“As we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ”

Of all the Christmas carols in the English hymnbook, the one with the longest association with the Church’s hymnals is “Joy to the World.”[1]  It’s probably fitting, then, that the “Come, Follow Me” materials for this week reference it.  The reading material for the week is the document “The Living Christ,” published by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve on 1 January 2000, “as we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ two millennia ago.”  The document covers the mission of Jesus Christ before, during, and after his mortal life.  In one section, it states that: “We testify that He will someday return to earth. ‘And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’ (Isaiah 40:5). He will rule as King of Kings and reign as Lord of Lords, and every knee shall bend and every tongue shall speak in worship before Him.”[2]  Asides from some nice references to the Biblical texts behind George Frideric Handel and Charles Jennens’s Messiah (which President Gordon B. Hinckley was fond of quoting), this paragraph is brought up in the “Come, Follow Me” manual because it addresses the Second Coming of Jesus Christ: “Christmas is a time both to look back on the day Jesus Christ was born and to look forward to the day He will come again. … It might … be interesting to read, sing, or listen to Christmas hymns that teach about the Second Coming, such as ‘Joy to the World’ or ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear.’”[3]

As indicated in the manual, the focus of “Joy to the World” is as much on the second advent of Jesus the Christ as it is on the first.  And it was primarily for that reason it was included in the original Latter-day Saint hymnbook in 1835.  The initial confirmation that music was to be used in worship services at all came in an 1830 revelation, directed at Emma Smith.  It declared that: “It shall be given thee also to make a selection of Sacred Hymns as it shall be given thee which is pleasing unto me to be had in my Church for my Soul delighteth in the song of the heart yea the song of the heart righteous is a prayer unto me.”[4]  Most frequently, we as church members look at this instruction with the knowledge that Emma was involved in compiling the original, 1835, hymnbook of the Church.  Indeed, by 1835, that was how Church leaders interpreted the revelation when they “decided that Sister Emma Smith [should] proceed … to make a selection of sacred hymns, according to the Revelation, and that President W[illiam] W. Phelps be appointed to revise and arrange them for printing.”[5]  Interestingly, though, this revelation did not specifically indicate that new, uniquely Mormon hymns needed to be sung, only that Emma was given authority to indicate which hymns were proper to be sung in the Church of Christ, akin to the music leader in wards today who select hymns for sacrament meetings.

The process of producing unique Mormon hymns was initiated by William Wines Phelps, an eccentric editor of a political newspaper who converted to the Church in 1831.  In 1832, a Church council ordered “that the Hymns selected by sister Emma be corrected by br. William W. Phelps.”[6] These corrections were doctrinal edits to Protestant hymns, some of which were extensive enough to render the hymns virtually a different text altogether.[7] They were published in the church’s newspaper, The Evening and Morning Star. By early 1833, Phelps moved on to composing and publishing original hymns for use in the Church. Finally, in 1835, the First Presidency of the Church directed that “a selection of sacred hymns” was to be prepared for printing through a joint effort on the part of Emma Smith and William Phelps.[8]

The overriding philosophy presented in the preface of the hymnbook they compiled was to collect hymns that were “adapted to their faith and belief in the gospel.” Of special importance were the topics of “glorious resurrection” and the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ (a major focus for Church members at the time).[9]  About half of the hymns used in the 1835 hymnal were adopted directly from Protestant Christian sources, while the rest were written by Mormons, including Phelps’s “corrected” and original hymns.  “Joy to the World” is among the “corrected” hymns, with the text edited to focus more fully on the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ.  A comparison of the text published in the 1835 hymnbook with the current hymnbook in the Church and a standard Protestant text based on Isaac Watt’s version is as follows:

Protestant Text 1835 Text 1985 Text
Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Joy to the world! The Lord will come! Joy to the world, the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King; And earth receive her King; Let earth receive her King!
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room, Let ev’ry heart prepare him room, Let ev’ry heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing. And saints and angels sing. And Saints and angels sing.
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns; Rejoice! rejoice! When Jesus reigns, Rejoice! Rejoice when Jesus reigns,
Let men their songs employ; And saints their songs employ: And Saints their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, No more will sin and sorrow grow, No more will sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground; Nor thorns infest the ground; Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow He’ll come and make the blessing flow He’ll come and make the blessings flow
Far as the curse is found. Far as the curse was found. Far as the curse was found.
He rules the world with truth and grace, Rejoice! rejoice! In the Most High, Rejoice! Rejoice in the Most High,
And makes the nations prove While Israel spread abroad While Israel spreads abroad
The glories of His righteousness, Like stars that glitter in the sky, Like stars that glitter in the sky,
And wonders of His love. And ever worship God.[10] And ever worship God.

 

Phelps’s version has changes made to every verse, but most especially the fourth verse.  In general, it’s changed to focus on anticipating future events rather than a reflection on current events at the time of Jesus’s birth.  The current edition in the hymnbook is most like the Phelps edition, with the first line reverted to the traditional text.  Among the hymns published in the 1835 hymnal, the only other Christmas song included was “Mortals, awake! With angels join,”[11] which was most recently included in the 1927 Latter-day Saint Hymns.

It’s unclear what tune the early Latter-day Saints would have sung “Joy to the World” to.  The earliest hymnbooks only used text and did not include music.  The ANTIOCH tune (written by Lowell Mason and attributed to George F. Handel) was arranged and published in its current form in 1836, thus post-dating the publication of the 1835 Latter-day Saint hymnbook.  (As an aside, it’s unclear how Handel was involved in composing the music, since there isn’t the full tune available in any of his known manuscripts, though it’s possible Mason took phrases from two pieces from Handel’s Messiah: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” for the opening phrase and “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” for the chorus.)[12]  Even after music was added to the Church’s hymnbooks, the ANTIOCH tune only began to be used in the 1927 Latter-day Saint Hymns (the older green hymnbook).  The first Latter-day Saint hymnal published by the Church with music was the 1889 Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody.  Work on that hymnal began when, in the 1880s, a committee of five notable musicians—George Careless, Ebenezer Beesley, Joseph J. Daynes, Evan Stephens, and Thomas C. Griggs—received approval to compile an official tune book to accompany the current text-only hymnal of the Church.  They used both hymn tunes that were “original music” *which were mostly “the production of ‘our mountain home’ composers”), and “a number of old and familiar tunes.”[13] The committee contributed the lion’s share of hymn tunes used, providing 180 of the 330 hymn tunes presented, including “Joy to the World.”

Among the original music contributions was a new hymn tune for “Joy to the World” by Thomas C. Griggs (the composer of “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain” and “God is Love”) that was named MAGGIE.[14]  The MAGGIE tune provides a striking contrast from the stately ANTIOCH tune that is almost universally associated with “Joy to the World” today.  Set in a rollicking 6/8 time, it almost sounds as though it could belong in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.  While I’m grateful we use the ANTIOCH tune in our hymnbook today, MAGGIE is fun in its own right (see sheet music and .mp3 file below).

Maggie Joy to the World

 

Most of the Christmas hymns we have in our hymnbook were added in the 20th century, with the bulk of them entering our hymnals with the 1948 Hymns.  While a few other Christmas and Advent hymns were included in Latter-day Saint hymnbooks early on, most of those have not persisted to the present day.  The major exception is “Joy to the World,” which has remained in our hymnbook from the start in 1835 to the present day.  And that is fitting, since “we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ” at Christmas, who “is the light, the life, and the hope of the world. His way is the path that leads to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come.”[15]

*****

*Lloyd Newel voiceover*  Thank you for joining us for this blog post.  This concludes the weekly series focusing on the 2021 “Come, Follow Me” manual.

In all seriousness, though, thank you for reading.  It’s been an interesting year to ponder on and write about the Doctrine and Covenants.  I’m not quite done talking about the Doctrine and Covenants yet, though, and will come back to it soon.  Once that’s done, I’ll compile a Table of Contents for the blog posts in this series in case it’s useful to anyone.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See Chad Nielsen, “Sing a Christmas Carol: Christmas Music in the Latter-day Saint Hymnbooks,” Times and Seasons December 23, 2018, https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2018/12/sing-a-christmas-carol-christmas-music-in-the-latter-day-saint-hymnbooks/.

[2] “The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/the-living-christ-the-testimony-of-the-apostles/the-living-christ-the-testimony-of-the-apostles?lang=eng.

[3] Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Doctrine and Covenants 2021 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020), 219, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/come-follow-me-for-individuals-and-families-doctrine-and-covenants-2021/52?lang=eng.

[4] “Revelation, July 1830–C [D&C 25],” p. 35, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-july-1830-c-dc-25/2

[5] “History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838],” p. 612, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 7, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-b-1-1-september-1834-2-november-1838/66

[6] “Minutes, 30 April 1832,” p. 26, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minutes-30-april-1832/2

[7] See Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music: A History (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 12-14.

[8] “History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838],” p. 612, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-b-1-1-september-1834-2-november-1838/66

[9] “Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835,” pp. [iii-iv], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 21, 2017, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/collection-of-sacred-hymns-1835/5

[10] “Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835,” p. 21, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 20, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/collection-of-sacred-hymns-1835/23

[11] “Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835,” p. 103, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 21, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/collection-of-sacred-hymns-1835/105.

[12] See Karen Lynn Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 213-214.

[13] The Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1889), “Compilers’ Preface.”

[14] The Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody, No. 137, https://archive.org/details/latterdaysaintsp00unse/page/n109/mode/2up?view=theater

[15] “The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/the-living-christ-the-testimony-of-the-apostles/the-living-christ-the-testimony-of-the-apostles?lang=eng.

13 comments for ““As we commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ”

  1. I know this isn’t the focus of your post, but I am struck by the fact that the Lord gave a commandment to Emma Smith, and within 2 years the leadership of the church changed the Lord’s instructions to give her responsibility to a man.

  2. Thanks David!

    And PWS, it is indeed interesting that it went that way. The next hymnal was even worse in that regard–the Quorum of the Twelve just ignored the command to Emma, even though she was actively working on a new hymnal, and made their own that they would continue to use into the early 20th century rather than the one Emma worked on in Nauvoo in the early 1840s.

  3. The initial revelation was given to Emma in 1830–a decade earlier. I don’t think we have to assume that that assignment was meant to last for the rest of her life.

  4. The First Presidency at that time believed that it did. Brigham Young even expressed concerns that they had done wrong by not involving Emma at one point.

  5. Ultimately, I think they decided it was just easier for the Quorum of the Twelve to take care of it. They did it while they were in England as a group, so there was a fair amount of distance between them and Emma and they felt like the Saints were in need of materials to use sooner rather than later. They were also better equipped to print books in Manchester than in Nauvoo. So, it makes sense from a convenience standpoint, but also sad that they didn’t really try to have Emma involved more in the decision making process or to at least consult her more before leaving Nauvoo. The First Presidency told them to just reprint the 1835 hymnbook while they worked on a new one in Nauvoo, but they either didn’t get the letter in time or decided it was better to get a new hymnal going anyway.

  6. Thanks for the response. Yeah–it seems like logistics played a big part in the disconnect there.

    I did a little reading on the subject last night–and find it interesting that the church would end up going with Twelve’s hymnal after the martyrdom. Of course, you know a lot more about these things than I do–but it seems like one of the big reasons for doing so was the difference in doctrinal focus between the two.

  7. Yeah, there were different focuses between the two hymnals and the Manchester one was more in line with the Twelve. It also didn’t hurt its odds that the people then leading the Church made that hymnal while the Nauvoo one was compiled by a person at odds with the Church.

    The Reorganization, by contrast, stuck with Emma’s for similar reasons (more in line with their doctrinal focus and they had Smith family leadership). They also had her continue to oversee their hymnbooks through the rest of her life.

  8. In June, about a decade ago, my bishop asked me if I would give a talk on Jesus in sacrament meeting. “Of course”, I said. Then I asked him if I could make a suggestion for the intermediate hymn. He nodded. “Can we sing “Joy To The World” I asked? I watched his facial expression and could tell he was silently going over the lyrics. With the biggest grin I have ever seen on him, he then replied “absolutely”.

    p.s. no bullfrogs were mentioned anywhere in my talk.

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