Wherever Mormons gather – in a Sacrament meeting, a baptism, a fireside, General Conference, or a devotional – music is guaranteed to be a part of the service. President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taught, “Music is an effective way to worship our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.” And Spencer W. Kimball, the 12th president of the Church, taught, “Some of the greatest sermons that have ever been preached were preached by the singing of a song.”
The scriptures, in Colossians 3:16, admonish us to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Members have their favorite hymns that they love to sing, and there are certain hymns that are generally heard at General Conference, but how many members have ever taken the time to realize or to recognize the rich and fascinating stories behind the songs that they are singing?
How many members know that only 168 of our 358 hymn contributors are LDS, or that the original hymnal collected by Emma Smith had no tunes – only words? Also, a man named Evan Stephens composed 16 of the hymns–the most of any composer in the hymnal. And, another interesting fun hymn fact is that the LDS hymnal is very small compared to other church hymnals. In fact, many Protestant hymnbooks have twice as many hymns as the 341 in the LDS hymnal.
The history behind LDS hymns is indeed replete with fascinating stories and quirky facts. In this article, we will look at the some of the histories behind a few of those beloved hymns.
How Great Thou Art – (The text for this song is not available electronically due to copyright restriction or availability).
In 1923, English missionaries heard the song in German and translated it from memory, adding new pieces to the song based on the breathtaking scenery they witnessed in their travels. At the time, they only wrote the first three verses. The fourth verse did not appear until after World War II. Inspired by refugees in Great Britain, who persistently asked, “When can we go home?” the same missionaries added the fourth verse, which focuses on the joys of our heavenly home. Today’s version of this classic hymn is loosely based on a German translation of a Russian translation of a Swedish hymn, “O Mighty God.”
We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet – Hymn #19
Over 6,000 submissions of texts and tunes were reviewed for the 1985 version of the hymnal. One note was changed from an A to a B near the beginning of the third line of the popular LDS hymn, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” thus changing the melody. The unusual edit was done to match how the Saints sang the song.
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was a little-known hymn prior to the publishing of the current hymnal. In fact, because so few members knew the song, the 1985 hymnbook committee chose to remove the song from the new hymnal in favor of other works.
I Am a Child of God – Hymn #301
Under inspiration, Sister Naomi Randall penned the lyrics of “I Am a Child of God” in the middle of the night. The original chorus said, “Teach me all that I must know.” Later, when President Spencer W. Kimball heard the song, he mentioned that he had some concerns about the word “know” in the chorus and asked Sister Randall if she would change it to “do,” and she agreed.
Reflecting on the change, she said, “I wondered why I didn’t include that thought at the time the lyrics were first written. But as time went on, I came to feel very sincerely that this was the way the Lord wanted the song to evolve, because it became a teaching moment for members all over the Church and impressed upon their minds that knowing the gospel is not all that is required; it is the day-by-day doing the Lord’s will and keeping the commandments that help us reach our eternal goal.”
It is also interesting to note that the Children’s Songbook version of the hymn has an additional verse:
I am a child of God
His promises are sure
Celestial glory shall be mine
If I can but endure
The Spirit of God – Hymn #2
Emma Smith’s original collection of hymns was published in a 3X4 1/2″ pocket-sized book in 1835. Of the original 90 hymns that comprised the book, only 26 made it into the 1985 hymnal. Two verses of “The Spirit of God” have been omitted in recent hymnals:
We’ll wash, and be wash’d, and with oil be anointed
Withal not omitting the washing of feet:
For he that receiveth his PENNY appointed,
Must surely be clean at the harvest of wheat.
Old Israel that fled from the world for his freedom,
Must come with the cloud and the pillar, amain:
[And] Moses, and Aaron, and Joshua lead him,
And feed him on manna from heaven again.
I Stand All Amazed – Hymn #193
It used to be the music director’s responsibility to decide which tunes the congregation would sing with which words. The hymn, “I Stand All Amazed, an LDS favorite, has undergone musical revision three separate times in various versions of the hymnal.
In the 1909 hymnal, the tenors sang the melody line, with the women singing harmony. Additionally, the women sang the lines “that he should care for me, / Enough to die for me” alone as the men repeated “wonderful, wonderful” and harmonized on “care for me” and “die for me.”
In the 1950 hymnal, the chorus remained the same, but the melody was given back to the soprano line. And finally, in the current 1985 version of the hymnal, the chorus was simplified to make the song easier to sing.
I Know That My Redeemer Lives – Hymn #136
The 1950 hymnal had a separate section for choir hymns. Originally written as seven short verses in Emma’s 1835 hymnal, the verses of “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” were later combined to include two in each verse. However, this left one additional verse without a pair–this last verse instead became the chorus.
Redeemer of Israel – Hymn #6
William W. Phelps originally adapted the lyrics for “Redeemer of Israel” from hymn text written by Joseph Swain, making slight modifications to give the lyrics a more Latter-day Saint flair. You can see the comparison of the texts by going here.
Another hymn fun fact: In 1873, the Sunday school published its own hymns in The Juvenile Instructor.
High on the Mountain Top – Hymn #5
Two verses of “High on the Mountain Top” that were in the 1950 hymnal were removed in the 1985 printing:
Then hail to Deseret! A refuge for the good,
And safety for the great, If they but understood
That God with plagues will shake the world
Till all its thrones shall down be hurled.
In Deseret doth truth Rear up its royal head;
Though nations may oppose, Still wider it shall spread;
Yes, truth and justice, love and grace,
In Deseret shall find ample place.
How Firm a Foundation – Hymn #85
Prior to the 1985 hymnal, the first verse of “How Firm a Foundation” ended with the phrase: You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled. Because the phrase sounds awkward to modern-day Saints, the 1985 hymn book committee rephrased it to be: Who unto the Savior.
One final note: a separate “Manchester Hymnal” was published by European Saints in England and used until 1890.