?Hymns That Are Peculiarly Ours?: B.H. Roberts on Music

By March 20, 2008

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”?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation From the Archives


  1. I wonder if this was an attempt by Roberts to affirm a distinct Latter-day Saint identity in the immediate post-isolation age of Mormonism, in much the same way that many authors have seen a renewed emphasis on the first vision and the word of wisdom serving a similar function.

    The tension within Mormonism over the use of Protestant hymns goes all the way back to Emma Smith’s initial calling to compile a selection of hymns. Michael Hicks has argued that Emma understood this to simply mean she was supposed to collect her favorite hymns from her Methodist hymnal for the Saints to sing, but when W.W. Phelps was assigned to help her publish this early collection, he took it upon himself to “correct” her Protestant hymns to reflect an emphasis on the restoration (this generally translated into an increased emphasis on Zion and the millennium), and he also proceeded to write a number of new, distinctly LDS hymns.

    Comment by Christopher — March 20, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

  2. I found the following quote, also by Roberts.

    Since it is natural for man to express his highest emotion, perhaps, in music … it would be expected that the highly religious emotions attendant upon the religious events of the church of the New Dispensation, would be to give birth to an hymnology and to music of a somewhat special kind. This it has doubtless done. (Roberts, Comprehensive History 6:244)

    Comment by Christopher — March 20, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  3. Chris, that is an interesting point about Roberts seeking an optimal tension with American society during the period that we normally associate with integration and assimilation. I think you’re right that it should be understood that way.

    Comment by David G. — March 20, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  4. Thanks for posting this David, I have been fascinated by this for awhile now.

    Comment by Jody — March 20, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  5. I have no specifics at hand right now, but I’ve been struck before in my reading of early 20th century newspapers how often solos sung at church and social functions are popular (judging by how often they are sung in a short time) but doctrinally inaccurate (judging by titles).

    In other words, I wonder if BHR’s concern was not necessarily over what we may think of as the doctrinally acceptable Protestant hymns in our hymnbook, but Protestant hymns that were popular for a time but contained unMormon imagery or doctrine.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 20, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  6. I’ve thought about the LDS originated hymns vs those borrowed from other traditions on occasion, and wonder if Roberts was concerned about how those non-LDS hymns would be handled in the future. As a personal note, I have always had a hard time with How Great Thou Art, one of the most widely sung protestant hymns. My biggest issue is that I remember it growing up being sung by such notable moral examples as Elvis Presley, George Jones, and Eddy Arnold. I always identify it in my mind with those popular treatments by secular artists, and have not much cared for it.

    I also see the inclusion in our church repertoire (by choirs and vocalists, even if not in the hymnbook), a lot of popular music that may or may not have appropriate gospel messages, and don’t always like them. Odd for me, a real blues/rock/jazz fan, to take issue with popular music, but it doesn’t always sit right with me. However, a favorite hymn is Be Still my Soul, with music by Sibelius from Finlandia. Certainly not historically LDS, but one whose gospel themes seem right on.

    Roberts may have been concerned about a uniquely LDS set of hymns, but also as Ardis has pointed out, concern over popular music that may have skirted LDS doctrines.

    Comment by kevinf — March 20, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

  7. Not reading too much into it, but Roberts makes a good point about hymns which are unequivocally and unmistakably Mormon in their message, besides bringing with them a degree of artistry and aesthetic appeal. This was apparently an important point from the earliest restoration vis a vis revealed instructions to compile a hymn book.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — March 20, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

  8. Years ago, I worked on an office floor with about 25 people. There were 4RMs, 4S/Baptists, 2 7thDAs. The rest were upset when we ‘talked Bible’. But they were even MORE disturbed, when we broke out in Hymns that were common to us all.

    Comment by Bob — March 20, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

  9. I remember years ago hearing the radio broadcasts of Sunday morning services of some Christian sect starting with “The Morning Breaks.”

    I’ve gone into a Mennonite thrift store in our area and heard “Come, Come Ye Saints” playing. All four verses. Not so very inappropriate if you consider the history of the Mennonite people. Persecutions followed by a migration to the West.

    And it’s certainly no more inappropriate than the Tabernacle Choir singing “The Church’s One Foundation.”

    Comment by Researcher — March 21, 2008 @ 9:00 am

  10. As a curiosity: there’s a bishop in Cambridge, MA, who insists that only “hymns of the Restoration” be sung in his ward’s Sacrament Meetings. I’m not quite sure how he defines this, whether it’s Mormon-authored hymns, or the section labeled “Hymns of the Restoration” in the hymnal, but it’s an interesting notion, and not something I’ve ever seen anyone try to put into practice before.

    One bumps into this problem as well with the (uneven) insistence that music performed by ward choirs should be taken exclusively from the current hymnal–why is “I Stand All Amazed” really any more Mormon than “Old Rugged Cross”? (NOT that I’m agitating to do that one!!) To what extent should we view the selections of the committee that compiled the present hymnal authoritative? I suppose it’s much the same question as what sort of authority one ought to lend any product of Correlation, but it seems to be a case about which people hold more passionate opinions about, say, the seminary workbooks.

    Comment by Kristine — March 21, 2008 @ 9:25 pm

  11. Anyone wish to help me on “An angel from on high, the long, long silence broke”. I once heard Pratt wrote this before he learn of the ‘First Vision’?

    Comment by Bob — March 21, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  12. We recently had an awesome fireside where they sang gospel spirituals. It was very moving. I live in Detroit and we are blessed with a multicultural stake. I love it. It brings a good flavor to the ward. I wish more wards could have our experience. I think it would make for more interesting sacrament meetings. There is just so much out there that I think we as members can explore with other members from other cultures. I wish we could expand the hymns a little more. The church just represents more now than just your basic North American White Person.

    Comment by Katie — March 22, 2008 @ 9:06 am

  13. yes yes! The namby-pamby quote! This was seriously one of my favorite memories from our seminar! Umm…and I promise I’ll post soon…and I’m back from my non-Mormonish Lenten Fast…and I’m engaged. Yay.

    Comment by Heidi — March 22, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

  14. Haha, I’m glad you have such a good memory of the namby-pamby quote. I’m also looking forward to a new post!

    Oh, and congrats on the successful contract negotiations.

    Comment by David G. — March 22, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  15. I associate “How Great Thou Art” with George Beverly Shea, Billy Graham’s baritone sidekick.

    Did Roberts not include “Come, Come, Ye Saints” on his list?

    Comment by John Turner — March 24, 2008 @ 8:42 am

  16. #11 Bob–An Angel from on High was written sometime before 1840. Since it deals with the ministry of Moroni and the restoration of the gospel, it doesn’t refer to the First Vision and I can’t imagine that it would change the song one way or the other to know whether PPP knew of the First Vision before or after he wrote the song. Maybe I’m missing something?

    Comment by Researcher — March 25, 2008 @ 8:36 am

  17. #16: I believe it was first a poem in about 1830 (?), than a song. The idea is (not mine), was that Pratt believed the “long, long silence (of the ages), was broken by Moroni’s visit, not a first Vision in 1820.

    Comment by Bob — March 25, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  18. Bob, that’s a fairly common notion in early Mormonism. Moroni’s visit and the Book of Mormon were emphasized much more than the vision.

    Regarding “An Angel from on High”: According to Michael Hicks, Pratt penned the hymn in 1840 in England for the European printing of the new LDS hymnbook. It’s actually an adaptation of a Protestant hymn (Mormonism and Music: A History, 26).

    Comment by Christopher — March 25, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  19. #18: Thank you. I am just trying to get my notes straight. I have it as a poem in 1830, then a hymn in 1840. I have first mention of the First Vision in 1832(?).

    Comment by Bob — March 25, 2008 @ 4:32 pm


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