Death Itself Shall Die

One of my favorite hymns comes from the Sacred Harp hymnal, and is called “How Long, Dear Saviour,” also known as “Northfield.”  The original song is about the Savior and uses entirely masculine pronouns to discuss the Millenium and Christ’s second coming.


Sacred Harp is a musical tradition that originated in the southern United States.  The music is sung a capella and the singers divide by section and sit in a square, facing each other. The notation uses not only ordinary staff lines but also a different shape for each note, indicating the place that note occupies in the scale.  This is meant to help untrained singers to learn music, and generally Sacred Harp groups will sing through using the shape names (fa sol la) first, before singing with words. The music is more about the experience than it is about performance and it tends to be characterized (at least around here) more by enthusiasm than by dynamics, blending or other common features of choral music.  There are many groups around the United States, as well as internationally, who keep this musical tradition alive.


My local group (which my mother affectionately calls the Sacred Harpies) chose to feminize the last verse of the song.  While the music is from a Christian tradition, many people who participate embrace other faiths or no faith at all.  As far as I know we are the only LDS people who participate in our town, and I only go on rare occasions. In an effort to acknowledge other faith traditions and be inclusive, the group sometimes changes words or sticks a supplement in the hymnal with alternate versification.


Ever since I first heard the feminized version of Northfield I felt like it was speaking to me and I really can’t hear it the other way.  I took the liberty of feminizing the entire thing to make it about our Heavenly Mother instead of the Saviour, not to denigrate our Lord but to acknowledge the glorious truth of His Mother. As we talk about the need for an anthem, the need for answers and the need for knowledge, perhaps sacred music not subject to church correlation should be the first place we look.  The following are the lyrics to the hymn, as I have changed them.  The original lyrics can be seen here, and you can watch a performance of it here or here.



How Long, Dear Saviour (Northfield)

Lyrics: Isaac Watts (1707)

(Some modifications of gender, by me)


How long, dear Mother, O how long

Shall this bright hour delay?

Fly swift around, ye wheels of time,

And bring the promised day.


Lo, what a glorious sight appears

To our believing eyes!

The earth and seas are passed away,

And the old rolling skies.


From the third heaven, where God resides,

That holy, happy place,

The New Jerusalem comes down

Adorn’d with shining grace.


Attending angels shout for joy,

And the bright angels sing;

Mortals, behold the sacred seat

Of our descending Queen!


Her own soft hand shall wipe the tears

From every weeping eye;

And pains and groans and griefs and fears

And death itself shall die.


In the last year as I have lost two family members and succumbed to the worst bout of depression I’ve ever had those words came back to me again and again.  Her own soft hand shall wipe the tears from every weeping eye.  I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.  Pains and groans and griefs and fears, and death itself shall die.

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6 Responses

  1. April says:

    What a beautiful song

  2. Caroline says:

    Lovely song, and lovely alterations. I remember the first time I went to another church and heard inclusive language in hymns. The hymns often featured references to God as She or Mother. It would take my breath away and leave me teary, it meant so much to me.

    • Rachel says:

      That would mean so much to me too. I’ve heard Mary Ellen Robertson give account of visiting the Reorganized Church (now Community of Christ), and hearing the Sacrament blessed by woman. She couldn’t help but cry. I am fairly certain I would have the same reaction.

  3. Rachel says:

    This post is very meaningful to me, I think because it was in hearing a non-LDS poet read his poem about God, out loud on BYU’s campus, twice–once with male pronouns to match the hymn he heard us sing and the prayer he heard one of us give, and then another time, with female pronouns, the way he wrote it.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Em! I want to hear more about your group–is it pretty interfaith? (So cool!)

    • Em says:

      Well I feel guilty calling it my group when really it is my mom who goes faithfully. I show up sporadically and I am horrible at singing the shape notes. I just spout nonsense as best I can on pitch. I would say that the members of the group have a wide variety of beliefs/non-beliefs. I am not sure how many people belong to a particular organized religion. I do know that many sacred harp singers join because it is joyful and beautiful, not because they necessarily have a belief in God or Christianity. It makes it easier to change the words to reflect a variety of beliefs. It isn’t a religious gathering, it is a social gathering at which people sing songs of religious extraction. I also like how the songs draw on scriptures that we never hear about in Mormonland — particularly from the Song of Solomon. (this one is especially great in Oregon, as it ends with “the rain is over and gone!” Hallelujah.)

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