Another post about hymns

November 22, 2003 | 4 comments
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Greg’s recent post about hymns made me think again about an issue I’ve been reminded of every several months for the past two years.

I live in the Bronx, and my ward has somewhat unusual demographics. It is probably 60% African-American, including the Bishop and First Counselor, which I had never seen in a U.S. ward before. It is also very much a mission-field ward, with maybe a third of its members having belonged to the church for more than four or five years. With the ward’s demographic mix and the members’ relative lack of church experience, subjects like Blacks and the priesthood are particularly sensitive.

Two years ago, I was sitting in General Conference (priesthood session, as I recall) and we turned to page 59 to sing that old standard, “Come, O Thou King of Kings.” I had probably sung it dozens of times before, never really paying much attention. We sang along up to verse four. Suddenly the text seemed to jump out of the page at me. I was sitting next to a newly-baptized African-American member, and hoped that he would be paying little attention, as we sang:

Hail! Prince of life and peace!
Thrice welcome to thy throne
While all the chosen race
Their Lord and Savior own
The heathen nations bow the knee
And ev’ry tongue sounds praise to thee.

The new member said nothing, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, I was horrified by the implied message of the lyrics, and especially how it must sound to African-American members who are aware of their only recent acceptance into the Priesthood. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive. I realize that there is more than one way to read this, and some are certainly innocuous. On the other hand, the proximity of “chosen race” to “heathen nations bow[ing] the knee” seems to imply ideas of racial superiority which may have existed in the church’s past, and which the church is certainly trying to move beyond. (I don’t think that other hymns which mention race, such as “If you could hie to Kolob,” have the same clear implication.)

I immediately made a mental note to try to find out how one suggests a change to hymn lyrics. After all, if it was necessary to change “Yoo-Hoo Unto Jesus” and to modify “mighty thunder” (see hymn 86), this certainly seems to be a worthy candidate for change. And it’s not like a delicate poetic structure would be interrupted — the “chosen race” line does not even rhyme!

However, by the end of conference, I had forgotten my decision to find out about changing lyrics. And so a pattern began — every six or eight months, it would come up in Sacrament Meeting, and I would say to myself “I need to remember to find out about that,” and by the end of church I would have forgotten. In fact, it happened again last Sunday.

Greg’s post finally made me think about hymn lyrics outside of Sacrament Meeting (which is possibly the most chaotic time of the week for me), and so I am writing this up.

The question I have, at this point, is how one goes about suggesting the church change the lyrics. I know at one point Michael Moody was in charge of church music — is he still in charge, and does anyone know how to contact him? Or is there another route to use?

Let me emphasize that I do not know of anyone actually offended by these lyrics. However, they seem to be a disaster waiting to happen, especially in predominantly African-American wards like my own. (At least one other member of my ward has had the same concern with this hymn). (And, the problem is likely to be under-reported — if the lyrics offended someone, they may be unlikely to state that to the Bishop, they might just leave. Or, the lyrics might add to the “total mix” of information and tip the scales for an investigator to decide that the church really is prejudiced against Blacks). My intuition is that it isn’t worth keeping lyrics which might impair missionary work, when innocuous ones could be substituted.

4 Responses to Another post about hymns

  1. Kaimi on July 22, 2004 at 5:29 pm

    I should note that after posting this I received a very kind e-mail about this post from then-reader, now-co-blogger Kristine Haglund Harris, assuring me that her research indicated that Parley P. Pratt didn’t intend this lyric in any racist way; he was using a conception of “race” as a way to say the chosen people.

  2. Kristine on July 22, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    I still think they should change the word. “Grace” fits well enough, and not everyone who’s offended is going to go scurrying for an 1830s dictionary to check the likely intent of the author.

    And, btw, my choir’s doing “Come, O Thou King of Kings” soon, and we’ll be singing “and all the nations bow the knee…”

  3. Kaimi on July 22, 2004 at 6:11 pm

    Exactly. I mean, it would be so easy to replace,

    Hail! Prince of life and peace!
    Thrice welcome to thy throne
    While all the chosen race
    Their Lord and Savior own

    with

    Hail! Prince of life and peace!
    Thrice welcome to thy throne
    While all the sons of grace
    Their Lord and Savior own

    And that would be totally unproblematic, right? :)

    Okay, maybe it would be better

    “While all who know thy grace”

    or something along those lines . . .

  4. Kristine on July 22, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    It’s so nice when I’ve been a Janey one-note for long enough that people can anticipate my criticisms :)