“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” Throughout the Restoration

I remember seeing a survey several years ago that claimed that the two most popular hymns among Latter-day Saints were “I Stand All Amazed” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”. I have not been able to find that survey online in recent years, but the latter hymn would be an interesting case, since it is not included in the current English hymnbook published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am pondering on hymns that may find their way into the new hymnbook, however, and there seems to be a lot of interest in the hymn and requests for its return. This made me wonder—what is the history of this hymn in our hymnbooks? Why is it not in the current English one? What is the status of the hymn in other Latter-day Saint hymnbooks?

The hymn was written by Robert Robinson and was first published in the United States of America in 1759. It is uncertain what tunes it was sung to originally, but the hymn tunes NETTLETON and NORMANDY became standard in the USA and the UK, respectively. For Latter-day Saints, the hymn text was first included in A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, published in Nauvoo during 1841 as an updated edition of Emma Smith’s 1835 Kirtland hymnbook. The hymnbook competed with a different one published by the Quorum of the Twelve in Manchester, England, however, and after Joseph Smith’s death and the schisms that followed, the Manchester hymnbook became standard for the Church in Utah rather than Emma’s Nauvoo hymnal.

Come, Thou Fount 1841

“Come, Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing” in Emma’s Nauvoo hymnal

Since then, “Come, Thou Fount” has slipped into and out of our hymnody. It was never included in the Manchester hymnbooks, so it remained absent from Latter-day Saint hymnody through the remainder of the nineteenth century. It resurfaced in the extremely popular Deseret Sunday School Songs in 1909 with a stately tune written by Alfred J. Gentry. The Deseret Sunday School Songs served alongside the official hymnbooks in the Church for nearly 40 years, but both were superseded in 1948 by a new hymnbook. “Come, Thou Fount” was included in the new hymnal, but this time with the tune NEDDLETON. The 1950 revision of this hymnbook served the Church until 1985, when it was replaced with the current hymnbook.

deseretsundaysch09dese_0230

“Come, Thou Fount” with the Alfred J. Gentry music in the 1909 Deseret Sunday School songbook

“Come, Thou Fount” was not included in the 1985 hymnbook, officially because it wasn’t popular at the time. Committee members have stated that they believed it was rarely sung and would likely not be remembered if it were dropped out of the hymnbook.[1] The hymn’s Protestant background and focus on grace may have also contributed to its demise. During the preliminary work that led up to the current hymnal, one committee member expressed that their goal was to include more songs that that would “proclaim the revealed truth in this day and time,” meaning “less ‘Protestant-type’ hymns.”[2] This may explain why several obscure and rarely-sung (but uniquely ‘Mormon’) hymns like “Sons of Michael, He Approaches” and “Up, Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion” made the cut, while the better-known (but Protestant) “Come, Thou Fount” did not. Whatever the case, the hymn was not included, but thanks to the efforts of one composer, was certainly remembered.

An arrangement of the hymn by Mack Wilberg provided the means for bolstering the hymn’s status. Premiering at the “Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns” televised concert in 1994, his arrangement quickly became extremely popular.[3] Performances of the arrangement by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir also served to provide renewed legitimacy to the hymn in the Church. Since then, “Come, Thou Fount” has become one of the few hymns not included in the current English hymnal to be sung somewhat regularly in both sacrament meetings and general conference.[4] Some congregations have even gone as far as pasting the hymn into the inside cover of the hymnbook for regular use.[5] Usually, “Come, Thou Fount” makes a strong showing as the most-requested hymn to add to the hymnbook, such as one decent-sized Facebook survey in which nearly 14% of respondents requested the hymn.[6] Wilberg’s arrangement was important in increasing the popularity of “Come, Thou Fount” among Church members.

Tabernacle Choir Come, Thou Fount

The Tabernacle Choir performing Wilberg’s arrangement of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

Strictly speaking, however, the hymn actually has been added to Latter-day Saint hymnbooks—just not the English one. It first reappeared in the 1996 German hymnbook, which was published just two years after Wilberg’s arrangement premiered. Since then, it has been appearing more and more frequently in translations. Currently, eight different language editions of Hymns include “Come, Thou Fount”, including several published during the last few years. This means that nearly one fourth of the current hymnals published by the Church of Jesus Christ contain the hymn. As an interesting side note, the number of verses has not been standardized in these hymnals. For example, the German and Ukrainian hymnbooks have two, the Q’eqchi’ has three, and the Magyar (Hungarian) has four. Whatever the case, “Come, Thou Fount” is showing an increasing momentum in being included in Latter-day Saint hymnals.

Mayan Come, Thou Fount

Q’eqchi’ translation of “Come, Thou Fount”

So, in brief, the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” has come and gone from Latter-day Saint hymnody. Only three Anglophone hymnals and songbooks have included the hymn, none of which have included the same tune (if they included one at all). Since Mack Wilberg’s arrangement premiered in 1994, however, it has become very popular in Latter-day Saint culture and has appeared with increasing frequency in translations of the hymnbook published for use around the world. Only time will tell, however, whether it will be included in the forthcoming core hymnbook.

 

[1] See Catherine Reese Newton, “Sing, sing, ye Saints—Mormon hymnbook marks 30 years of praising God in song,” Salt Lake Tribune, 2 October 2015, accessed 5 March 2019, https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=6863967&itype=storyID.

[2] O. Leslie Stone to First Presidency, 4 January 1974, CMD Correspondence, 1967-77.

[3] Catherine Reese Newton, “After 32 years with the same hymns, many Mormons are wishing for different songs to sing,” Salt Lake Tribune, 25 September 2017, accessed 4 March 2019, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2017/09/25/after-32-years-with-the-same-hymns-many-mormons-are-wishing-for-different-songs-to-sing/.

[4] http://singpraises.net/statistics/sacrament-meeting

[5] See Newton, “After 35 Years”.

[6] Catherine Reese Newton, “After 32 years with the same hymns, many Mormons are wishing for different songs to sing,” Salt Lake Tribune, 25 September 2017, accessed 4 March 2019, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2017/09/25/after-32-years-with-the-same-hymns-many-mormons-are-wishing-for-different-songs-to-sing/.

8 comments for ““Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” Throughout the Restoration

  1. rcf
    March 22, 2019 at 1:13 am

    Thanks for the discussion of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I can’t imagine it will be left out of the next hymnal. It was a personal favorite in the old Hymns, and ever since. Trivia: Alfred J. Gentry (b. 1867) was a British composer and arranger of religious music, active in the first few decades or so of the twentieth-century in England. He composed music for a number of hymns, including “Abide With Me,” “God of Our Fathers,” and others. None seem to be connected with the Restoration, and there is no evidence I can see that he was a Latter-day Saint.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    March 22, 2019 at 6:00 am

    Thank you, rcf. I fixed the comment on Alfred Gentry in the post. I guess I assumed that since the piece was dedicated to a Latter-day Saint in Salt Lake City in the songbook, that the dedication was done by the composer and not the songbook committee, as would seem to be the case.

  3. Anna
    March 22, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    I would like to take issue with the idea that it was not very popular before it was taken out of the hymn book. It was very popular and there was a lot of griping, whining, and murmuring against the lord’s song book committee when it disappeared from the new songbook. Mack Wilberg’s arrangement did not MAKE people like it, so much as reminded them that if the MoTab could sing it, it really ought to still be in our hymn book. Rumors at the time it was taken out were that it was somehow against doctrine, but hey, if the MoTab (now the choir at temple square) can sing it, it must not be a serious doctrinal issue.

  4. March 22, 2019 at 11:03 pm

    I’ve kind of wondered about that, Anna. To be honest, I’m too young to personally know a time before the current hymnbook, so I value hearing that point of view and I may make a couple small adjustments in the post above. The perspective that committee members have shared, though, is that they thought it wasn’t sung much, which is why I pointed that out as the official version of what happened. It is always possible that the particular group on the committee were all in wards that rarely sung the hymn and so assumed that was the case elsewhere. Personally, I have always thought there were other hymns that should have been cut before “Come, Thou Fount” for that concern (“The Wintry Day” and the couple I mentioned in the post as a few examples). Because of that, I do find it likely that there were other contributing factors. The Evangelical Christian interpretation of being saved by grace is one possible concern with sealing up their heart, etc. I’ve also heard that the “prone to wander” part may have also been a concern, since it can be taken to play up the idea of human depravity. The ideas are scriptural though, and can be reconciled with our perspective on the gospel. Whatever the case, I would love to hear an in-depth perspective from committee members sometime on the issue.

  5. Lisa
    March 23, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    I will always associate Wilberg’s arrangement with the BYU Choirs, not MoTab. I was at BYU as a music major at the time of the original recording, and three of my roommates were involved in it, one in the choir and two in the orchestra. It was popular among general church membership before Wilberg ever moved to the Tabernacle. At our bishop’s insistence, we sang it in our ward choir ca. 1999, just about the time that Wilberg left BYU. (We did not sing it *well*, mind you… but we tried.) Same thing with Wilberg’s setting of Redeemer of Israel that the Tab Choir often sings in conference. That arrangement was also written for the BYU choirs and premiered in April 1989 general conference, Saturday session, where the BYU choirs sang it. This was the same conference where Jeffrey R. Holland became a general authority, which would mean his stepping down as president of BYU. I was in the choir at that time, and that hymn has always been a favorite of mine because of that experience.

  6. RLD
    March 25, 2019 at 9:49 am

    I remember laughing along as a teen when my YM president (a fellow musician) described Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing as the first entry in a collection called “Favorite Mormon Dirges.” This was shortly after the 1985 hymnbook came out, and he clearly did not mind it not being included.

    I was in the choir for the premier of Mack Wilberg’s arrangement, and it completely changed my mind about the hymn. I’ve since conducted that arrangement a couple of times in stake conferences. It’s actually not very hard IF you have enough solid sight-readers to cover eight parts, at least one high soprano, and a good organist. (So yeah, a stretch for most ward choirs.) Let’s just say it’s always well-received.

    As for doctrinal concerns with the text, yes, there was a time when faithful latter-day saints used to say we didn’t believe in being saved by grace, because we were so focused on distinguishing ourselves from the evangelicals of the day. (Not that there aren’t plenty of things that do distinguish us from evangelicals.) I’m glad we’re past that. I give a lot of credit to Stephen Robinson, in particular his book Believing Christ, and others who made similar contributions, but suspect the real driver of the change was President Benson’s push for members to study the Book of Mormon.

  7. Ivan Wolfe
    March 25, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    I have to admit, I love the hymn, but Mack Wilberg’s arrangement leaves me cold (In fact, it seems to me contrary to the spirit of the hymn). But many, many people love that arrangement, and if that’s what it took to get the hymn on our collective radar again, I’ll take it.

  8. Bruce Forbes
    March 27, 2019 at 6:58 pm

    I must join my voice with Anna’s above. There might be places in the world where this hymn wasn’t popular, but every place I’ve lived it was popular. Two wards I’ve lived in since the current hymnal was released photocopied it from the previous book and pasted in the back of the current hymnal. A good number of years ago (I think about 2003; not sure), at one of the annual concerts for songs selected in the Annual Church Music Submissions, a member of the Music & Arts Committee told us that literally every day since the current hymnal was released they’ve received at least one letter asking why they left this hymn out and asking that it be in the next hymnal. The person admitted that omitting it was the number one mistake made in creating the current hymnal and then half laughed and said “I think it’ll be in the next book.” I hope so.

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