Spanish Hymns and the Future Hymnbook

Recently, Walter van Beek wrote an interesting post on this blog about Global Mormonism. Globalization and decentralization are important topics in the Church right now. Even within the past few weeks, the gathering of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in Rome has been portrayed as a hugely symbolic moment for the Church’s broadening its focus beyond Utah and the USA. When the new hymnbook was announced last year, Elder Erich W. Kopischke stated that one goal of the new edition was to “include some of the best hymns and songs originating in other languages that will then be translated into English and the other languages around the world.”[1] So far, the only hymn in the English hymnal to be written by a Latter-day Saint that had translated from another language is the stirring Restoration hymn “Sehet ihr Völker, Licht bricht heran!”, written in German but known in English as “Hark All Ye Nations!” The hymn was included in the English hymnal for the first time in 1985.[2] From there, it has spread around the world. As far as I can tell, the non-English hymn that stands the best chance of making its way into the new hymnal is the Spanish missionary hymn, “Placentero nos es trabajar.”

One thing that must be faced to achieve the goal described by Elder Kopischke is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has historically prioritized the hymns of English-speaking North American and Great Britain. The hymnody of Latter-day Saints was first established in English and has been expected to be the standard by most high-ranking Church officials. When missionaries have worked in places that had a strong tradition of hymns to begin with, the early hymnbooks in other languages were often more diverse than later ones, incorporating popular hymns from the area that weren’t included in the English hymnal as well as new hymns by Latter-day Saints. The general trend in the 20th century, however, has been to make all hymnbooks to conform more closely to the English hymnbook, resulting in a decline in visibility for hymns and songs written by Latter-day Saints in other languages.

This diversity followed by conformity is demonstrated by the Spanish language hymnbooks. Except for one privately published hymnal, the earliest Spanish hymnals were all produced by the Mexico Mission. The three major editions published between 1907 and 1927 were collections of texts, primarily translations from the English hymnals or Protestant hymnbooks. There were several texts unique to these hymnals, however, that were written in Spanish by missionaries, Anglo-American colonists in Mexico, and native Mexican saints. The hymnbook with the highest percentage of original Spanish texts was the 1912 edition, which included 23 hymns written in Spanish by Latter-day Saints.[3] The 1942 Himnos de Sion was the first Spanish Latter-day Saint hymnal to be produced from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and the first to include music. This burgundy-colored hymnbook was a compilation of all the various songbooks used in Utah at the time. The result was an extremely eclectic songbook, ranging from songs about brushing your teeth to full-blown choral anthems. Less than ten of the Latter-day Saints hymns that were written in Spanish were included, and all but two borrowed their tunes from hymns in the English hymnbook.

BX 8685.2 .Sp24h 1912 no. 2 front-cover

The 1912 Himnos de Sion, published by the Mexican mission

The 1992 Spanish translation of the current English hymnbook had even fewer hymns that were originally written in Spanish. Only three out of the twenty-three original Spanish texts published in the 1912 Spanish hymnal were included: “¿Por qué somos?” by Edmund W. Richardson, “Despedida” or “Placentero nos es trabajar” by Andres C. Gonzalez, and “La voz, ya, del eterno” or “¡La Proclamación!” by José V. Estrada G. As a side note, there are also a few hymns included in the 1992 Himnos that carried over from previous English hymnals, but those hymns were all originally written in English (and so are beyond the scope of this post). The number of hymns written in Spanish by Latter-day Saints in official hymnbooks has dramatically decreased from the climax in 1912.

Given that Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints represent a huge portion of the Church and Elder Kopishke’s statement that I cited at the outset, it seems likely that these Spanish hymns will be given priority for the core hymnbook. The hymn known as “Despedida” or “Placentero nos es trabajar” (“How Pleasing It Is to Work”) is the most prominent among them. When I have asked missionaries that served in Spanish-speaking regions if there were any hymns they thought would be included in the new hymnbook, the most common response was something along the lines of: “there was this really neat hymn known as ‘Placentero nos es trabajar.’ I bet they include that one.” The results of an extensive survey performed by Samuel Bradshaw and the folks over at SingPraises.net indicated that “How Pleasing It Is to Work” was the hymn to be sung most often in sacrament meetings that was written by a Latter-day Saint in a language other than English and not included in the English hymnal.[4] The hymn has also been included in other Latter-day Saint hymnbooks, such as the 2012 Q’eqchi’ (Mayan) hymnal. These things, to me, indicate that it is the best-known Spanish hymn of the Restoration.

andres-c-gonzalez-fs

Andrés C. González. Image courtesy history.lds.org

The hymn was written by Andrés C. González during a mission to Mexico City at the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. According to one account, he and his companion thought they would be able to attract more attention by singing a popular Protestant hymn known as “In the Sweet By and By,” but were quickly arrested for “stealing” the Protestants’ song. While in jail, González wrote different lyrics to the tune. When the missionaries were released from prison the next day, they went out and sang “Placentero nos es trabajar” on the street corner. As the police came to arrest them for singing “In the Sweet By and By” again, Elder González exclaimed that: “You can’t take us to jail. It’s not the same song.”[5] The lyrics he wrote that night have been included in every Spanish hymnbooks for Latter-day Saints since 1912 and are still sung to the tune for which he wrote them. Perhaps they will soon be included in the core hymnbook published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in many other languages as well.[6]

Placentero nos es trabajar

[1] “Latter-day Saint hymnbook and children’s songbook revised,” Mormon Newsroom, 18 June 2018, https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/latter-day-saint-hymnbook-and-childrens-songbook-revised

[2] Even in this case, the text is only loosely based on the original, 4-verse hymn in German.

[3] See John-Charles Duffy and Hugo Olaiz, “Correlated Praise: The Development of the Spanish Hymnal,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, 2:89-113.

[4] https://singpraises.net/statistics/sacrament-meeting, accessed 25 March 2019.

[5] Story recorded at Kiersten, “Placentero Nos es Trabajar,” All the Kings men, 19 July 2011, accessed 18 July 2018, http://kierstensdragon.blogspot.com/2011/07/placentero-nos-es-trabajar.html.

[6] See the following sites for English translations of the hymn: https://singpraises.net/text/1009/how-pleasing-it-is-to-work, https://mormonguitartabs.blogspot.com/2009/09/placentero-nos-es-trabajar.html, and http://tomobag.blogspot.com/2014/06/english-translation-for-placentero-nos.html

12 comments for “Spanish Hymns and the Future Hymnbook

  1. Clark Goble
    April 6, 2019 at 12:35 am

    That’s fascinating. I didn’t realize most of the hymns were the same between language/country like that. Makes me wonder if the new hymnal will simply include international hymns in all the hymnals or if there will be more local variation. I’d not even considered that problem.

  2. Chad Nielsen
    April 6, 2019 at 7:10 am

    Thanks for the comment, Clark. The standard for translation right now is that there are about 200 hymns total in the hymnbook, 100 of which are mandated as the core hymns, 50 of which are selected from a list of hymns in the English hymnbook, and then 50 of which may be selected by the committee. So, it’s mandated that 75% of hymns will come from the English hymnal. In reality, however, most hymnbook committees have stuck with 90-100% of the hymns coming from the current English hymnal. When there are differences, it’s usually from popular Protestant or Catholic hymns that aren’t known in English (this seems to be most common in the Nordic and German languages) or hymns from previous English hymnbooks that didn’t make their way into the current English one. A lot of the time, the previous hymnbook (if one existed) was one produced even before the 1948 English hymnal and based on the 1909 Deseret Sunday School Songbook and the 1927 hymnbook, so they carry over older hymns that have continued to be loved by people there but has since been dropped in the English hymnbooks. The Spanish Himnos does have a few of those–“Behold the Lamb of God”, “If the Way Be Full of Trial, Weary Not”, “Unanswered Yet?”, “Beautiful Home”, and maybe one or two others. Still, that means that there are those four or five hymns carried over and the three hymns originally written in Spanish, that leaves you with less than ten hymns in the hymnbook that aren’t included in the current English hymnal. The area that has the greatest variation is the Christmas hymns, which is why I thought it was fun to write about that back in December. It is truly rare for a hymn to be included that was written by a Latter-day Saint in the language of the hymnbooks being produced (other than in English). The four examples mentioned in the post above (one German, three Spanish) are the only examples I’m aware of like that. There might be more, but that’s all that I know of.

    The word on the street is that the new hymnal will be about 200-250 hymns in size and it has been stated that it will be the same for every language. My speculation is that it will essentially be list of 100 mandated hymns and then 100-150 other hymns from the recommended list with just a few chosen from entries in the hymn writing competition and hymns currently only included in translations of the hymnbook. With that being said, however, my guess is that they will make a lot more available to choose from in digital format to meet local needs. If that’s the case, the hymns included in a digital package for use on a regional basis (something they have said will happen, just not to what extent) may be much more extensive than just patriotic hymns.

  3. Clark Goble
    April 6, 2019 at 9:53 am

    That’s interesting. In Canada the only really Canadian thing we had was God Save The Queen and Oh Canada glued in the back.

    What’s too bad is that arguably it’s places like Africa or Latin America that would most benefit from the e-hymnal that could easily accommodate all the localized songs for more variety. Yet those places probably don’t have everyone with a phone or tablet.

  4. Daniel O. McClellan
    April 6, 2019 at 10:14 am

    Thanks for sharing this post, Chad! I’m one of the sacred materials translation supervisors for the Church, and we’re always glad to see international hymns discussed! We’re very excited for the new hymnbook (although it came up after a number of “Selected Hymns” projects were approved, so we’re having to adjust some of those projects in anticipation of new ones). The new approach will have some regional variation, but there won’t be a huge list to choose from and they won’t differ that much. They’re in the process right now of evaluating all existing hymns in all languages using five criteria for inclusion (they’re starting in English and we’re working on a way to facilitate evaluation of the non-English hymns). These same criteria are being applied to all the submissions, and I can tell you the committee wishes we were seeing more non-English submissions. We’ve received over 1,000 such submissions, but they’re hoping for quite a bit more. The submission window is open until June/July, so if you know anyone who has been sitting on some international hymns, by all means, have them submit them.

  5. Gabriel G
    April 6, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Thanks for this interesting post, Chad. Two questions come up in my mind:

    1. Do we know what else Andrés González wrote? I grew up with the burgandy hymnbook, and I think I vaguely recall seeing his name attached to more than one hymn, but I might be wrong.

    2. How about “Oíd el toque del clarín!”? This is one of my all-time favorite hymns, and I can’t find it in the current English hymnbook. Is it perhaps an old English hymnbook that was dropped in the original language but kept in translation?

  6. April 6, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    Gabriel – “Oíd el toque del clarín!” is “Hark! Listen to the Trumpeters” in English. It dates all the way back to 1840 Manchester hymnal, and was also in the 1841 Nauvoo hymnal – with 12 verses! (The verses are combined to form 6 longer verses in later versions.) It was published in the 1909 Deseret Sunday School Songs with the same music that’s in the current Spanish hymnal, but was published in the LDS Psalmody (and also in the 1948 English hymnal) with a somewhat strange tune by George Careless.

    You can see it here:
    https://archive.org/stream/deseretsundaysch1909dese#page/n63/mode/2up

  7. Chad Nielsen
    April 6, 2019 at 1:36 pm

    Paul said what I was just about to say on “Oid el toque del clarin!” That is one I forgot that is in the current Spanish Himnos as well. As far as Andrés González goes, “Placentero nos es trabajar” is the only original text he wrote that has been included in our hymnbooks. There are a number of translations that were credited to his name back in the day, which is probably where you remember seeing his name. “Did You Think to Pray?”, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again”, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”, “Haste to the Sunday School”, “Let Us Treat Each Other Kindly”, “Praise to the man”, “Sweet Sabbath School”, and “We Are Marching On to Glory” were all originally translated into Spanish by him. If you’re interested in the other original Spanish hymns, this paper does have a list of all 23 on the fourth page (p. 92): https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V35N02_103.pdf.

  8. Chad Nielsen
    April 6, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    Thank your for your comment Daniel. It’s always good to hear from people closer to the action than I am. I don’t personally know anyone who is working on any non-English hymns, but if I hear of any, I’ll be sure to do what I can to encourage them. My personal approach to help with that is that I’m working on collecting, translating, and writing new music for a lot of the original Spanish hymns that have appeared in our hymnbooks in the past. I would love to get more details from you on what you said, if you’re willing and able. In particular, what are the five criteria that are being used and what approaches are being considered to allow the (albeit limited) regional variation?

  9. The Other Clark
    April 7, 2019 at 2:31 pm

    I’d love to see Placentero Nos Es Trabajar in English. I served in Mexico, and it was one of my favorites. The tune, by the way, is still only slightly modified form the Protestant “In the Sweet By and By.”

    Also, we should count non-English historical hymns. “A Mighty Fortress I Our God” (German) and “How Great Thou Art” Swedish) are obvious ones, but there are also a fair number of old Latin hymns as well (All Creatures of Out God and King)

  10. Stewart
    April 11, 2019 at 3:40 pm

    I believe Silent Night (German), the First Noel (French), and For the Strength of the Hills (French or Italian, I’m not sure which) were adopted from non-English hymns. Great post though. We live in exciting times.

  11. Daniel O. McClellan
    April 13, 2019 at 8:32 am

    Hi, Chad! I’d be happy to chat at some point offline about this. You can reach me at dmcclellan at churchofjesuschrist.org.

  12. Daniel O. McClellan
    May 9, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    The Church has released some documents related to the new hymnbook:

    https://www.lds.org/bc/content/ldsorg/music/PD60008660_000%20MusicSubmission.pdf?lang=eng

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