplishing such heroic feats. He was walking in the footsteps of many who had performed similar courageous tasks to bring their families to Zion, and many followed in his footsteps. God was helping them.
Hans eventually settled in Hyrum, Utah. There he became the stake choir director. It was in that calling that he composed his most famous hymn, “Secret Prayer.” This hymn demonstrates the Latter-day Saint attitude to prayer; that it is a very personal conversation with our Heavenly Father. In personal, secret prayer we do not use set prayers; we create our own. Brother Petersen wanted us to know that prayer can help solve the problems of life… the “billows of despair” or the pathway strewn with snares.
This hymn has many of the characteristics of the American gospel song: the verse/chorus division, the dotted rhythms, the energy, and the answering harmony of the chorus. In fact, it is this answering harmony of the chorus that makes “Secret Prayer” so fun. In our arrangement, the countermelody for female voices follows that answering harmony, so women get to sing it as well. It is a pleasure to hear the different parts respond to each other in this lovely and meaningful hymn. Whichever part we sing, we can join our voices with the energy and heart that will truly “unite [our] soul[s] with heav’n.”
Listen to our Congregation Choir arrangement with organ SATB, enhanced piano accompaniment and vocal countermelody.
Listen to our Congregation Choir arrangement with organ SATB, enhanced piano accompaniment and flute or violin countermelody.