Celebrating With Song
History Center plans 200th
birthday celebration for Rob Morris
He wrote hymns, founded the Order of the Eastern Star
LA GRANGE, Ky. – Rob Morris is known worldwide as a teacher, poet, Mason and the founder of the Order of the Eastern Star. Throughout his lifetime, Morris accomplished many feats for which he will be remembered, including the writing of beautiful hymns sung in churches across the country.
Morris was a very important figure in Oldham County, Ky.’s history. Born Robert Williams Peckham on Aug. 31, 1818, near Boston, he was placed in a foster home after his father died in 1825. Morris took the name of one of his foster parents, John Morris.
His early years were spent in New York, where he received many educational advantages, including college training that qualified him as a successful lecturer, educator and instructor in Masonry. He devoted many years to research and writing.
• Contact the Oldham County History Center for reservations for “The Hymns of Rob Morris: Celebrating his 200th Birthday!!” at (502) 222-0826. Cost is $10 per person and light refreshments will be served. Theiss will have copies of her book for sale as well.
Morris became a Master Mason in Oxford, Miss., on March 5, 1846, while he was president of Mt. Sylvan Academy, a school established by Freemasons. About this time he decided that there needed to be a way for female relatives of Masons to be able to share in the benefits of the fraternity. He embarked upon a mission to create an Order that would benefit both men and women. This idea would eventually evolve into the Order of the Eastern Star.
In 1841 he married Charlotte Mendenhall. Their union produced nine children, seven living to adulthood. During the years that he taught as principal in Eureka Masonic College (“The Little Red Brick School Building”) in Richland, Miss. (1849 – 1850), he continued to zealously work to create a Ritual of the Order of the Eastern Star.
Apart from his work in Masonry and Eastern Star, Morris wrote many religious songs. He was aided in composing the music for the hymns by several other people with whom he worked,
including H.R. Palmer, Charles H. Gabriel and E. Maude Cline.
Hymns written by Morris include “Singing From the Heart,” “As a Shepherd,” “Consider the Lilies” and “The Sweet Now and Now.” A special selection of hymns composed by Morris will be performed from 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18, in the Rob Morris Educational Building, 207 W. Jefferson St. on the Oldham County History Center campus in La Grange, Ky. Morris lectured and recited his poetry in this historic former Presbyterian church.
These beautiful hymns will be sung by Brandi Lavrich and performed on the History Center’s antique player piano by John Ball. Lavrich is a native of Pittsburgh who earned a degree in voice from Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.
She said the hymns are “pretty. They have a folk quality to them.” She and Ball agree that some of the hymns remind them of Steven Foster’s works. Foster, known as “the father of American music,” primarily wrote parlor and minstrel music and is credited with writing “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Lavrich and Ball met at Crestwood United Methodist Church, where Lavrich has been the Children’s Choir Director for the last two years. She also gives piano and voice lessons from her home. This will be the first time she has sung the Rob Morris hymns. Lavrich and her family moved to Oldham County three years ago due to her husband’s work.
John Ball is originally from Rush County, Ind., and has presented programs at the History Center in the past. He has had 10 years of classical piano training, having “always liked music. Someone in my family has always played music.”
Like Lavrich, Ball also studied voice. “I’m very much a fan of player piano music,” he said. Ball became interested in the musical instrument as a child, thinking it was “really neat.”
He owns three pianos: a player, grand and upright. He prefers players because “they are very happy because of the music they play.”
Ball said his mother, a violinist, had a big musical influence on him. She sang and “always loved music so well.” Hearing his mother play the piano instilled in him a love for ragtime tunes.
The Rob Morris hymns “have never been sung here before,” said Nancy Stearns Theiss, executive director of the History Center. The annual Rob Morris Pilgrimage will also be held the same weekend in La Grange.
During “The Hymns of Rob Morris: Celebrating his 200th Birthday!!” Theiss will give a brief talk about Rob Morris and hold a book signing for the second edition of her book, “A Place in the Lodge: Rob Morris, Freemasonry and the Order of the Eastern Star.” The book contains “letters written between Morris, his sister, wife and one of his sons. The newest edition includes more letters plus new sections on his writings and publications,” said Theiss.
Contained in the book are more than 200 letters Morris and his family members composed while Morris was traveling. He traveled extensively in foreign countries, spending nearly a year in the Holy Land. He organized the first Masonic Lodge in Jerusalem, Royal Solomon Number One, Lodge #293 and became its first Worshipful Master.
Morris wrote numerous works on Masonry and contributed to columns in various Masonic publications. He was also a poet, having penned more than 400 poems. His best known poem is “The Level and the Square.” Many of his poems were devoted to the Order of the Eastern Star and are still used by chapters today. Morris created poetry for special events such as funerals, dedications and Masonic gatherings across the United States and Canada.
The crowning event in the career of this remarkable man occurred in 1884 when more than 500,000 Master Masons throughout the world expressed their desire that he be crowned with the laurel wreath, symbolizing the title of Poet Laureate of Masonry. In the presence of more than 700 dignitaries, this honor was conferred upon him.
Morris originally came to La Grange to serve on the faculty of the Masonic University in 1860, after having served as the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky from 1858-1859. He bought a house at the corner of Washington and Cedar streets, where he died on July 31, 1888.
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