The History of LDS Hymnbooks, Part 6: The Latter-day Saint Hymns

In the early 20th century, the LDS Church formed an official music committee of professional musicians to oversee the production of a new hymnal for Church use. By 1920, there were a variety of hymn books in use by the Church. The Church published the twenty-fifth edition of what had originally been the Manchester hymnal in 1912 and the Psalmody was still in use as the official tune book. An unofficial hymnal known as Songs of Zion that had been compiled for use in the mission field was proving extremely popular and the Sunday School continued to produce their own hymn book, the Deseret Sunday School Songs. To address the situation, President Heber J. Grant oversaw the organization of a committee of twelve Church members, including the patriarchs of Mormon music, George Careless and Evan Stephens, that would regulate musical affairs in the Church. This committee, known later as the Music Department, existed from 1920 to 1977 and oversaw the production of two major hymnals.

LatterDaySaintHymns-eng

The 1927 Latter-day Saint Hymns, commonly known as the “green hymnbook”

President Grant emphasized that “the kind of songs the Lord likes” were those that were doctrinally correct, going as far as stating that “no individual singer, or organization of singers, in the Church, should ever render a selection unless the words are in full harmony with the truths of the gospel, and can be given from the heart of the singer.”[1] He was even known to state that certain songs should be marked as “condemned.”[2] Based on his directions, the music committee sought to create a hymnal that reflected Grant’s desire for “songs of the heart” that were consistent with current LDS theology.

Officially, the committee was assigned to rework the Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody with the goal of making it more appealing to general LDS membership, along the lines of the successful Songs of Zion and Deseret Sunday School Songs hymnals. They selected hymns to eliminate on the basis of being rarely sung, doctrinally unsound, or simply poor quality. Initially, they proposing to eliminate eight-five works and to change the music for a similar number of hymns. This music committee held contests for hymn writing to increase the number of hymns available. These contests were most often won by Evan Stephens, though the emerging composer Leroy Robertson also had a strong showing. The process of revision took years, and much like the revisions to the Articles of Confederation resulted in an entirely new work (the Constitution of the United States), the revisions of the Psalmody resulted in an entirely new hymnbook called the Latter-day Saint Hymns.

This new hymnbook, often called “the green hymnbook,” had 421 settings of hymns, 84 of which were written by Evan Stephens and 63 of which were by George Careless. The style of music was more upbeat and cheerful than the Psalmody had been. Despite his criticism of gospel hymns as cheese cloth music, Evan Stephen’s works were often reminiscent of the bouncy style associated with the very hymns he criticized. Although not included in that particular hymnbook, his hymn “Let Us All Press On” is a well-known song that exemplifies the gospel song style. This, he declared, was necessary to showcase the Mormon gospel in music, with its spirit of “optimism and not pessimism … [or] gloomy solemnity.”[3] Shifts in doctrinal focus resulted in shifts in the focus of hymns as well. Millennialism and communitarianism were largely absent, with a greater emphasis on personal spiritual experiences taking their place. Overall, the new hymnbook was more modern than its predecessors and, according to B.H. Roberts, had transcended both the “solemn grandeur of Vatican…music” and the “hysterical thinness” of revivalism.[4]

 

Digital Versions:

Songs of Zion

Latter-day Saint Hymns has not entered public domain yet and is not available in digital form online.

 

Examples of Hymns:

 

lower-lights-1912.jpg

“Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” is a popular Protestant hymn that was included in LDS hymnbooks for the first time in the 1912 edition of the Songs of Zion (shown here) and was subsequently incorporated into the Latter-day Saints Hymns.

Ample ArmAmple Arm 2

“Lean On My Ample Arm” is one of the more subdued and beautiful pieces written by Evan Stephens that is still in the current hymnbook. A recording of a performance in a recent general conference is available here.

 

Pilgrim Stranger

“I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger” was one of the earliest hymns written by Leroy Robertson (one of Mormonism’s greatest classical composers) to be included in an official hymnbook of the Church. It is still included in the current hymnbook, though it is sung relatively rarely.

 

References:

[1] Conference Report, April 1931, 132, and “Sing Only What We Believe,” Improvement Era, July 1912, 786-787.

[2] See Hicks, Mormonism and Music, 129-130.

[3] Evan Stephens, “Songs and Music of the Latter-day Saints,” IE 17 (June 1914): 760, 765, 767.

[4] B.H. Roberts, Comprehensive History, 6:245.

1 comment for “The History of LDS Hymnbooks, Part 6: The Latter-day Saint Hymns

  1. Bruce
    July 3, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    This was the hymnal my mother was raised on, and she raised us on both this one and the 1950 hymnal. I still remember enjoying the arrangements in the 1927 book, and my mother, a concert-level pianist, could play them beautifully.

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