International Series: The Trumpet Shall Sound

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Rahel.

How it eluded me for 35 years of active church membership, I do not know. In a recent conversation in my current ward in Pittsburgh, USA, I discovered that brass instruments are deemed “not appropriate for sacrament meeting” churchwide (Handbook 2, p. 115). Possibly, this personal discovery was avoided for so long through a succession of rogue bishops in my old ward—Basel, Switzerland—who allowed members to enhance the meetings on a variety of instruments with “less worshipful sound” (ibid.). I left the conversation with a tongue in cheek comment: “How else are you supposed to instill in people the fear of God if not by the piercing sound of trumpets?” (It might help with staying awake too.)

I am somewhat perplexed by how much this discovery affected me. Even though I like jazz and other music that involves brass instruments, I would be just fine with never hearing brass instruments during sacrament meeting again. Maybe I would have never even noticed the lack of trumpets and trombones in my new ward if it were not pointed out to me specifically. Why, then, do I feel the need to dwell on this seemingly minor point? I wonder if my discomfort might not stem from the content of the rule itself but rather from its apparent arbitrariness.

There is no universal principle stating that certain instruments are not worshipful. Arguably, certain sounds are more calming and soothing, while others are more stimulating. However, reverence does not equal calmness. It is possible to worship God in many differing states of agitation. I’m reminded of the case of Saul, who was given the following promise by Samuel:

After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, at the place where the Philistine garrison is; there, as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. (10:5-6, NRSV)

If Saul could be at his most worshipful in a “prophetic frenzy” accompanied by tambourines, there must be a range of moods appropriate to the worship of God. Besides, we already have many songs in the hymnbook that elicit exuberance appropriate for those “other” instruments. Should we get rid of those songs as well? Somebody might get too exited! If calmness truly were a measure of worshipfulness then being asleep might be the most worshipful state of all.

Generally, Mormonism seems to have adopted a certain idea of worship that is not only expressed in its use of specific instruments. It is also conveyed in the style of its music, in the particular way the melodies flow and the tones merge into one indistinguishable sauce. Or you might recall instances of talks given in very aspirated voices, the “spiritual voice,” as my husband calls it. Aren’t you glad that they are not mandated by the Handbook?

I have come to refer to this particular style as the Walt Disney brand of worship, a brand where no dissonances, abrupt sounds, or unhappy endings are allowed. This is not to say that there is no merit to this kind of worship. Personally, I have found myself manipulated to tears by meetings in this vein. But, as someone who leans towards a more Lars Trier-oriented style, I also want a turn.

I find arbitrary rules harmful, and not just out of a belated teenage angst. They cause the power imbalance between those creating the rules and those having no part in making them to be more tangible. Of course, rules will only seem arbitrary to a person who was not part of creating them. In terms of the Church, I believe that the arbitrariness of certain rules is more blatant and therefore also more bothersome to people from cultures other than that of the rule-setters.

If the leaders of the Church ever come to me for advice about the handbook—and I’m sure they will—I will counsel them to allow more flexibility to the rules by being less specific. These rules are not about the Truth, so there is flexibility to be had. And if I was already at it, I would suggest less micromanaging and more self-determination. If the Church is big enough to accommodate the Swiss as well as the American, it is big enough to accommodate the horn as well as the organ.


On prolonged sabbatical from her career in arts administration, Libby is a seamstress, editor, entrepreneur, and community volunteer. She has a husband and three children.

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8 Responses

  1. Em says:

    We had a trumpet in sacrament meeting about two months ago, and it knocked my socks off. The young man is the grandson for longtime ward members, and is technically not in our ward but the student ward on campus. Their family has a lot of musicians, and since Grandma used to be our music coordinator we often have various members brought in as ringers, which doesn’t bother me a smidge. The young man is outstandingly talented, he has a full trumpet scholarship (who knew such a thing existed in this arts starved age?!) and has won numerous jazz competitions. So let’s just say this isn’t a middle-schooler beginner blatting his way through a hymn.

    To me, his performance was a perfect example of why forbidding an instrument is absurd. His control of the tone meant that the performance was as soft and sweet and gentle as any flute could have been. It was really beautiful, and memorable. There are very few instruments incapable of producing such a tone in the hands of a good musician. And, as you pointed out, what about a joyful noise unto the Lord? The organ, if you’re lucky enough to have a pipe organ as our chapel does, can really blast your ears out if you pull out all the stops, and it certainly isn’t forbidden.

    As a side note, I am sad that the church does not put in more pipe organs. I know in many places that would be a low priority and there are other more pressing uses for the money. Two of our chapels in our town have them, from the era when members raised their own money and built the chapels. I feel very, very lucky to have a real organ, and I think it makes the chapel significantly more beautiful and inspiring.

  2. Stargazer says:

    YES! To more pipe organs. I attended a ward that had a pipe organ in Boise and enjoyed it. I believe that the main reason is cost effectiveness. It takes significantly more time and effort, as well as maintenance costs (quite a bit more than piano tuning). Have seen a lovely trombone duet multiple times in my home ward, and a French horn solo several times in my student ward. Go beautiful brass.

  3. Hedgehog says:

    As a brass player myself, I’ve long been aware of the restriction which has long been enforced in all my wards in Britain, so I’m quite jealous of those of you who have experienced otherwise. I love all those OT references to trumpets, and priests playing those trumpets lots of them at the temple festivals and celebrations. For me pipe organ and brass together are sublime.

  4. Mary Young says:

    Yes! One of the loveliest and most spiritual meetings I ever attended was a Methodist Easter service. The Hallelujah Chorus (which is about Easter, not Christmas) played on a magnificent pipe organ and a trumpet, with a soaring choir and an enthralled congregation. I am a little biased; I was there because I was the trumpet player’s transportation (my too-young-to-drive youngest son, first trumpet then with the Tacoma WA Youth Symphony). He was there because the organist, a sophomore at Pacific Lutheran University, was one of his older brothers. I was awed by the power of my sons’ artistry to bring our hearts the truth of Easter Sunday. The joy and beauty of that service stayed with me for weeks, informing my scripture study, my prayers, and my faith.
    I am tired of cheap electric organs, poor organists who have no one to teach them how to really play the instruments, and leaders who know nothing of music and its power to teach and lift.

  5. Amira says:

    One of my favorite memories from Jerusalem was hearing an older woman play “The Holy City” on her trumpet in the room where we had sacrament meeting. I can’t remember if it actually was during sacrament or at some other meeting, but there is no way I could ever consider her music inappropriate for sacrament meeting.

    Good music of all types can be such an important part of worship. I wish we had more variety at church.

  6. April says:

    YES! I would love to see fewer arbitrary rules about instruments and such.

  7. Amen and amen! I have been in wards where rigid control over music was a way of asserting control for a Stake President or Bishop, who would give lectures on how any other type of music would drive away the Spirit. In some places, nothing from outside the Hymnbook was allowed in Church meetings. And I’ve never heard brass.

    I recently took a break from the Mormon church and started attending my local Unitarian Universalist congregation. One of my favorite things about it is how much wider their definition of “reverent” or worshipful music is than the Mormon definition. Often an entire service will be dedicated to music, and we’ll have a visiting African drummer, folk singer with a guitar, or a day devoted to congregational Beatles songs. Our music director likes to pass out tambourines, bells, and other percussion instruments to the congregants so we can all participate more in the music.

    There’s no frowning authority circumscribing a narrow sphere of “appropriate” music. There’s just the joy and delight of lifting our voices in praise, and borrowing liberally from different faith and music traditions to enrich our worship. It’s glorious.

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