Your apocalyptic hymnbook

Hymns are useful evidence of religious practice. Hymns are a basic element of personal devotion, but at the same time the compilation of the hymnbook is carefully monitored by church leaders and the performance of hymns is modeled during the sessions of General Conference and other broadcasts, so hymns lie somewhere between high theology and lived religion. Our hymnbook provides an insight not quite like any other source on what Latter-day Saints believe.

And the hymns of the church are strongly apocalyptic. Keep in mind, however, that “apocalyptic” does not simply mean the belief that the world is ending tomorrow. There is also no agreement about some benign “eschatology” to contrast with sinister “apocalypticism”; as far as scholarship goes, it’s all just one form or another of apocalypticism (much as the proper term for someone who believes that God brought the universe into its present form through the Big Bang and natural selection is “creationist”).

A hymn can be apocalyptic in a number of ways:

  • It can of course make specific reference to the Second Coming, as does “The Spirit of God” (2): “And Ephraim be crowned with his blessing in Zion, As Jesus descends with his chariot of fire.”
  • A hymn can also refer to other events that are generally understood to be part of the Latter-day Saint version of the Christian end-time drama, such as a finite succession of dispensations or the preaching of the gospel to the whole world. This context gives “Hark, All Ye Nations!” (264) and many other missionary-themed hymns an apocalyptic element (“Chosen by God to serve him below, To every land and people we’ll go”).
  • A hymn also counts as apocalyptic if it refers to divine rule, Christ’s return, or the final judgment as things that will be experienced on earth and in history, rather than being deferred to a postmortal heavenly existence. A good example is “High on the Mountain Top” (5), which doesn’t describe the world’s end, but instead the intrusion of God into history: God remembers his ancient promises, unfurls truth’s standard on Zion’s hill for all the world to see, fills his house there with his glory, and extends his law over the entire earth.

With that in mind, what portion of our current hymnbook is in some sense apocalyptic? By my count, around 40% (138 out of 341 hymns, including choral arrangements) have at least one apocalyptic allusion. The hymns with apocalyptic notes include sacrament hymns (“Jesus, Once of Humble Birth” [196], with the line “Now he comes on earth to reign”) and Christmas carols (“Joy to the World” [201], with the line “He’ll come and make the blessings flow”).

There are of course edge cases, and people can reasonably disagree with how I decided whether some passage or another counted as apocalyptic. Is every reference to “latter days” necessarily apocalyptic? (Yes, I would argue, it is, because the “latter days” are embedded in a framework of salvation history that knows only three events, the Creation, the Crucifixion, and the Second Coming, and if you situate yourself later than the meridian of time, your only option is to anchor events somewhere along the final approach toward the Last Days. In our other religious framework for measuring cosmological times, the succession of dispensations, “latter days” still lands you at the end of the story.)

However loose or strict the criteria, apocalyptic hymns are unquestionably common and include many of the most popular and frequently sung hymns. With a hymnbook revision underway, will apocalyptic texts become less common? Considering that three of the topics where the church is particularly interested in new music are the Restoration of the Gospel, the Gathering of Israel, and the Second Coming, the answer is: These are unlikely to be the last days of apocalypticism in our hymnbook.

9 comments for “Your apocalyptic hymnbook

  1. Deseret Defender
    June 12, 2019 at 11:58 am

    “These are unlikely to be the last days of apocalypticism in our hymnbook.”

    I hope you’re right. Meditating on the second coming and the Lord’s millennial reign over the Earth as King brings me peace.

  2. Kevin Barney
    June 12, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    You mention Joy to the World, which is a good illustration of this millenializing tendency you speak of. I wrote a post about that here:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2009/12/06/saints-and-angels-sing/

  3. Ivan Wolfe
    June 12, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    I think “Joy to the World” fits, though everyone considers it a Christmas hymn. It never references the birth of the Savior, and instead every verse seems to refer more to the second coming of Jesus than his mortal ministry (thorns still infest the ground, after all).

  4. Ivan Wolfe
    June 12, 2019 at 7:33 pm

    Comment submitted early, oops.

    Anyway, in response to Kevin Barney, I think even without the Phelps changes, it’s still a very millennial hymn, even in the original. Phelps didn’t so much turn it into a millennial hymn as make the millennial-ism even more explicit (as I mentioned above, thorns still infest the ground).

  5. Mars
    June 13, 2019 at 2:46 am

    I’d love to hear Joy To The World arranged to the tune of Let Zion In Her Beauty Rise, just to hammer in the millennialism.

  6. Chad Nielsen
    June 13, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing Johnathan. While we’ve tempered our zeal about proclaiming an imminent end compared to Latter-day Saints in the 19th century, this post does drive home how much apocalypticism is still a part of our religion.

    I’d also say that President Nelson seems to have a strongly apocalyptic worldview, with his talk about my generation being “true Millennials” by preparing the world for the Second Coming and his recently plea to those who have left return to the Church because “time is running out” being a couple of big examples that come to mind. With him at the helm during the process of compiling the new hymnbook, it’s very likely that there will be a lot of apocalypticism in it.

    I think the strangest apocalyptic hymn to make it into the current hymnbook is “Sons of Michael, He Approaches”, with its slightly tempered Adam-God doctrine and focus on Adam’s role in the Adam-ondi-Ahmen meeting. They even gave it new music for the 1985 hymnal, perhaps hoping it would be sung more often. Wolford’s tune is catchy enough, but I don’t know that I’d be too comfortable singing the words in a sacrament meeting.

  7. June 14, 2019 at 10:03 pm

    The apocalypse has gotten a bad rap. There are lots of aspects of the apocalypse that I look forward to, like peace on the Earth and Christ reigning. However, I think 19th century Mormonism had a skewed idea of what the apocalypse really was going to be about. I have been going through the hymns as part of my project, and I have been surprised how many hymns reference the idea that Utah is going to be “freedom’s last abode”, that we Ephraimites will be crowned and that the “world is our foe”. That made more sense when the gathering was supposed to take place in Utah, but now we know that we are supposed to gather and establish the stakes on Zion everywhere, not just in Utah. The Church has also been working on building bridges and looking for the good in others. The idea that Utah will fight against everyone at the last days doesn’t really fit with today’s teachings of the Church.

    I suspect the new hymnbook will try to remove some of these older ideas of the apocalypse and focus on more doctrinally sound aspects of the apocalypse.

  8. Clark Goble
    June 18, 2019 at 10:52 pm

    I understand why some don’t like doctrines of the apocalypse or focus on them. Heaven knows some fringe members take them and do very strange and often self-destructive things with them. (Like leave civilization, head out into the wilderness and become a survivalist regardless of what this does to ones kids as some in Idaho have done) Others often see apocalyptic mentions as too akin to military metaphors in song. They think that is at odds with the gospel of peace (although of course the scriptures do make heavy use of such imagery).

    So I get it. Yet I think these concerns are typically misplaced. Ignoring the theological role the apocalypse, however vague the revelations are, plays in our thought there is I think ample evidence for a psychological need in broad conceptions of religion. While one should always be cautious with evolutionary psychologists’ “just so” stories about religion, I do find their overall discussions of religion quite helpful. Further many elements of apocalyptic thinking, such as the insignificance of humanity, one can find across religions and even within atheism. (The popularity of dystopian literature and even outright apocalyptic stories within a secular framework has been common for some time – Mad Max being but one example)

    Even if one is concerned with aspects of this broad inclination and psychological need for apocalypse, particularly during times of stress, one should also attempt to understand the need. Perhaps we’d find that these aspects of religious hymn fulfill a practical need.

  9. E.C.
    June 19, 2019 at 11:40 pm

    The church recently released guidelines for hymnbook submissions, with a list of doctrinal points of emphasis. Three of those points:
    “Gospel Learning and Revelation—We can seek spiritual knowledge and receive personal revelation for our lives.
    ? We can receive answers to gospel questions through the Holy Ghost, who will teach us the truth, guide and protect us, and help us live righteously.
    ? We can move forward in faith as we strengthen our own personal testimonies.
    ? Gospel learning is centered in the home through regular individual and family scripture study and prayer.
    ?Temples are holy places of worship and learning where we can receive peace and revelation.

    “The Gathering of Israel—Jesus Christ has invited us to participate in the gathering of Israel on both sides of the veil.”

    and

    “The Second Coming—Jesus Christ will come to the earth again to rule and reign.
    ? Although the last days will be filled with wickedness and difficulty, living the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us strength. As disciples of Jesus Christ we can stand in holy places and need not fear.
    ? We can rejoice in Jesus Christ’s assurance of deliverance: “I shall come in my glory in the clouds of heaven, to fulfil the promises that I have made unto your fathers” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:16).
    ? As we help to build the kingdom of God on the earth, we prepare ourselves and others for Jesus Christ’s return.”

    Clearly, apocalyptic hymns (in every sense of the word) will have a place in the new hymnbook.

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