The Song of the Righteous is a Prayer unto Me

guestmusic, sacrament meeting 18 Comments

Today’s post is by The Chorister.  Last week while I was playing the organ for Sacrament meeting, it hit me that often, the only time I feel touched by the spirit at church is while singing hymns or primary songs. I love singing songs at church. It makes me feel like I’m a part of a community of saints. So I asked the powers-that-be at Mormon Matters if I could do an occasional post here re: the hymns. So I will choose a hymn and post the text, an mp3, some comments about the scriptural references listed under each hymn, and some background info. about the composer or the history of the hymn, etc. I hope this can be a positive thread – I need some uplifting spiritual interactions.To begin, I read the introductory pages in the new hymnal as well as some information about some of the changes that were made between the 1948 and the 1985 versions (from the book Our Latter-day Hymns: The stories and the messages by Karen Lynn Davidson). It’s makes for a pretty interesting read, so if you’ve never read them before, you should. For now, a couple interesting tidbits:

  • the new hymnal was significantly changed to reflect demographic changes in the church. For instance, they took out “Utah, we love thee.”
  • In choosing which hymns would make it into the 1985 hymnal, the Hymnbook Committee reviewed over 6,000 submissions. Author and composer names were withheld so the selection process could focus on the musical or doctrinal merits of the submissions rather than the identity of the composers/authors.
  • The doctrinal message was considered by the committee to be more important than the musical and/or literary merit (unless a hymn was considered to be “widely-loved”). I’m familiar with the Spanish hymnal and know that there used to be a song in the old one about brushing your teeth. That one didn’t make the cut in the newer version of the Spanish hymnal. J But what happened to hymns like “Come, thou fount of every blessing?” Does anyone have the inside scoop on that one?
  • I feel good knowing that something as important as the official church hymnal out of which we sing every Sunday was changed to reflect increasing diversity within the church. This gives me hope that some of the things I struggle with about the church may be changed or at least diminished. So before I die, the songs in the primary book that talk about fathers’ wisdom, faith, and strength in one verse and mothers’ “happy, smiling faces” might get removed. Wishful thinking?? The Utah song lasted a long time, but was finally cut.

I’ll close with a thought-provoking quote from the Latter-day Hymns book: “From the texts of the hymns that have been preserved, we can discern the values, the collective wisdom, the beliefs, hopes, fears, and even something of the history of the people who wrote them. A hymnbook is a testament to the unique qualities of a people.”

So what can we learn about our beliefs from our hymnal? What do our hymns say about us as a people? I think the hymnal testifies of our belief and hope in Christ, of our unique history and traditions, and of the emphasis we place on serving others and strengthening our families. I feel good about these most basic of beliefs. And when I sing the hymns that talk about Christ, service, and families, I feel good inside. The first presidency message in the intro. of the new hymnal says that hymns “can lift our spirits, give us courage, and move us to righteous action.” Good goals.

Comments 18

  1. “So what can we learn about our beliefs from our hymnal? What do our hymns say about us as a people?”

    That we really are a peculiar people – who are disproportionately disposed to sing (and to music in general). The percentage of Mormon kids in our school district who participate in music of some kind at school is WAY higher than any other denomination in the area. The teachers all know about it.

    One more thing: Our hymnal is the most complicated hymnal, musically, I’ve ever seen for an open congregation. It’s not even close. There are some really difficult hymns – both to play and to sing all parts.

  2. I think it shows us as optimistic — about the mercy of God, and eternal life, certainly, and also about this life. I mean, there are hymns confirming the interactions of men with angels and with God Himself, and hymns showing confidence in God’s continued blessing, and in ourselves as striving to be like Him. There are very few gloomy hymns, and the gloomiest all have golden linings: Christ suffered, but it was for love of us; we are sinners, but we will do better and Christ will redeem us; the tempest is raging, but He is in control.

  3. Ray,

    I’m interested in your comment about how Mormons (in your area, or in general?) are more musically inclined. I have thought that before, but don’t have any data–just my own experience. What do you think’s behind that?

    And I guess I’ve never given more than a passing glance at other hymnals. I play the piano quite well – there are only 2-3 hymns in the hymnal that I have to really pay attention to when I play. Makes me want to look at some other hymnals.

    “Banned Commenter”?? (what’s up with your name?),

    I agree that there are few gloomy hymns, and that’s something I like as well. We sing songs in a gloomy/dumpy way sometimes, as if we were at a funeral instead of a worship service. I wish we could have some more enthusiasm, but you’re right that the hymns are positive and that that is perhaps a reflection of our outlook.

  4. “Now Let Us Rejoice” shouldn’t be sung at 60-76 beats per minute. It’s not a funeral dirge. Just saying.

    At our high school there are about 2500 kids (only grades 10-12). Of those students, about 10 are LDS. That’s roughly 0.4%. There are roughly 400 kids involved in organized, school-sponsored music groups. Last year, I think 8 of them were LDS. That’s 2%. There were roughly 100 students in the “elite” vocal groups and their tech crews. Of those, 5 were LDS. That’s 5%. Of the 8-10 soloists in the most elite groups, two were LDS. That’s 20%. Finally, the 8 of 10 who were involved in organized musical groups means that 80% of the LDS kids are seen as “musicians” by the administration. That percentage is astronomical compared to every other denomination in town – simply phenomenal.

    Slight tangent, but I will tie it together:

    I was attending the high school (my junior year) where “Footloose” was filmed. I know most of the extras in that movie, so I enjoy watching it for that reason alone. Shortly after the film hit the screens, the town officially condemned an ancient building where civic dances used to be held. It should have been condemned years before then, but the timing caused newspapers across the country to publish articles explaining the irony of a Mormon town closing a “dance hall” in the town where “Footloose” had been filmed. Some of those articles stated quite directly that it was because Mormons thought dancing was evil.

    That was hilarious to us, as it would be to anyone who was raised in a predominantly Mormon community – or in the Church, period. We are weened on music. We sing every week in nursery at the ripe old age of 18-months. We perform a Primary program in front of adults every year for 9-10 years. We speak in front of sometimes very large groups regularly, especially in units where there aren’t lots of youth. Many members teach piano lessons. Brigham Young built a Cultural Hall for music and theater before he built a church. I could go on and on and on.

    Music is in our genes, and coverts’ children are adopted into that musical culture when they start attending. I struggle with the relative lack of volume in Sacrament Meeting singing by the adults in many wards, but there is surprising talent in nearly every unit I have ever visited. My ward in Boston had an incredible collection of men’s voices – so much so that the women would open the door and delay the beginning of RS in order to hear the men sing a capella. The harmonies each week were original and gorgeous.

    Anyway, we are a musical people. I love it.

  5. This reminds me of what happened this year for mayor election in France. Of course one of the candidate wanted to come visit us. Members in France being a little thick and not getting that he was coming for a few minutes to convince us to vote for him, thought that he was coming for the whole three hours and going to be baptized eventually. Just for the record: he is a devout catholic. Anyway the person who chose hymns thought it would be a good idea to sing “if you could high to Kolob”.
    I have never been so happy that a non-members could not make it to sacrament meeting.
    And no we are not a musical people. Try it in France and you’ll be sorry to have ears.

    I like Chorister’s idea A LOT. I don’t think I will comment each time but I will look forward to reading these posts in the futur.

  6. I have played the organ since I was 13. I’m 63 now so you do the math. Growing up, they sang ‘Come Thou Fount’ all the time. It was a very well-like and well-used hymn. I have never figured out what they had against that one, especially now in the light of it’s returned popularity. It should be put back. I agree with the commenter on Hie to Kolob. It will get taken out because no one wants to use it. No chorister will choose it. Or ward music director. Why they are so afraid of it is beyond me. I would love to be on the music choosing committee because I WOULD put my two cents worth in on the subject of music. that’ll happen. Sidenote: Some of the best times in my life on the subject of feeling the spirit, comes at times when I am playing the music and reading the words. Sometimes something will jump out at me and I have immediate chills. I guess that is the plus side of never getting asked to do anything else in the church. Which is a whole other post.

  7. They also took out, “Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins, stain Illinois while the earth lauds his fame.” Being in Illinois now, I take great pride in singing the “correct” version.

  8. I have no issue with Kolob (and sorry for the mistake I made) but I just don’t have any special feelings in favor of this hymn. I guess I would like to be in your place Jan and to be able to enjoy some hymns more than I do now :o)

  9. I think we used to be a more musical people than we are now. I am the stake music director and I’m currently doing a hymn night in our stake where we have the stake choir, youth choir, instrumentalists, congregation, etc. all join together in a big evening where we sing and do interesting things with hymns (and do some hymns that aren’t in our hymnbook — for example, this year we’re doing a wonderful arrangement of Amazing Grace, with bagpipes). As I’ve been putting it together, I’ve been dismayed at the number of people who have said, “I’d love to sing in the choir but I’m so busy being [fill in the blank – high priest group leader, in the Relief Society presidency, etc.]” or “I can’t come to rehearsal because I have … [fill in the blank — YAC meeting, missionary meeting, presidency meeting, etc.]” It’s made me wonder whether we’re so busy administering the church that we don’t have time for music any more. It’s disheartening, to say the least. Other churches place a much higher emphasis on their choirs and music programs, and don’t have to put up with restrictions on types of instruments that can be used, types of “appropriate” music, etc.

  10. “One more thing: Our hymnal is the most complicated hymnal, musically, I’ve ever seen for an open congregation. It’s not even close. There are some really difficult hymns – both to play and to sing all parts.”

    Sorry, but there is no way this is true. The Mormon hymnal is generally speaking much simpler than hymnals of other denominations. I own several, and sing in an Episcopal church. The arrangements in the LDS hymnal have been simplified to reflect the fact that we do not have professional musicians running the music programs in our church, and the organists frequently do not have much training. For instance, it is extremely common for hymns to have intervals greater than an octave (e.g. a tenth) between the bass and tenor. This works fine if you play one with the pedal and one with the left hand, but many LDS organists don’t play pedals, so the LDS hymnal tends to simplify hymns so they can be played on all manuals. Which is actually a good thing given the needs of our church.

    I also agree entirely with #10. Other churches emphasize music much more and take it much more seriously, though I agree Mormons as a people are fairly musical.

  11. I have heard people give several reasons for the removal of “Come, Thou Fount” and they all seemed dubious or apocryphal, some even saying that the doctrines discussed were too “deep” for regular services. I’m interested to know the REAL reason.

  12. Michelle,

    Do you mean that in the German hymnbook, “Come Thou Fount” is still there, but “Be Still, My Soul” was taken out in an updated version?? I wonder why that would be . . . Are there other songs in the German hymnal that are reflective of German culture/history/religious tradition?? Otherwise, I don’t understand why the same song would be okay for a hymnal in one language but not in another . . .

  13. Ray #3 and #5 and Chorister #4. I am also interested in your comments about the high percent of the LDS youth in the high school musical programs. I have observed a similar phenomena in our area in northern Virginia. The LDS youth seem to be disproportionately found in the higher choir groups in our high school. Since we have lived here since 2001, two or three LDS youth are found in the top choir of about 16 people. More are found in the lower choirs. The average number of LDS in our four year high school is about 20. This is true only in the choir, however, not in the band or the orchestra. There are LDS in these programs but only in proportions as would be expected for any other group of motivated teenagers.

    But the LDS students are not the only group that is disproportionately found in these higher choirs. The other groups are the active African-American Baptists and the active Catholics. What all these groups have in common is a strong tradition of congregational and choir singing as a form of worship. I suspect if there were not churches in this area, there would be no school choirs. Group singing is not common in our society outside of our churches and thus most children have few opportunities to develop singing skills elsewhere.

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