Are all the ‘hymns’ in our hymnbook really hymns?
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“Are all the ‘hymns’ in our hymnbook really hymns?” Ensign, Oct. 1980, 35

Are all the “hymns” in our hymnbook really hymns? And if a song isn’t actually a hymn, does it help us worship?

Joyce P. Brown, former member of the music committee of the Sunday School General Board In the Church, we classify as hymns everything in the hymnbook, without making the more academic distinction between what is a true hymn and what is not. A true hymn is technically a sacred song addressed to God—a prayer. But it is also proper to consider as hymns many songs of praise (about God) and songs that teach or encourage.

Examples of true hymns (prayers addressed to God) are “O My Father” and “Sweet Is the Work, My God, My King.” Examples of hymns of praise are “Glory to God on High” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Hymns of encouragement and instruction are such favorites as “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “Do What Is Right,” “Ere You Left Your Room This Morning,” and “Love at Home.” Psalms, chorales, and gospel songs are other forms of music often classified as hymns.

Hymns of prayer and praise express love and adoration to or about God; hymns of exhortation or instruction elevate, unify, and challenge us to become more like him. All three kinds of hymns are directly or indirectly addressed to God—all are forms of worship.

Elder McConkie has helped us understand what constitutes true worship: “A knowledge of the truth about God and his laws. Deity is worshipped in prayer, song, sermon, and testimony, … in thought, word and deed. But the most perfect of all worship comes from those who first believe the gospel, who then participate in its outward forms, and who finally keep the standards of personal righteousness that appertain to it. Obedience is the true measure of worship” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 848–49).

It was to aid the Church in their worship that Emma Smith was counseled, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, to “make a selection of sacred hymns” (D&C 25:11). She compiled ninety hymn texts, several of which might not be classified as true hymns. Nevertheless they were acceptable and set a precedent for future collections.

The Apostle Paul also commented on appropriate worship through hymn singing: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16; italics added).

It is obvious to musician and nonmusician alike that some of the hymns in our present collection are musically more satisfying than others and that some texts are more beautifully and accurately expressed. But the real value of any hymn is measured by the way people respond to it.

If we sing “with grace in [our] hearts,” as the Apostle Paul admonished us to do, our effort will be pleasing to the Lord. If we sing with a spirit of conviction and worship (even those of us who say we can’t sing or read music), we can be moved to reflect upon the beauties of the gospel and further commit to live its principles.

Music speaks to us through the language of the heart. And through music, we speak to God. Indeed, the Lord said: “My soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads” (D&C 25:12).