For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed singing hymns. In high school I sang in the ward and stake choirs. As a missionary I tried to sing at every appointment. In the years since my mission, I have gone nearly every Sunday to a local retirement center to sing to the residents there. As I sing I always like to let my eyes wander to the bottom of the page to see who wrote the song and when. I’ve always found it fascinating that many of the hymns in our hymnbook were not written by Mormons, but rather come from Protestant writers. For me at least, making this realization has always in a way connected me as a Latter-day Saint to the wider Protestant yearning for Christ, a connection that is made in few other ways in church.
For B.H. Roberts, such a connection with the Protestant world was problematic. In his magisterial five volume Seventies’ Course on Theology he instructed his missionaries thus:
And in the selection of hymns and songs, and choruses, appropriateness should be carefully considered. Let the strong, stalwart hymns of the present dispensation be practiced in the quorums, and not the namby, pamby, childish hymns that sometimes find their way into the repertoire of songs sung by our Elders in the mission field. Let us have such hymns as,
“The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
Lo! Zion’s standard is unfurled!
The dawning of a brighter day
Majestic rises on the world.”
A trumpet blast within itself. Such hymns as,
“An angel from on high,
The long, long silence broke,” etc.
“Israel, Israel, God is calling,
Calling thee from lands of woe,” etc.
“If you could hie to Kolob.
In the twinkling of an eye,” etc.
“O say, what is Truth? ‘Tis the fairest gem,” etc.
“Israel, awake from your long silent slumber!
Shake off the fetters that bound thee so long,” etc.
These few indicate a class of our hymns that are peculiarly ours-peculiarly Mormon hymns that are vibrant with the spirit of the latter-day work because it produced them-inspired them, and they are more appropriate, at least for Seventies, for missionaries, than the half sectarian songs many of our youth are learning to cultivate a taste for. Let us learn to sing Mormonism as well as to preach it. Every Elder who can sing at all should carefully select a set of hymns that have the missionary spirit in them and learn to sing them. (B. H. Roberts, Seventy’s Course in Theology, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907-1912; reprint, Orem: Grandin Books, 1994), 1: viii-ix)
Aside from Roberts’ characterization of some songs sung by missionaries as namby, pamby, and childish, I find his advocacy of the hymns of the Restoration, to the exclusion of other types of hymns, to be fascinating. Roberts argues that hymns written by Latter-day Saints “are more appropriate, at least for Seventies, for missionaries, than the half sectarian songs many of our youth are learning to cultivate a taste for.” I assume by “half sectarian” he means hymns written by Protestants. What does Roberts’ preference for the music of the Restoration tell us about his own understandings of LDS identity as opposed to Protestant identity? What does it say about Roberts’ views on the inclusion of Protestant hymns in Mormon hymnbooks, since they aren’t “vibrant with the spirit of the latter-day work”?