Patriotic Music at Church

Posted by on June 30, 2013 in Mormon Life, music | 23 comments

If you attend an LDS ward in the United States today your sacrament meeting will almost certainly begin and end with a patriotic hymn.  I love a rousing patriotic hymn played nice and loud on the organ, but I know not everyone does.  I know people who won’t sing the American national anthem in church because they feel it’s not an appropriate place for it.  I see their point – it’s really a battle song with one brief mention of God in the last verse.  In some sense, it is odd to have “The Star Spangled Banner,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and “America the Beautiful” in a hymnal.  My Canadian friend thinks that since “O Canada” isn’t in the LDS English hymnal then “The Star Spangled Banner” shouldn’t be either.  “Advance Australia Fair” isn’t there, either, however I’m told the Danish and Finnish language LDS hymnals do contain national songs. There are probably other examples.

The non-LDS hymnals I have at home all contain national songs, so it isn’t just an LDS thing.  However they don’t all include “The Star Spangled Banner,” and some include “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (a personal favorite) in addition to the two common denominators, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful.”  Here’s a little summary (based on nothing but what books I have here at my fingertips) in case you have a nerdly interest in hymnody like I do:

hymns copy

My sense is it’s rather rare to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” in worship services unless you’re Mormon.  Mormons do seem to really love their patriotic songs.  Maybe because of the idea of America being the promised land referred to in the Book of Mormon?  Or because of the 10th Article of Faith?  Or just the fact that Mormonism is an American-born religion?

In any case, is it right to have patriotic music at church?  Does God approve of it, or really even care?  Does it serve any purpose?  In a church that can feel sterile and corporate (same building design, same manuals, same sacrament trays, same hymnals, same cruddy electronic organs, etc.) I savor local-ness.  I love that my ward has Illinois wildflower arrangements in the chapel and a midwest-inspired quilt in the Relief Society room.  If I ever visit Finland I’d love singing “Finlandia” with the Finnish saints.  I think there is something community-building about patriotic music.  And I like tradition.  So, I guess I’m all for patriotic songs at church.  How about you?

 

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23 Comments

  1. Several years ago our entire bishopric was out of town on the 4th of July (which fell on a Sunday that year), so a member of the stake presidency presided at our Sacrament Meeting. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was scheduled to be the opening hymn, and apparently he thought it was inappropriate or irreverent or something, so he had the person conducting announce that the congregation was to remain seated for the national anthem. Whether it was ingrained obedience or numbness from shock, the congregation sat and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” to a more-subdued-than-planned organ accompaniment.

    Afterwards there was quite the firestorm, and the stake president and the counselor who had been presiding came back to the ward – their basic response to the upset was: do what you’re told by whomever is presiding. I’d spoken with the counselor on the phone and he told me that if he had it to do over he’d have handled it differently, but that wasn’t the message given when they addressed it publicly. And their reaction made me angrier than the initial incident.

    The funny thing is, I agree in principle that our meetings should be Christ-centered and a militaristic national anthem doesn’t necessarily fit. But my father served in the military for almost 20 years and you simply *don’t* remain seated for the national anthem. It’s so disrespectful.

    • Anon, I agree. I think your stake president has issues. I could make arguments based on the 11th and 12 articles of faith which contradict the actions of your stake president. His commanding those to sit is the same as commanding people how to vote, in my opinion.

  2. Don’t mind, BUT, what I find annoying is the Hymnal contains “God Save our King”. Here in Canada and England, and her other commonwealth nations have a Queen. Why in the world can that hymn not be changed to “Queen” – so annoying. It also confirms to me that no matter how much the Church leaders say that this is a world-wide church, it’s still an American church because of those patriotic hymns. And what annoys me even more is some of our wards will sing the American patriotic songs for July 4th even though there are no Americans in the congregation.

    After giving it some thought I don’t think they should have them in there after all this is a world-wide church.

    • Well, in Britain noone’s made us sing the US patriotic hymns in any ward I’ve been in, thankfully. I don’t object to patriotic hymns in the hymnbook, but, since the English language version of the hymnbook is used in all English speaking countries outside the US, please, please, can we include all those other patriotic hymns too, not just the American ones.
      In my current ward, we get to sing “I vow to thee my country” on Remembrance Sunday, and there are more patriotic hymns we don’t get to sing ever. And we did stand and sing the national anthem for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, but I don’t ever remember singing it in church before then (and there has been both a silver and golden jubilee). Being able to include those patriotic hymns in our services is at the discretion of the Bishop, some of whom aren’t even aware that the national anthem is in the hymnbook, and can be very twitchy about allowing anything that isn’t in the hymnbook. And including both the King and Queen versions would be helpful, the wording does differ slightly, if we’re afraid the hymnbook would be obsolete on the death of the monarch.

  3. I really like My Country Tis of Thee. I know it is a little odd since it is the same tune as God Save the Queen. And it is somewhat America specific (Land of the Pilgrims Pride) but I think it can otherwise apply to any nation without mental gymnastics. I like that it starts with expressing gratitude, and then attributes the wonderful things we have to God. Of all the patriotic hymns, I think it is the one that is most appropriate to sing in a worship service. I do think it is strange that we do not have other English speaking nations’ national anthems. Are they afraid that some obnoxious teenager will consistently pick O Canada as the opening song for things? If anything I think it would help us to remember that we are a world wide church and that not all Saints are EXACTLY like those in the American west.

    It is a little odd to me that the Battle Hymn of the Republic is not right by the other patriotic hymns but is stuck in the middle of the hymnal. If we’re going to sing that, I’d love to have at least one spiritual stuck in there for good measure, singing songs of the Civil War and all.

    I get a little uncomfortable in church around this time of year just because there tends to be a lot of rah rah America going on, at the price of real Christlike love. It isn’t just “I love America” it is “America is way better than anywhere else and God thinks so too” which is fundamentally prideful. We were told to love everyone. That is the highest value. Patriotism is up there, because it means loving everyone in you country (theoretically) but loving people all over the world is still a higher value and it tends to get lost this time of year.

  4. I moved around a lot as a youth, and for more than one mutual activity (in different states), our task was to go through every hymnbook and stick in a photocopy of Advance Australia Fair (obviously Church approved – the format was exactly the same as the rest of the hymns). I don’t have a problem with national anthems being included. Our church cares about civics, and our religion tells us that God cares about politics, so I think there is a place for it on Sundays – though, obviously, a culture where patriotism stops us from loving our (international) neighbours as ourselves is a problem.

    • Yes, I have only seen a few older hymnals without the Australian national anthem included– some in pages, some pasted in the back. I wish there were some more Australian patriotic tunes in addition to Advance Australia Fair as well.

      The thing that bothers me is when there is a visiting American who makes a tasteless joke about it. The most recent for me was a visiting member of the Stake Relief Society who taught Relief Society. She announced that she was nervous, and felt even more so after everyone sang the Australian national anthem, citing that she would have felt better if we sang the American national anthem. She intended it as a joke and some people politely chuckled, but this was on ANZAC day. Not cool. She went on to berate the class because we weren’t giving the answers she wanted, in the grammar she expected, saying she “knew” we were “wrong” because she was an “English teacher.” Um, American English, I suspect? Uh, you are in Australia. Duh. Get a Macquarie dictionary.

      Her position as a stake Relief Society seemed to compound her attitude of American superiority, or at least added to the folkloric attitude that American church members must “bring the church to the world,” as though Mormon Non-Americans are derelicts. her attitude of American superiority was compounded with her jibes at the “appropriate” use of English in Relief Society. This is what is not patriotically appropriate for church, and not all American visitors do it.

      This is Christ’s church. If the government allows us to worship freely, then I see it as appropriate to sing the National Anthem of the local government every now and again.

  5. I’m an American who’s been living in Canada now for five years. Every year on the Sunday preceding Canada Day (July 1st) for the opening hymn we stand and sing all four verses of ‘O Canada’. I quite like it, though I do wish I had the chance to sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ as well.

  6. When we lived in Brasil, a stake choir was preparing a special musical number to open the conference. It turned out to be the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Other than being called a hymn, I am not sure how appropriate that is, and it seemed very out of place being so far from the US.

    • Did they sing the Spanish version? (I think Portuguese is spoken in Brasil, so likely not?)

      I love the Battle Hymn of the Republic and embrace its history is the anti-slavery movement. (The woman who wrote the lyrics was married to one of the anonymous benefactors of John Brown.) It has taken on a degree of anti-slavery notoriety inside and outside of the US, which appeals very much to me (slavery still exists, after all.) Thus, I like this one and don’t see it as American-patriotic, but more as anti-racist and revolutionary across nationalities, even if the root is in American history.

      • Well, the irony there is that slavery was legal in Brasil for decades after it was outlawed in the US. Incdeed, there was a town near us that was founded by Confederate soldiers who resettled in Brasil in order to continue living the plantation lifestyle for which they had fought.

        I think it was selected because it is a signature piece for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the stake music people were fans.

      • That makes sense. As a total tread-jack, I have always found it ironic that the US bears the brand of slavery much more heavily than countries that allowed slavery so a significantly longer amount of time.

        From memory, I believe MoTab won a grammy (or was nominated?) for a rendition of this song in about 1960. I suspect that has some church-based bearing as well.

  7. The hymnal at the Catholic Mass I attended today only had one: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

  8. I’m glad to hear of Australians and Canadians pasting in their national anthems when the hymnal they use is lacking them. And yeah, how annoying that it’s “God Save the King.” There was a queen when the hymnal was put together, and has been for the nearly 30 years to follow. Just another example of how maleness is usually seen as normative.

    Thanks for sharing, Deborah. I have major hymnal envy of other Christian churches. From what I understand there are quite a few hymnals to choose from for Catholics. Lucky for them!

  9. We sang “America the Beautiful”. One brother stood and the sheep followed suit. I was asked why I didn’t stand. I replied that I did not because it is not the National Anthem. Come now people. Did none of you pay attention in the fifth grade Civics class?

    The Korean Hymn book has the Korean National Anthem, (excuse my Romanization) Aegookah.

  10. I’m American and my husband is Canadian. We live in the States and he sings the US anthem whenever we sing it ( for us, usually Church and baseball games). I know the Canadian national anthem as well and loved the fact that I got the chance to sing it in Church yesterday, as we’re in Canada visiting his family. The YW made it a project to paste the anthem into all of the hymnbooks in the Stake. I loved it!

  11. I enjoy singing patriotic songs, but I am annoyed by how ethnocentric the hymnal is, and not just in regards to patriotic songs. If we are to have the American anthem in the English language hymnal, it only makes sense to include the anthems from the other English-speaking countries that use the hymnal.

  12. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t given this much thought before. It seems like a terrible oversight not to include all national anthems from English-speaking countries.

    I don’t mind singing patriotic songs, but I love to hear polished musical performances with different arrangements from the usual renditions in the hymnal.

    I think asking ex pats from other nations to perform their national anthems (or just beloved songs from their countries) as musical numbers in sacrament meeting would be so cool and a great way to celebrate a ward’s diversity.

    • I think that is an excellent idea, Emily!

  13. I’m one of the organists in our ward and I LOVE playing the patriotic songs because it’s one of the rare times our congregation gets nice and loud. They know all the words and are familiar with the music. We did not play Battle Hymn, though, which is fine by me because it’s not an easy song for me to play. We sang America the Beautiful and My Country. As the rest hymn, we sang #78, God of our Fathers with the rousing fanfare. I got into it too and added some organ bling to it. We need less sedation by music in our particular congregation. The really weird thing was that it was Ward Conference. The person scheduling the hymns didn’t know it at the time, and when she realized it, we let it go. We have several military families in the ward and I know they like to be remembered for their service when we sing the patriotic songs.

    I agree with the suggestion to add more national songs to the hymnal. We are lucky in our ward to have several nationalities represented (and they LOVE the American patriotic songs). We hear prayers in other languages in Sacrament meeting quite often. It would be fun to learn other national anthems as well.

  14. We didn’t sing one single patriotic hymn in our meetings yesterday. Not one!!! Maybe next Sunday after the 4th of July has passed? Bah humbug!!

  15. Our choir director has put together a large, all-male chorus to sing God Bless America on July 14th. She points out that the song, including the not-often heard opening, is a prayer and she has put together an arrangement that is very reverent. We got a sense of the impact that it may have while we were practicing in the chapel as early sacrament meeting arrivers (who knew there were such a thing!) for the next ward were filing in. After we were done, our choir director was approached by several who commented “that gave us chills”.

  16. I really don’t like singing patriotic songs in church, mostly because I think church should be a place that moves beyond boundaries to bring people closer together. You can’t assume that everyone in a ward is American or likes the US, or Britain or Canada or wherever. And it shouldn’t matter; we are there to worship and to serve. But I have a problem with overdone patriotism in general and I grew up in Provo where it is pretty rampant, so I may be very oversensitive to anything that suggests overzealous patriotism.

    On a totally unrelated note, I hate singing the US national anthem because it’s crazy hard to sing!

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