To Latter-day Saints hymns are a form of prayer.1 Unlike other faiths – in which God is only the recipient of hymn writing and singing – in Mormonism the compositions of the first hymn book were believed to have been commissioned by a revelation to Joseph Smith, and were compiled by his wife (with the help of William W. Phelps).
Christians sing hymns to praise and worship God, but hymns also tell stories and illustrate the beliefs of those that sing them. Within their pages different editions of hymn books trace the history of the faiths to which they belong. At different times and under different circumstances there may have been more hymns on persecution, or the passing of loved ones, or a longed for blessing.
A look at different Mormon hymn books since the time the first was published can also give us a record of changes that might have occurred in the beliefs in the LDS Church. It is hard to argue that the Saints didn’t believe in something they sung about in every congregation throughout the world, and which was printed in hymn books for that purpose by the church they were members of.
Few topics appear in so many Mormon hymns as the doctrine of the gathering to Zion. Early Latter-day Saints from Europe sought a new life in a new land, and their hopes were often echoed in the hymns they sung. Many of these songs still appear in the most modern L.D.S. hymnbook published in 1985. Perhaps the most popular are “Come, Come Ye Saints”, “High on the Mountain Top”, “Israel, Israel God is Calling”, and “Ye Elders of Israel.”2
A couple of these hymns have changed over time though. “High on the Mountain Top” originally had two extra verses, the second to last one read:
“Then hail to Deseret!
A refuge for the good,
And safety for the great,
If they but understood
That God with plagues will shake the world
Till all its thrones shall down be hurled.”3
Ye Elder’s of Israel was also longer, the last verse being:
“And when we have finished the work we’ve begun,
The Priesthood of Zion shall say ‘Tis well done.’
With friends, wives, and children, how happy we’ll be,
And shout, when the trumpets sounds, ‘Zion is free!’”4
The concept of Zion as a geographically specific place on earth has largely been forgotten in our day. Once it was implicitly understood that gathering involved leaving your home country, and traveling to Utah. This was reflected in titles such as “farewell to England”5 and “think not when you gather to Zion.”6 But most foreign Saints no longer gather to Deseret (or Utah), in fact they are counseled not to, although the prophesies of coming plagues and gathering to places of safety still remain in Mormon scriptures. Yet the “law of gathering”, as it was called, was once such an integral part of Mormon doctrine that – according to one hymn – they wouldn’t want to be part of Church without it:
“A church without a gathering is not the church for me;
The Savior would not own it, wherever it might be.”7
- United Order
There are many hymns reminding the Saints that God is the maker of all they possess, and encouraging the Saints to work together to build up Zion. But these were once not just theories but embodied in what the early Latter-day Saints called the law of consecration, and was attempted in towns and co-operatives called United Orders. Within such communities the people tried to build a society without poverty, debt, or reliance on the outside world.
Perhaps the most notable of these was Orderville, which from 1870 until over a decade later was seen by some as an example of self-sufficiency, until outside forces ended its way of life. One member of that order, Samuel Clarridge, penned a hymn embodying what the Saints there felt their community was about:
“40 years ago and over –
God’s command was given:
Consecrate your earthly substance,
Learn the law of heaven.
Thanks we give to thee
For the heavenly holy order,
Given to make us free.”8
This theme was also evident in two hymns by Hannah Cornaby, best known for another composition, “Whose on the Lord side?” One begins:
“To us the God of heaven, has in these latter-days
The United Order given.”9
Hannah, like most other Latter-day Saints of the time, believed the united order to be a product of revelation, as given to Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants10, and reaffirmed by revelation to Brigham Young in 1874.11 Another one of her hymns reflects such teachings:
“‘Tis co-operation that will make us all one
And perfect the work that in Zion’s begun,
Happy are those who will join heart in hand,
To aid this great cause throughout Zion’s land
We’ve looked to the time when we shall be one
When God’s will on earth, as in heaven is done,
And the beauty of Zion, all nations shall see,
And known for her union, God’s people shall be.”12
The longed for unity Cornaby speaks of seems even more elusive now than it was then. Not only are there both poor and rich Latter-day Saints, but the inequality of wealth, homes, possessions and lifestyle is greater than ever.
- Plural Marriage
For the forty years prior to 1890 polygamy (or plural marriage) was frequently spoken of in conferences and was part of the lifestyle of a significant number of members of the Church based in Utah. It is not surprising then that it was a theme of a few early Mormon hymns.
The earliest musical reference on the subject comes from a folk song around the time of the reformation of the mid-1850s. It was a period of recommitment to God, in which the Saints were plainly made aware of their duties.
“Now, sisters, list to what I say, –
With trials this world is rife,
You can’t expect to miss them all,
Help husband get a wife!
Now, this advice I freely give,
If exalted you would be,
Remember that your husband must
Be blessed with more than thee.
Then, O, let us say,
God bless the wife that strives
And aids her husband all she can
T’ obtain a dozen wives.”13
There has been some debate over whether Plural Marriage was considered a commandment. This song seems to confirm that it was a common belief that polygamy was indeed believed to be essential to exaltation, for it teaches “if exalted you would be … your husband must be blessed than more than thee.” It promises other blessings. including help through trials to those women who encourage their husbands to live this way too.
Some may dismiss that this was an approved L.D.S. view, but other hymns were also written on this subject and included in official Church hymnbooks, such as the following:
“Through him who holds the sealing power,
Ye faithful ones, who heed
Celestial laws, take many wives,
And rear a righteous seed.
Though fools revile, I’ll honor you,
As Abraham, my friend;
You shall be Gods, and shall be blest
With lives that never end.”14
These verses make it clear that “faithful” Saints were expected to take “heed” of the “celestial law” to “take many wives” and thus qualify to “be Gods” and “be blessed with [eternal] lives that never end.”
Since the publication of James E. Talmage’s “Jesus, the Christ” Jehovah has been usually identified in the average Mormon mind with Jesus, but this was not always the case. Prior to the 1890s Jehovah was usually equated with God the Father. As this hymn written by Church President John Taylor himself illustrates –
“As in the heavens they all agree,
The record’s given there by Three,
On earth three witnesses are given,
To lead the sons of earth to heaven.
Jehovah, God the Father, is one;
Another, God’s eternal Son;
The Spirit does with them agree –
The witnesses in heaven are three.”15
Despite being written by a prophet of the Lord this hymn is no longer in the current hymnbook, another hymn which is, “While of These Emblems We Partake” originally expressed similar sentiments:
“Man broke the law of His estate
And Jesus came to expiate,
Atone and rescue fallen man,
According to Jehovah’s plan.”16
Or as another old Mormon hymn puts it:
“Jehovah saw his darling Son,
And was well pleas’d in what he’d done, …
This is my Son, Jehovah cries,
The echoing voice from glory flies,”17
Even the title of one old hymn “Jehovah, God the Father, bless”18 makes it obvious who early Latter-day Saints believed Jehovah was.
Some accuse Latter-day Saints of believing in a different God, and, indeed, the differences between the Mormon God and the one of Christendom were once sung proudly:
“The God that others worship is not the God for me;
He has no parts nor body and cannot hear nor see; -”19
Yet perhaps even more controversial than the identity of Jehovah is the idea that Brigham Young taught that God came to earth as Adam. This is sometimes called the Adam-God theory or doctrine, and it has been greatly debated amongst Church members, Mormon Fundamentalists, and anti-Mormons. It too was once the topic of hymns:
“We believe in our God
The great Prince of His race
The Archangel Michael
The Ancient of Days
Our own Father Adam
Earth’s Lord it is plain
Who’ll counsel and fight
For His children again.”20
Interestingly, the next line speaks of “His Son, Jesus Christ.” Two Adam-God hymns, surprisingly, still remain in the hymnbook. Although, the words of one of them, have been altered somewhat from the original text:
“Sons of Michael, He approaches!
Rise; th’ Eternal Father greet:
Bow, ye thousands, low before Him;
Minister before His feet;
Hail, hail the Patriarch’s glad reign,
Spreading over sea and main.
Mother of our generations,
Glorious by great Michael’s side,
Take thy children’s adoration;
Endless with thy Lord preside;
Lo, lo, to greet Thee now advance
Thousands in the glorious dance!
Raise a chorus, sons of Michael,
Like old Ocean’s roaring swell,
Till the mighty acclamation
Thro’ rebounding space doth tell
That, that the Ancient One doth reign
In His Paradise again!”21
Those familiar with the modern version of the hymn (as printed in the 1985 L.D.S. hymnbook) may notice that the words differ in a few places.
|Eternal Father||was changed to||ancient father|
|with thy Lord preside||was changed to||with thy seed abide|
|in His Paradise again||was changed to||in His Father’s house again22|
Another, even more well known hymn, is “O My Father.” Its words have not changed, but their meaning has long been lost. The secret to understanding its words are contained in the sentence “I had learned to call thee Father … but until the key of knowledge was restored I knew not why.”23Eliza R. Snow speaks about that knowledge, which she learnt from her husbands, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, at great length in the book, Women of Mormondom, which she co-edited, and which definitely states that that hymn refers to the identity of God:
- “Very different is Mormon theology! The Mormons exalt the grand parents of our race. Not even is the name of Christ more sacred to them than the names of Adam and Eve. It was to them the poetess and high priestess [Eliza R. Snow] addressed her hymn of invocation24 [O, My Father]; and Brigham’s proclamation that Adam is our Father and God is like a hallelujah chorus to their everlasting names. The very earth shall yet take it up; all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve shall yet shout it for joy, to the ends of the earth, in every tongue!”25
It is hard to believe that Eliza R. Snow was unaware of these comments or disapproved of them as she “assisted in selecting and preparing the manuscript for the `Women of Mormondom, and in raising funds for its publication, and not least of all, gave the proof her attention.”26
- Fall From Kolob / Ten Lost Tribes / City of Enoch
Brigham Young and others believed that the Earth was once in orbit around the exalted star Kolob, and that it fell to its present location, and that this was “the fall” the scriptures spoke of. This belief was mirrored in hymn by Eliza R. Snow:
“Thou, Earth, wast once a glorious sphere
Of noble magnitude
And didst with majesty appear
Among the worlds of God.
And thou, O Earth! will leave thy track
Thou hast been doomed to trace –
The Gods with shouts will bring thee back
To fill thy native place.”27
Joseph Smith taught on many occasions that the ten lost tribes were still a separate and distinct people, and that they left this earth and lived on another planet somewhere. His wife Eliza put this teaching into poetry too:
“And when the Lord saw fit to hide
The ten lost tribes away;
Thou, Earth, was severed to provide
The orb on which they stay.”28
One of the most famous Latter-day Saint hymns of all is “The Spirit of God.”29 Few Saints realize however that there a couple of extra verses originally. The most significant of these is worded as follows:
“We’ll wash, and be wash’d, and with oil be anointed
Withal not omitting the washing of feet:
For he that receiveth his penny appointed,
Must surely be clean at the harvest of wheat.”30
Perhaps the ordinance referred to in the first line was considered too sacred to include in modern hymn books, indeed that ordinance was removed from Mormon temple in January 200531, but maybe it was actually the second line that cause the most difficulty. It has been over 100 years since the washing of feet as a sacred ordinance has been spoken of. Perhaps its inclusion would have lead to too many questions.
Hymns are a unique record of what the Latter-day Saints believe in and hope for, and they provide a history of their beliefs and the strength of those beliefs. One wonders whether the Saints at the beginning of this dispensation would be shocked to find hymns missing that portrayed beliefs central to their faith, and modern Church members may be equally shocked that the doctrines their ancestors ancestors dedicated their lives to and sometimes gave their lives for have been so quickly and easily forgot.
1 Doctrine & Covenants 25:12, July 1830.
2 Hymns #30, #5, #7 & #319 respectively, 1985 ed.
3 Hymn #108, The Songs of Zion, 1908.
4 Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1912.
5 Probably based on an LDS poem of the same name written in 1856 (Handcarts to Zion, p. 264), or a poem by John Dunmore Lang (Poems, Sacred and Secular, 1873)
6 Hymn #21, Hymns, 1948. Monroe McKay, David O. McKay’s cousin recalled that while serving a mission in South Africa in the 1950s that they received an official announcement to stop singing this hymn. (David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, p. 406.)
7 Times and Seasons 6:2, 1845. Hymn #297, Sacred Hymns, 16th ed.
8 Kindly donated by the Orderville museum.
9 Autobiography and Poems, Hannah Cornaby, p. 143, 1853.
10 See Doctrine & Covenants 42 especially.
11 Revelation to Brigham Young, 9 August 1874, Unpublished Revelations 74.
12 Autobiography and Poems, Hannah Cornaby, p. 98, 1853.
13 1856 Reformation Song. Used as a Hymn in an edition of Songs of Zion. Utah Historical Quarterly, 1928, p. 58.
14 Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 17th ed, 1881, no. 326 (also 20th ed., 1890, no. 392 & The Latter-day Saint Psalmody, no. 159, 1896.)
15 Sacred Hymns, 1891, p. 295.
16 Ibid., Hymn #336, verse 3.
17 Salem’s Bright King, A Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1844.
18 Charles Wesley, 1767.
19 Times and Seasons 6:2, 1845. Hymn #297, Sacred Hymns, 16th ed.
20 Hymn #375, Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1856.
21 Millennial Star 23:15:240 (13 April 1861).
22 Hymn #51, Hymns, 1985 ed.
23 Hymn #292, Hymns, 1985 ed.
24 “Oh, My Father” was originally titled: “Invocation, or The Eternal Father and Mother”
25 Women of Mormondom, Edward Tullidge, p. 200, 1877. See page 191.
26 Representative Women of Deseret, p. 6, Augusta Joyce.
27 Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs …, 1891 ed, p. 322.
29 Hymn #2, 1985 ed.
30 Hymn #90, Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835.
31 “In January [18th] of 2005 the initiatory ordinances of the Endowment underwent a major change, with certain aspects now only being symbolically administered. The patron is also instructed that the literal administrations referred to happened “anciently” as recorded in the book of Exodus.” Wikipedia, Endowment (Latter-day Saints)