Guest Post: Toward a Gender-neutral, Gender-inclusive LDS Hymnal

by Bob Rees

“A hymnbook is as good an index to the brains and the hearts of a people’s as the creed book.”

—Alexander Campbell

One of the enlightened revelations of the Restoration is the sentiment that males and females “are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33), and yet this ideal has yet to be realized in the modern Church let alone in the contemporary church during a time when an awareness of the importance of gender-inclusive language, imagery and symbolism is greater than it has ever been in Western civilization. In Latter-day Saint religious practice, however, there are doctrinal reasons why, at least in terms of perception, women and men are not equal. Traditionally, men not only have had greater power and prominence because of the priesthood, but historically they have been privileged in areas that have nothing to do with gender—such as giving prayers in general conference, speaking in church, and holding auxiliary positions (such a Sunday School President) that do not require priesthood. I’m told, for example, that the president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has always been a priesthood holder!

In the recent past, the Church seems to have become aware of the asymmetry between the lived experience of men and women in the Church and have taken some small but nevertheless symbolic steps to create at least the perception of equality. Women praying in general conference and female general board officers and general authority spouses given a more conspicuous seating in general conference are just two visible examples of this effort. Neylan McBaine’s important book, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (2014) is full of practical and sensible suggestions for giving women more voice and vision in the lived experience of LDS congregational and family life.

One way in which the Church could be more equitable in its treatment of women and girls is in incorporating more gender-inclusive language in General Conference, in official pronouncements, and in Church publications and manuals. Language makes a difference; young girls growing up and coming of age in the Church cannot help but be aware of the fact that male pronouns are used almost exclusively to refer to both genders–in scripture, in official Church materials, in sacrament talks, in Sunday school manuals, and in general conference addresses.[1]

There is one step the Church could take that could have a significant impact on the way girls and women feel, i.e., make the hymnal gender-inclusive or gender neutral. Since hymns are one of the few liturgical elements of Mormon worship in which everyone has an equal opportunity to participate and one that occupies such a prominent part of our worship experience, I believe it would make a huge difference if in the next revision of the hymnal, inclusive language were used wherever possible. Since, as Douglas Campbell notes in his article, “Changes in LDS Hymns: Implications and Opportunities,” the Church has made significant changes in each past revision of its hymnal, it should be fairly easy for those charged with the next revision to be more attentive to language, especially language relative to gender. This should not be a daunting task since, as Campbell observes, “As I proceeded [to review the changes from the 1948 to the 1985 hymnal], I was fascinated to see the changes in the hymnal that reflect increased sensitivity by the church music committee to blacks, Native Americans, and women. I found that the Church music committee had used ingenious methods to modify the hymns to reflect changes in the social, cultural, and political milieu in which the church disseminates its message.”[2]

With specific reference to gender-inclusive texts, Campbell observes, “I discovered many changes in the 1985 hymnal from gender-exclusive language to gender-neutral language. After doing a careful count, I found that nearly two-thirds of the hymns were gender neutral. I examined language in the 102 hymns that do use male gender-exclusive language. Despite the Church music committee’s numerous changes (made explicitly to create increased gender- neutrality), I was surprised to find the ratio of male gender–exclusive language to female gender-exclusive language was 147 to 2” (p. 86). Thus, for nearly thirty years, a third of our hymns have been male gender-exclusive.

There are nine male terms in the hymnal as opposed to four female (sister, daughter, mother, her).  While the hymnal contains a number of mononyms for men (e.g., Adam, Abraham, Moroni, Nephi, Joseph, et al) it contains none for women. Some of the female-gender words include those for non-female entities such as Zion (“her walls rejoice”), Zion’s Hill (“her light should”), the Earth (“Let earth receive her king”), and, of course, Babylon! (“all her tow’rs o’erthrow”). A final one, which Carol Lynn Pearson noted in her “Why I Stay” presentation at the 2013 Sunstone Symposium, is the grave. As Carol Lynn observes, “Last Sunday I sang with the congregation the beautiful hymn, ‘We’ll Sing All Hail to Jesus’ Name,’ and in the midst of eight pronouns honoring masculine divinity, there was only one feminine pronoun: ‘The grave yield up her dead.’  There is no love in that, and the insult is not lost on the psyches of women and men, boys and girls who sing it. Of course I sang. ‘…the grave yield up its dead.’” The equation of the male pronoun to deity and the female to death can have a significant if subtle influence on the singers, male and female.

Of the 147 hymns in the hymnal that still have masculine dominant language, most require a simple substitution of words or phrases (e.g., “one” for “man” or “we” for “he”). Others, like “Faith of Our Fathers” (84) can be changed to “Faith of Our Founders,” “Faith of Our Parents” or “Our Ancestors’ Faith.” “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand” (78) could be changed to “God of All Nations,” although that would necessitate changing the second verse “in this free land” to something like “in all our lands” and “Thy true religion in our hearts increase” to something like “all true religion in our hearts increase.” The hymn, “God of Our Fathers, We Come Unto Thee” (76), can be changed to “God of All Nations,” “God of Our People” or “God of our Parents.” Such changes have the advantage of making some hymns less nationalistic and more universal, thus making them more appealing to members of a global religion.

Again, to quote Campbell, “The accidental, unwilled, historical pattern of male gender-exclusive language in a hymnal sends the accidental, unwilled, subtle message which can be interpreted by youth, converts, single parent families, widows, married and unmarried women that men are more important” (p. 79). Thus, the significant work taken to make the texts of the 1985 hymnal gender inclusive needs to be expanded by the Church in its next revision, especially given the current sensitivity surrounding women’s roles and image in the Church. Because hymnals are not often revised, any revision of texts should involve women across a spectrum of ages, backgrounds and cultures. Any new hymns should also reflect this more sensitive, equitable and balanced use of language so that when we sing praises to the Lord, we sing with one voice.

Bob Rees teaches and is Director of Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is the author/editor of numerous studies on Mormonism and is currently writing a book on the Book of Mormon.

[1] Although some general authorities have shown a wiliness to use more gender-inclusive language in conference addresses, most seem unaware that women and girls may feel excluded, or at least not fully included, through the use of masculine-exclusive terminology.

[2] Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28:3 (1979), 86.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Abby Hansen says:

    I love this, and I hope the new hymnbook is very different. I never noticed the gendered speech in our sacred music until waaaay into adulthood, and I can’t help but wonder what invisible impact it had shaping me and the way I viewed myself in the world. I am sure it wasn’t a positive impact. Even if it was just neutral, it was much less than the positive impact it had on the boys growing up around me. Here’s hoping for the next generation to never experience any of that!

  2. Chiaroscuro says:

    i would love to see gender inclusivity in the new hymnal as well. thanks for this thoughtful essay, demonstrating how important this would be

Leave a Reply to Chiaroscuro Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.