Hymns and the LDS hymnal

My favorite part of going to church is singing the hymns.  That’s not necessarily true for the most exalted reasons.  The sad truth of our LDS hymnal is that the quality of the hymns is, alas, uneven.  Some are absolutely gorgeous.  Some are, frankly, kind of funny; unintentionally funny, but funny nonetheless.  And yes, I’ve been known to, uh, improve the lyrics.  And some manage to combine bad music with a bad text to be really completely uninspiring.  (To me, I should add.  If  you’re reading this, and I’m dissing your faves–sorry.)

It almost goes without saying that nothing conduces to worshipful reverence like music.  On Father’s Day, my daughter turned me on to Stumbleupon, and it led me, in turn, to the Vatican’s interactive Sistine Chapel website.  The music was a mass: Palestrina?  If anyone knows, I’d appreciate hearing from you.  I listened to it for three hours.  I don’t know when I’ve felt closer to God.  

Absolutely my favorite parts of General Conference are the hymns, especially since the Tabernacle Choir has managed over the last fifteen years to go from a really good choir to one of the greatest choirs the world has ever heard.  That’s in part what happens when a great composer/arranger becomes head conductor.  Mac Wilberg is just astounding.  His arrangement of Come thou fount of every blessing moves me to tears every time I hear it.  That hymn, though, is not in our hymnal.  Likewise:  Simple Gifts. Not in our hymnal. My Shepherd Will Supply my Needs? Not in our hymnal. Amazing Grace?  Emma Smith loved it, wanted it in.  Didn’t make the cut. 

What is in our hymnal is, of course, some glorious, worshipful music.  I wish that were true of all the songs in there.  Alas.  We’ve got “Put your Shoulder to the Wheel.” I can’t help myself; I rewrite the chorus: “we all have work, you lazy jerk, put your shoulder to the wheel.”  I always sing “NO” for “YES” and “YES” for “NO” while singing “Shall the youth of Zion falter?” and I have been known to sing enthusiastically “high on a mountain top, a badger ate a squirrel.”  And I’ve changed “In the cottage, there is joy” to “in the cottage, there is cheese, there is cottage cheese.  Put it on lasagna, please, oh that cottage cheese.”  Plus there’s “Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing.”  Anyone else ever succumb to the temptation to sing “go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead” instead? 

Worse than that are the really martial hymns.  I worship the Prince of Peace; I don’t want to Behold a Royal Army.”  Not a big fan of “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “We are All Enlisted” (“Happy are we?”  Seriously?  You’re in the army, pal.)  Even “A Mighty Fortress” bugs me, though the music’s glorious and “Ein Feste Burg” is a massively important hymn.  And worse than warlike are the cheerful ones. Check out the hymn categories for “Cheerful.”  Nine hymns there, all of them sicky sweet shiny-happy-people happy:  “Scatter Sunshine,” “Improve the Shining Moments” “There is Sunshine in my Soul Today”, “You can Make The Pathway Bright.”  Blarg.

I know, I’m a cynic.  I’m a mean, bad-tempered grouch.  Probably true.  I just like hymns to be worshipful.  I don’t want to be exhorted.

Favorites?  Too many to list, maybe.  But I love If you could hie to Kolob.  I like this version. even better.  Such a nutty poem, with lovely music.  I love Oh Savior thou who Wearest a Crown. It’s actually the chorus O Haupt voll blunden from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. (Or, if you prefer, Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Check it out; same tune.)  Lovely music, in English or German. I love “That Easter Morn.” I love the pioneer ones: “Come come ye Saints” of course (with that astounding last verse; I like this version; imagine sitting around a campfire in Nebraska).  Do any of you know Adam-ondi-Ahman?  It’s not sung often, but it’s one of those beautiful, original LDS hymns.  I was never much a fan of A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, until I heard it sung by David Johanson of the New York Dolls.  Do you know God of our Fathers, Known of Old? It’s Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional, given a beautiful setting.  Good hymn for nowadays–a great hymn urging humility for the world’s one superpower. 

And now, I can think of twenty more hymns I love. But there’s one in particular that I love.   Reverently and Meekly Now is unique among LDS hymns, because it’s the only hymn written from the point of view of Jesus.  “In the solemn faith of prayer, cast upon me all thy care, and my Spirit’s grace shall be like a fountain unto thee.”  It’s by Joseph Townsend, a guy I only know from Wikipedia; a Payson pharmacist, apparently.  Just a guy.  But he worshipped through song, and that makes him a friend.

15 thoughts on “Hymns and the LDS hymnal

  1. Margaret Blair Young

    I agree with your selection of good hymns, though I’d add the “Praise to the Lord” ones. Also agree with the bad ones and will henceforth sing your renditions. I am learning African songs (Congolese) and have every intention of forcing my way into the music committee so that we have at least ten hymns from Africa, and five or six from Latin America.

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  2. Unknown

    A wonderful lady who took organ lessons from me for several years now lives in St. George. She joined the church later in life, and was very devoted to the gospel. Shortly after her move to St. George, she was hospitalized for heart surgery. As her bishop was visiting her in the hospital, he asked if he could do anything for her, and she asked if he could answer a question. He responded that he’d try his best, and so this is what she said. “It’s my understanding that the principal purpose of our attendance at sacrament meeting is to partake of the Lord’s Summer. It’s the very center. Is that right?” The bishop answered in the affirmative. She then asked, looking him straight in the eye: “What does ‘Today While the Sun Shines’ have to do with the Lord’s Supper?”

    Over the years I’ve been spoiled by hymns found in many protestant hymnals. But believe me, they have their share of clunkers . . .

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  3. WhiteEyebrows

    Since I’m descended from Joel Hills Johnson, I have to take exception to “High on a Mountain Top”. When I was at BYU, we performed one of the most amazing arrangements of this for President Hinckley when he came for (of all things) the “Lighting the Way” fundraising campaign closing. We killed it (the song, not the prophet).

    But yes, other than that one – you have them nailed. Also would like to add “In Our Lovely Deseret” – or as I like to refer to it, the Mormon Brainwashing Song. “Tea and coffee and tobacco we despise! Drink no liquor and we eat but a very little meat, we are seeking to be great and good and wise.” Yikes! I mean I like the WoW as much as the next guy, but as lyrics to a song? Sheesh.

    My current gripe is that we sing about 3% of the hymns in the hymnbook in my ward, so every time a ‘goodie’ comes along, it sounds weak because no one knows it.

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    1. Eric Sam

      I actually do like High on a mountaintop, it’s just unfortunate that ‘a badger ate a squirrel” fits it so well. But, you’re so right about In Our Lovely Deseret! So wonderfully bad.

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  4. Anonymous

    Eric- your post made me laugh, but it is right on!!! I cannot ever sing, “sca-a-a-a-ter sunshine” without giggling. My list if disliked (or humorous) songs matches your quite well. Also agree on Come thou fount…. which used to be in our book, but was taken out in the latest iteration; a change I will never understand!! Agree that there are some lovely songs that could be added (and others that have served their purpose and should be laid to rest), but also wish that there were songs from other countries- hey, if we profess to be a worldwide church, our hymnbook (well- OK, and lesson manuals) should be more representative. Carol Watson

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  5. bill cobabe

    At the risk of sounding like a jerk – I am afraid you’re right when you say you’re grouchy. You’re incorrect to assume that when a hymn is not directly worshipful (ie – extolling the virtues of God; which, in my mind anyway, is an exhortation as well) that it is of lesser value. Sunny hymns are frequently sung because life sucks and we all need a little more sunshine than hearing about the crown of plaited thorns all the time. Men are that they might have joy, and all that. And the martial songs – well, that you’ll have to take up with Paul who said we wrestle not against flesh but against spiritual wickedness in high places and then enjoined us to take on the whole armor of God.

    I agree that there are some hymns that speak to me in different ways than others. But I think they all have their place.

    When I was on my mission, we frequently closed the day with the hymn “Softly Now the Light of Day” because it was the shortest. It wasn’t until after my mission (alas!) that I learned what it meant, and it became meaningful to me:

    Softly now the light of day
    Fades upon my sight away.
    Free from care, from labor free,
    Lord, I would commune with thee.

    I wish I had always sung the hymn with the reverence it deserves…

    And I FULLY agree with your take on Mr. Johanson’s rendition. It has moved me to tears. So earthy and real – just like life.

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  6. Donlu D

    Hope you don’t mind my jumping in here, Eric. I’m Emmelyn’s mother and Doug’s wife; those are my claims to fame. I got here following a post on Em’s Facebook page, upon which I cannot comment, as you are not my “friend.” And I just have to say this. Doug and I always enjoy those times when someone decides to pick “Have I Done Any Good (in the World Today)?” Doug never fails to say, far too loudly, “What happened to the drone?” Sometimes he just defiantly (and loudly) sings the old words. I must also admit to missing the drone, for which the world had no use (I mean, surely it’s true that “only he who does something is worthy to live”), and which we lost in the same revision took away grace – though none of us, including our ward choir director Mack Wilberg, ever stopped singing “Come, Thou Fount” (or “Font” as some would have it). Doug really should learn to whisper in church. And we should ask Karen Lynn (Davidson) about all of this. She was on the committee that did the 1985 book. (And of course provided the texts for two of the best new hymns. A lifelong ward organist, I still automatically think of the old hymn numbers: “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” no. 13.) Thanks for getting this started, and best to you in your retirement. –Donlu Thayer

    P.S. We also miss “Yoohoo unto Jesus” … number 66, arranged for men at 313. You young folk don’t know what you missed.

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    1. Eric Sam

      Well, obviously, I need to friend you, now!
      I love Doug’s reaction to the ‘drone’. Especially now that they’re part of the American military “the world has no need of the drone” takes on an entirely new political meaning! And I loved Youhoo unto Jesus! Thanks for responding!

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  7. Darlene Young

    I will always be indebted to Art Bassett for introducing to me the image of cheerleaders with pom-poms leading us through “Called to Serve.”

    Also, I can hardly keep my food down when we sing “Love at Home.” My mother sang it very loudly to us whenever there was sibling squabbling, which disgusted everyone. (“Roses bloom beneath our feet?” You can’t tell me that’s not ironic.)

    “How Great Thou Art” and “Oh My Father” might be good hymns if the organist in my childhood ward hadn’t played them like dirges. But I haven’t recovered and can’t enjoy either, now.

    But I’m with you on “Hie to Kolob.” One of the coolest songs ever, which covers some of the coolest doctrine ever. I also love “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “Be Still, My Soul,” and “Lead Kindly, Light.”

    I could do without hearing “Because This Song is Sung Too Much I Too Must Give” and “I Believe in Christ” ever again, though.

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  8. Erin

    I am delighted with this post. It’s probably a good thing I play the organ and generally don’t sing, because I would be tempted to start using your lyrics. I did sing them to my kids, though, and I’ll never know if *they* sing them!

    I heard from a Church Music Committee member that “Come Thou Fount” was taken out because it was not sung very much. Not too long after it was taken out, Mack Wilberg did his famous arrangement and it became very popular. The representative said that it is the most frequently asked question: Why did they take out “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”?

    Since I heard that, I’ve been afraid for the fate of some of the great, lesser-known hymns in our present hymn book. Like “Adam-ondi-Ahman” (which our ward music director and I have successfully taught to our ward) and many others. I’ve started to pay attention to the less familiar hymns that the Tabernacle choir sings in General Conference (there are always a few) and I try to have our ward sing them soon after, hoping that maybe they will remember the tunes and we can bring them into the regular rotation.

    I don’t really like the Shiny Happy hymns, either, and I really don’t like playing them on the organ, but I do like their messages when I pay attention.

    Oh, and I really dislike “Love at Home,” too. Especially when it’s sung for Mother’s Day. I’ve been the one to choose the hymns for the last few years on Mother’s Day, so I took the chance NOT to sing it. One time I chose “I Have Work Enough to Do” for Mother’s Day. It made me chuckle, even if nobody else noticed. 🙂

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  9. Curtis

    We have several we like to change the lyrics on, too. I think Lexie must have shared the cottage cheese change with us because my boys have been singing that for years. Also, Katie can’t stand “In Our Lovely Deseret.” Since she is our ward organist, I sing it out especially loud when she plays it. The last time, I received a one raised eyebrow look from her, but I didn’t distract her enough to mess up.

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  10. Rosa Gardner

    I had never heard the “badger ate a squirrel-” I almost spit my food out from laughing so hard.

    One of my favorite irreverent pastimes is to go through the hymnal and add the phrase, “in the bathroom” to the end of every title. There are some real gems… 🙂

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