Last Chance: Make Your Voice Heard for More Gender Inclusive Hymns and Primary Songs
A year ago, the church asked for feedback in preparation of creating a new hymnbook and children’s songbook which will be correlated and translated into many languages and will (hopefully) include more songs originally composed in languages besides English. Members have been invited to give input on songs they’d like to keep, songs they’d like to axe, and to submit lyrics and melodies for new songs. Members can give feedback via survey and submit original content through July 1. If you’ve been holding off on sharing your thoughts with the new music committees, now is the moment to take action!
From the Church’s announcement in June of last year: “The opportunity for members to participate in the revision process like this is unprecedented,” said Elder Kopischke. “We want the input of the members so we can better understand their needs. What are your favorite hymns and songs to sing at church and at home? Which ones do you think should be removed?”
Click here to take the survey. (Note: the response fields look very small, but you can click and drag the corner to expand the boxes. As far as I can tell, there is no character limit, so write as much as you want!)
Submit music here.
Last year, I wrote about the discrepancy in named men vs. named women and gendered language in general in the Primary Children’s Songbook. My take home point was that if we want our daughters to see that there’s a place for them in the church and, more importantly, to know that God loves and values them, we need the language we use, the songs we sing, the stories we tell, and the lessons we teach to reflect that and include them. While I haven’t done a similarly exhaustive tally of hymn lyrics, I did quickly go through about the first 120 hymns. The results are probably skewed somewhat because the beginning of the hymn book contains a higher saturation of restoration hymns written around 150 years ago, but the numbers are still jarring.
In the first 120 hymns, 15 individual men are mentioned by name. Including duplicates, men (not including Jesus) are mentioned by name in these hymns 25 times.
There is no woman mentioned by name in the entire hymnbook (but Satan is named twice in the first 120 hymns!).
At least 68 of the first 120 hymns refer to God with male pronouns or titles (King, Father, Lord, etc.). Approximately 12 of these hymns refer to God in a gender neutral way (without pronouns).
There are no instances in these hymns of referring to God as female or as Heavenly Mother + Heavenly Father.
In the first 120 hymns, male gendered language was used 60 times (each use only counted once per song) and referred almost exclusively to people or groups. Examples: man/men (used in 27 hymns), “God of our fathers” (used in 4 hymns), and other assorted pronouns and titles including princes, king, brethren, father, sons of God/men/day, and patriarch, among others.
In the first 120 hymns, female gendered language was used 24 times (each use only counted once per song). Female pronouns were generally used to represent places or concepts (Zion, truth, Babylon, earth); these make up 16 of the 24. Other female specific language included mother/s (5 instances) and sister, daughters, and widow (once each).
For a more thorough analysis of gendered language in the hymnbook, this fascinating article by Douglas Campbell chronicles instances of gendered and racist language in both the current hymnbook and in previous hymnbook iterations. He analyzes changes in text and what motivated them across the different editions. Here are just a couple of his examples of changes made for gender inclusivity:
““Called To Serve” was the last hymn added to the 1985 hymnbook. For twenty-four years the 1951 Primary songbook, The Children Sing, had asked Primary boys and Primary girls to sing, “Called to know the richness of his blessing—/ Sons of God, and children of a King.” By 1985 nearly 20 percent of missionaries were female. Therefore, to make the language more inclusive, before it was added to the hymnbook, the verse was changed to “Called to know the richness of his blessing—/ Sons and daughters, children of a King.””
“The 1950 hymnal contained the hymn “O Sons of Zion,” written by Robert Manookin. He has commented: “Because over the years it was erroneously considered by many to be a priesthood hymn, it found less use than perhaps could have done otherwise. For this reason, I [Manookin] suggested that its title and text be changed to ‘O Saints of Zion.'” The hymn became 1985, 39, “O Saints of Zion.” Similarly, the 1948, 303 hymn, “Come, all ye Sons of Zion,” became 1985, 38, “Come, all ye Saints of Zion.””
Changing a word here and a phrase there may seem needlessly painstaking, especially when many references to men and mankind are linguistically understood to include women. So what’s the big deal? In his article Let’s Make the Hymnbook More of a His and Hers Book, Mike C at Zelophehad’s Daughters breaks it down:
“Here’s the big deal: Research has shown that terms such as “he” or “his” are not interpreted generically, but rather tend to evoke masculine referents. In addition, man-linked words (e.g., man, mankind, chairman, etc.) are not perceived as referring equally to men and women. Importantly, such usage can limit the opportunities and affect the self-concept of women, leading to a lower sense of belonging and less motivation in an organizational context. In short, gender-exclusive language affects the way that men view women and the way that women view women, typically placing women in a subordinate, one-down, less-than position relative to men.”
All this to say that inclusive language is important and that there is precedent for change. Here are a few of the things I’ll be requesting in my survey responses. Feel free to use/tweak mine or come up with your own when you take the survey:
- In Primary songs and in hymns, include more songs that name women and use them as examples. Ensure that verses/songs that name women or use female exclusive language like sister or daughter are not marked to be sung only by girls/women so that both girls/women and boys/men can sing about women and female heroes. Women sing about male heroes all the time, and it’s important that women and girls, men and boys have both male and female role models.
- Incorporate more references to God as female, God as partnered (i.e. parents), and God as gender-neutral (“God” without gendered pronouns). The hymns abound with references to God as King, Father, Lord, and Priest, and God in our current songbooks is referred to with exclusively male pronouns. Please have references to God as Mother, Queen, and Priestess and use feminine pronouns to identify Her in some hymns.
- Change “Ye Elders of Israel” to “Ye Children of Israel” and put it in the main hymnbook. It’s such a great song, and it’s a shame it’s relegated to men just because of one instance of the word “Elders.”
- Look carefully at the topics songs are tagged with and the topics that are included in the index and ensure there’s gender parity and consistency. Some examples from the hymnbook:
- The topic heading for “Women” says “see Sisterhood.” There is no topic heading for “Men,” likely because most hymns are male default and have male exclusive language anyway.
- Under the topic “Brotherhood,” there are 10 hymns listed, just three of which are in the “Men’s Choir” section at the back of the book. Under the topic “Sisterhood,” there are only four hymns listed, and three of them are included in the “Women” section at the end of the hymnbook. Many (if not all) of the hymns under “Brotherhood” should also be included under “Sisterhood” (including Because I Have Been Given Much, Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?, and Love One Another)
- The topic of “Motherhood” has five hymns under it. Four of these hymns do not ever use the word “mother” but speak about home, raising children, or family (the fifth is O My Father, which mentions Heavenly Mother). The topic of “fatherhood” has three songs: O My Father, Our Father, by Whose Name, and See the Mighty Priesthood Gathered. The last two songs specifically mention fathers and fatherhood. All of the hymns listed under “Motherhood” should also be listed under “Fatherhood” as they are not gender specific and deal with home and family and are thus equally applicable to mothers and fathers (these include From Homes of Saints Glad Songs Arise, Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth, Love at Home, and Teach Me to Walk in the Light)
- There is a topic heading for “God the Father” but not one for “God the Mother”
- Please keep at least the melody for If You Could Hie to Kolob, but if the words are kept, please change “there is no end to race” to “there is no end to grace.”
What recommendations do you have for the music committees? What songs do you hope to keep? To add? To never hear again?
As a note of interest, the church has announced the committees that will oversee the revision suggestions for the Hymnbook and Children’s Songbook. The Hymnbook committee is made up of four men and five women, and the Children’s Songbook committee is made up of three men and four women. Audrey Livingston, a female product manager for sacred music, is secretary for both committees, and Steve Schank, a male Church music manager, is chair of both committees. I found it interesting that both committees have one more woman than man on the board. There is one woman of color on the Primary songbook committee, and there is potentially one woman of color on the hymnbook committee (as far as I can tell).
I’m thrilled that there are women strongly represented on both committees, though I wish there were more international representation (there appears to be a woman from Germany on the hymnbook committee; I’m unsure of the background of anyone else). Important to note, though, is that these committees only make recommendations to the First Presidency and apostles and do not make any decisions. It also appears that the general Relief Society presidency and the general Primary presidency are not among those making decisions on the new music books, nor is it clear whether they are even consulted: “The committee members don’t ultimately decide what is and is not included. “The goal of the committees is to make recommendations to the senior leadership of the Church,” Schank said. “The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles decide what goes in the book, so these committees are not decision-making bodies—they’re recommendation bodies.”” (I’ve always felt that my female body in the church is a recommendation body, not a decision-making body, so this tracks.)
For more information on recent developments re: the Church’s new hymnbook project, see https://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2019/05/updates-on-the-new-hymnbook/