As Saints Building Zion

Posted by on March 17, 2014 in Exponent II, feminism, Gender roles, Sacred Music | 10 comments

“We’ll sing this one fast – I like it that way.  And skip the part about the errand of angels being given to women.  That’s false doctrine.”

That’s how our Relief Society chorister introduced “As Sisters in Zion” one Sunday.  I was a little surprised this faithful Mormon woman would so bluntly declare something printed in the hymnal as false doctrine, and I silently cheered her speaking the truth.  I’ve never like the hymn, with its particular view of feminine virtues and its weakly meandering melody.  How can the errand of angels be given just to women when the next stanza says it’s about being human?  Where does that leave men if all the angelic ministering is done by women?  And why are all the angels in the scriptures men?  The hymn text seems to assume that men preside while women nurture because these are God-given roles, but also seems to hope for something more – a vast and even unlimited mission to build Zion by doing God’s work on earth.  This is a work that transcends gender and requires us to partner with our Heavenly Parents, bringing the gifts they’ve given us to all our labors.

This broader vision would be in keeping with the life of the author, Emily Hill Woodmansee (1836-1906).  According to the scholar Karen Lynn Davidson, “Emily H. Woodmansee was one of the many gifted and intellectual women of early Utah who were dedicated to bringing culture, idealism, and education to their community.  These women were committed to carry out a vast number of responsibilities in the name of Relief Society.” (Davidson, 309)  Emily Hill was born in Wiltshire, England and was baptized at age 16.  She emigrated to the United States with her sister at age 20 and pushed a handcart across the Great Plains with the Willie handcart company.  She married at 21, but her first husband deserted her and their child.  At 28 she married Joseph Woodmansee and they became parents to 8 children.  They suffered financial reverses and she went into business and real estate with great success.  Apostle Orson F. Whitney said she was the “possessor of a poetic as well as a practical mind.” (Davidson, 462)

The text for “As Sisters in Zion” was first published in 1874 in the Woman’s Exponent (the forerunner of Exponent II*).  It had 10 verses, the first and last two of which were chosen for the 1985 hymnbook.  The Hymnbook Committee commissioned Janice Kapp Perry to compose the tune for this text, which she did in a matter of hours while stranded due to a broken tour bus (Davidson, 310).  Emily Woodmanssee wrote a great deal of poetry, and while the 1985 hymnal contains just one of her texts, the 1927 hymnal had eight.  I love that “As Sisters in Zion” speaks of the things that are most central to discipleship – to love one another by comforting the weary and strengthening the weak.  In Zion, all work together until there are no more weary and there are no more weak.  But I would love it more if it didn’t make being female a prerequisite for this errand.  I think it’s an artificial and ultimately false dichotomy to say that women excel in some spiritual gifts and men in others.  So with respect to Emily Woodmansee, in a future edition of the LDS hymnal I would like to sing something like this:

As Saints building Zion we’ll all work together;
The blessings of God on our labors we’ll seek.
We’ll build up the kingdom with earnest endeavor;
We’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.

The errand of angels is given in wisdom;
And this is a gift, as God’s children, we claim:
To do whatsoever is gentle and human;
To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.

How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission,
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed.
Oh, naught but the spirit’s divinest tuition
Can give us the wisdom to truly succeed.

There is precedent in many Christian hymnals for changing language to make it more gender inclusive, and there is precedent for changing (or more often, omitting) text in the LDS hymnal for doctrinal reasons.**  This revision of “As Sisters in Zion” is my best attempt at keeping the verse intact while making the content of the poem both more gender inclusive and more in keeping with the doctrine that building Zion is everyone’s responsibility.

Davidson, Karen Lynn, Our Latter-day Hymns: The stories and Messages by , Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1988.

*The Woman’s Exponent was discovered by Susan Kohler in the stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library.  It was published from 1872-1914.  You can read the fascinating history of establishing Exponent II here, here, and here.

** In the Winter 2011 of Exponent II I give some examples of hymns texts that have been altered in the current LDS hymnal and in other hymnals.  The article is on page 20.

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10 Comments

  1. What is “the errand of angels” anyway?

    • Who knows. According to the hymn it’s “to do whatsoever is gentle and human, to cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.” That makes me think of the Relief Society motto – “Charity never faileth.” A good motto for anyone.

  2. Funny- yesterday for ward conference, our stake’s RS presidency taught the combined priesthood class and had all the men sing As Sisters in Zion. My husband said it was kind of funny. I figure it’s not much different than singing Ye Elders of Israel!

  3. Emily, what an amazing post! I didn’t know any of this background to the hymn, and I love your inclusive changes. I would love it if the LDS music committee would seriously consider for the next version of the hymnbook making your changes to this song and many many changes to countless other hymns. I get tired of singing my own invisibility every Sunday with all the constant references to “men” and “brothers.” (Actually, I often sing inclusively, no doubt annoying the people next to me.)

  4. What do you make of Woodmansee’s original verse?:

    “‘Tis the office of angels, conferred upon woman;
    And this is a right that, as women, we claim;
    To do whatsoever is gentle and human;
    To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.”

    Seems to me the original language is more similar to how we talk about the priesthood.

    • That’s fascinating the hymnal doesn’t use the original verse! All the more reason to change what’s there.

      I like the original verse better, but I’m still uncomfortable with saying the office or errand of angels is the purview of women. I’m just not a believer in complementarianism.

    • Now that I see the original text, the meaning really changes for me. I wonder if she is claiming the “right” to the priesthood keys of ministering of “angels”–interpreted in the modern church as limited to men. She may be saying that women have a right to do anything that other “human(s)” may do, including “bless’ others through the priesthood.

  5. This is so timely! Just yesterday, I had what bordered on an argument, in the chapel, about the insidious effects of gendered language. A friend was talking about fraternal power structures. I interrupted, and countered with the phrase, “horizontal power structures.” He (ha!) then went on to tell me that feminist thinkers initially used the phrase, that it was a common academic concept, and that there was no need to use another phrase. Now, I haven’t done a lot of research into academic or secular feminism, but this seemed wrong to me. The discussion ended with neither convincing the other, but both reiterating the value the relationship held.

    Reasons why I thought it was wrong:
    The idea of horizontal power structures being called “fraternal” is inherently biased. It privileges the male perspective, and male actors, over female perspectives and actors.
    I have a hard time imagining a feminist thinker using the term and retaining the label feminist.
    “Horizontal” is a more accurate term. An example would be the word dwelling. A dwelling can be a house, an apartment, a condo, an ingloo, a teepee, a castle, a monastery, etc. Likewise, there are many types of power structures. Using the word “igloo” instead of “condo,” to describe where I live, would be a gross mischaracterization. Using the phrase “fraternal power structure” to mean equal for all men would be acceptable. Using it to mean equal for all people is not acceptable.
    Even if feminist academics used the phrase “fraternal power structures” to mean structures that accord equal rights and privileges (IF!) that appears to me to be a use of the oppressor’s language to achieve validity. That seems like a poor position to be in. Thus, I think a rejection of the phrase, and creation/use of another that more accurately describes the concept, is past due.

    It boils down to this: I love and appreciate your herstory (!), analysis, and revision of this hymn. I substitute feminine pronouns while singing in RS. Your version has given me a higher bar to aim for. And I want to sing this at camp this summer!

  6. I love it! Someone else feels the same as I do about this “hermn”!

  7. What a wise articulation of what has always discomfited me about this hymn, Emily. After seeing how Woodmansee’s poetry was altered, I’m eager to see how the hymns appeared in the 1927 hymnal. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

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