Musings on Music

When I was twelve years old, my grandmother gave me a very special gift for Christmas. It is still one of my prized possessions— a copy of Latter-Day Saint Hymns, the first LDS hymnbook in which the lyrics and music were combined. It replaced LDS Psalmody and the Songs of Zion. Printed in 1927 under the direction of Heber J. Grant, my copy contains an inscription in beautiful calligraphy: “Mayor Edward M. Dighton, Compliments Heber J. Grant, Sept. 25/28.” It was in the library of my great grandmother, and then passed to me by my grandmother. A google search on Mayor Dighton brings up a brief mention of a mayor in California whose mayoral race appeared to have been backed by the KKK.It may forever be a mystery if that is the same man inscribed in my book, and will certainly be a mystery how it came to be in my great grandmother’s library. (My grandmother doesn’t know).A perusal of the book reveals some things about the times in which it was printed. Some of the hymns, such as “Stop, and Tell Me Red Man,” would be terribly offensive by today’s standards. The number of hymns meant to be sung at funerals, including a few specifically for children tell us something about the higher mortality rates and the harsh experience of crossing the planes that may still have been fresher in the consciousness of the membership and hymn writers.

I love music, which is in part why I became a Music Therapist. A while ago I was asked to speak about music, specifically hymn singing in Relief Society. Here are a few of the thoughts that I shared with my sisters:

It is my belief that Spirit is ever-present. In Mormon-speak, we often talk about “inviting the Spirit” or someone might say that “the Spirit left the room when . . . .” I tend to think that the Spirit is all around us at all times, and we have only to bring ourselves into the present moment, to be “in tune” with it. Mindful singing is a powerful way to come into the present moment. Congregational singing also provides us the opportunity to be one with each other. All of our different voices can combine into one song. Each voice is unique and may take a different part, but they all blend together in harmony to provide a direct experience of unity. There is great power and beauty to be found in congregational hymn singing.

I’m struck by how instrumental women have been in creating the hymns. It was Emma Smith who compiled the first collection of hymns for the church. The First Presidency preface in the current hymnbook states, “Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns.” The women of the hymnbook have given us many stirring sermons. We have “Oh My Father” from Eliza Snow, the sole codified reminder of our Heavenly Mother as far as I know. We have a gorgeous sermon on making it through our darkest hours in Emma Lou Thayne’s “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” We can thank a woman named Annie Hawkes for the frequently sung “I Need Thee Every Hour.” The beloved hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” is written by Sarah Adams. For an interesting exercise (perhaps during the next high council talk when you need something to keep you awake!) you might try flipping through the hymnbook and noting how many of the hymn texts are penned by women. On balance, there are still more men, but proportionately women have more of a voice in the hymnbook than in any other official church publication that I’ve seen.

Thank you, Grandma Elaine for seeing and encouraging my love of music. And thank you for entrusting me with this treasure from our history in which women’s voices ring out strong and clear.

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  1. Kaimi says:


    Have you seen Kristine Haglund Harris’s piece in Dialogue, on children’s music in Mormon theology? It’s a really interesting take, and raises some similar points about women participating in the creation of Mormon doctrine and theology through the hymnals (and primary songbooks).

  2. Anonymous says:

    I just wanted to point out another woman-authored hymn that is a favorite of mine: “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” by Susan Evans McCloud.

    And there’s the indomitable Ruth May Fox. “Carry On” isn’t my very favorite hymn, but Ruth had a fascinating life!

  3. AmyB says:

    Kaimi, I’ve not seen the Kristine’s article in Dialogue. I’ll have to check it out.

    Ana, thank you for pointing out your own favorite woman-authored hymn. There are several great ones written by women. Also, thank you for the link about Ruth May Fox. It was a pleasure to read her biography.

  4. Lynnette says:

    When I was younger, I actually used to pass the time in sacrament meeting by doing things like counting how many of the hymns were written by women. (Then I tried to figure out if there was any correlation between the gender of the hymn-writer and whether or not the hymn contained a lot of gender-exclusive language, like “man” and “brother.” This actually was less of a feminist thing for me, and more of a looking for entertainment thing.) Despite that, I hadn’t ever really thought about the fact that this is an area where women’s voices are much more prominent than they are in many church publications. Thanks for a great post.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    Thanks for this post, Amy. I love our hymns and think they’re such an interesting manifestation of our history (the first time I read one of those “Laminite” hymns I nearly fell off my chair–it was awful!).

    When I was in grad school, I found a bunch of Heavenly Mother hymns written about 20-30 years after Eliza’s. Eliza’s is the prettiest, IMHO, but I was sad to see that it’s the only one that survived.

  6. Kristine says:

    “Kaimi, I’ve not seen the Kristine’s article in Dialogue”

    Wow, Amy, nobody’s ever referred to me with a definite article before! 🙂

    The two-sentence version of my article is that hymns, and especially Primary songs (about 18% of hymn lyrics, and around 60% of Primary song words are composed by LDS women) are possibly the best source for discovering women’s contributions to Mormon theology. The notion of “reverence,” for instance, pretty much doesn’t exist in the church until a couple of decades after it’s invented in Primary songs. The dramatic re-emphasis on Christ is evident at least concurrently in General Conference talks and Primary songs, and several Primary songs with a Christological focus precede President Benson’s 1987 “Come Unto Christ” talk.

    And there are plenty of really fun songs, too, like “In a right way or a wrong way washing dishes may be done…”

  7. Kristine says:

    Lynnette, any conclusions about author’s gender:gendered language correlation? I haven’t done that particular game with the hymnbook (though I certainly have discovered my fair share of ways to entertain myself finding silly patterns in the index!), but my guess would be that it’s almost a strictly chronological thing (except for Bruce R. McConkie, whose anachronistic insistence on “man” and “sons of men” threatens to spoil his lovely hymn for me on those rare occasions when the unwritten ritard that every organist takes in the middle and the consequently lugubrious tempo don’t make me grumpy :)). Eliza R. Snow uses lots of “man” and “mankind”, etc.

  8. AmyB says:

    Wow, Amy, nobody’s ever referred to me with a definite article before! 🙂

    Well, Kristine, I thought a woman of your stature and elegance deserved a little something extra. 🙂 (Really, I guess my brain and fingers were doing two different things.)

    It’s interesting that you mention how the percentages stack up. I did a tally, but didn’t differentiate LDS vs. nonLDS authors of hymns. Do you think the percentage of women is a little higher when you factor in the total percentages without the LDS breakdown?

  9. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this post, Amy.

    I have spent a lot of time looking at the hymns. A couple of years ago, I thought about writing an article about gender and hymns and submit it to Dialogue.

    One trend I noticed is this. Songs about sunshine are invariably penned by women. Likewise songs about humility and being humble. Doctrinal ones are usually by men, with the exception of Eliza R. Snow’s. I also noticed that a lot of the more modern songs written by women are written in the first person, and thus are able to avoid so many annoying references to “man.”

    Kristine, I’m with you when it comes to the “sons of men” stuff. Almost ruins a perfectly nice hymn for me.

    I’ve decided to take ownership of my hymn singing, however, and always sing “women” whenever it says “men” and “sisters” when it says “brothers.” I’m sure the people in the pew in front of me wonder what my problem is, but it makes the hymns so much more personal and powerful for me. The best is when my husband does it with me.

  10. jana says:

    I love it when you sing your alternative versions of the hymns. I’ve seen people notice, but most just take it in stride.

  11. Deborah says:

    Caroline: Pick up a Unitarian Universalist hymnal. You’ll notice a lot of familiar hymns, but all gendered references to God have been artfully rephrased. It’s a really nice collection of music, actually.

  12. Kaimi says:


    You should look at some of the old T&S threads on the topic. Particular the one where Kristine talks about this issue; and in the comments, one brilliant and poetic (and very good-looking, of course) T&S poster suggests alternative words for “the world has need of willing men.”

  13. Lynnette says:

    Kristine, alas, I don’t recall the results of my study, though I do remember that I made a nice little chart of it all. (Perhaps this is a project to be taken up once again in a future sacrament meeting.) But like you, my impression is that it’s more related to chronology than to anything else. I do remember being rather surprised as a kid when I realized that it wasn’t just men who referred to everyone as “brother” in their writings (which seemed rather strange to me), but plenty of women did so as well.

    Like Caroline, I often change the words of the hymns (as I’ve posted about before.) It’s a lot more fun to do it when I’m at church with my sisters, though.

  14. journeygal says:

    I know I’m slightly missing the main topic (music) here, but I love what you said about tuning into the ever-present spirit:

    “It is my belief that Spirit is ever-present. In Mormon-speak, we often talk about “inviting the Spirit” or someone might say that “the Spirit left the room when . . . .” I tend to think that the Spirit is all around us at all times, and we have only to bring ourselves into the present moment, to be “in tune” with it.”

    What a beautiful thought – it’s wonderful to think of music as a way to bring ourselves in to the present moment, thereby tuning into the spirit that is already surrounding us.

  15. AmyB says:

    I’m thinking that just as my old hymnbook has outdated language and extremely un-pc sentiments, the gendered langugage our current hymnbook will seem the same way in a few decades (or sooner– one can hope). Raising consciousness by blogging about it or singing the hymns a different way just might help that come to pass more quickly. The Unitarians are already there- it will be wonderful when the Mormons catch up.

    Journeygal, thank you for your thoughts.

  16. Caroline says:

    Deborah, I’ll check out a unitarian hymnal. I bought a United church of Christ one and I LOVE it. Whenever I need a spiritual high I sit down at the piano and try to plunk out one of the songs.

    Kaimi, (you good looking, brilliant man, you.)
    Hah! Your new lyrics are awesome. Perfectly gender stereotyped.

  17. Dora says:

    I’m so glad you posted this. Music has lately been one of the most powerful ways for me to feel a connection with god. I attended Gen Conf last year, and I must say that the best part was hearing the choir sing live … it was quite thrilling. Other than that, I might as well have stayed home and watched from my couch, because we were so far away!

    Visited the Cloisters in NYC this morning. Beautiful. And am now listening to, “11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula” by Hildegard Von Bingen. Solely female voices. Ethereal and lovely.

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