“Latter-day Saint Hymnbooks, Then and Now,” Ensign, Sept. 1985, 11
The Latter-day Saints have used many different hymnbooks since the Church was organized. Here are some of the major editions through the years. Each reflected the time in which it was produced and served the needs of its own generation of Saints.
One of the earliest revelations given after the Church was organized instructed the Prophet Joseph’s wife, Emma, to select hymns for the newly restored Church:
“And 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 righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” (D&C 25:11–12.)
The first hymnal was not published until five years after the revelation. But Emma Smith fulfilled her commission under difficult circumstances. In April 1831 she gave birth to twins who lived for only three hours. She and her husband then adopted twins, one of whom died of exposure after a mob invaded the home where the Smiths were staying. E. Cecil McGavin reminds us:
“We have neglected to impress upon the minds of this generation how diligently she [Emma Smith] fulfilled this divine mission to which she was called. If Emma had been a woman of leisure she could have complied with the request in a short time. She was, however, very particular in the care of her family, being a housekeeper of immaculate cleanliness and allowing no outside duty to interfere with her devotion to her children and husband.” (Improvement Era, Jan. 1936, p. 38.)
Emma’s hymnbook, entitled A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of the Latter Day Saints, appeared in print in August 1835. The vest-pocket edition, measuring three inches by four and one-half inches, was published in Kirtland, Ohio, by F. G. Williams and Co. Of its ninety hymn texts, thirty-nine had been written by Latter-day Saint poets, including Parley P. Pratt and Eliza R. Snow. William W. Phelps adapted several non-LDS texts and helped Emma Smith in compiling and preparing the book. The Saints had felt a need for new texts that were expressive of their unique doctrines and beliefs. But they sang these texts to borrowed tunes they had learned as members of other churches. In those days most hymnbooks included words only, with no music. (Twenty-six of the original ninety texts, including “Redeemer of Israel,” “How Firm a Foundation,” and “The Spirit of God,” are found in the 1985 edition of the hymnbook.)
One of the most important hymnals of the Church was first published in Manchester, England, in March of 1840 by Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, and John Taylor. Entitled A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Europe, it contained 271 hymn texts. At least 36 of these were written by Parley P. Pratt, including the first hymn in the book, “The Morning Breaks, the Shadows Flee.”
The Manchester hymnal and its twenty-four succeeding editions and reprints were used officially for eighty-seven years. In 1912 the twenty-fifth and final edition was issued in Salt Lake City. It was used in the temples, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, and in the Assembly Hall until 1927. Eventually it was replaced by other hymnals containing music as well as texts.
The new Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody, published in Salt Lake City, was the first large collection of hymns to include musical settings with the texts.
According to the preface, dated 27 May 1889, this hymnal was designed “to present a suitable and acceptable tune to every hymn in the Latter-day Saints’ Hymn Book.” It included many “choir hymns”—such as “Behold the Great Redeemer Die” and “As the Dew from Heaven Distilling”—created by Latter-day Saint composers for the Tabernacle Choir’s weekly performances.
Songs of Zion was compiled by nine mission presidents in the United States and was published in 1908 by the Northern States Mission in Chicago. In contrast to the choir-oriented hymns of the Psalmody, Songs of Zion included about one hundred gospel hymns, among them “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel,” “Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd,” and “Do What Is Right.”
Published by the Deseret Sunday School Union in 1909, Deseret Sunday School Songs was patterned after Songs of Zion, which had been well received by the Church membership. It contained favorite songs of members and choristers throughout the Church, including “In Our Lovely Deseret,” “Who’s On the Lord’s Side?” and “Count Your Blessings.” Intended for use in “Sunday School, Primary, Religion Classes, and Home Socials,” this book quickly became the most popular hymnbook in the Church.
The General Music Committee, organized in 1920, was assigned the task of compiling a new hymnal that would combine the best of the Manchester hymnal, the Psalmody of 1889, and Songs of Zion. Although new works were secured through a hymn contest, the works of Evan Stephens and others of the older generation were the bulk of the collection. The new hymnal was entitled Latter-day Saint Hymns but was commonly referred to as the “green hymnbook.” It was used along with Deseret Sunday School Songs until 1948, when Hymns merged the two.
In October 1943, work began on a new hymnbook. Plans were also made for a recreational songbook for youth and for a children’s songbook.
When it was published in 1948, Hymns, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consisted of 387 hymns. The book had four general classifications: congregation, choir, men’s voices, and women’s voices. Nearly half of the tunes in the 1948 edition of Hymns were borrowed from non-LDS sources.
This hymnal was congregation-centered. But it also contained choir selections that were generally more elaborate than those intended for congregational use.
Two years after the 1948 edition of Hymns was published, a revision was made. This edition replaced some of the hymns in the 1948 edition with hymns from earlier LDS hymnbooks.
Through the decades, a diverse Latter-day Saint hymnody has developed. It includes simple American hymns, appealing gospel songs, noble hymns sung by the early English Saints, hymns borrowed from other religious traditions, unique LDS choir hymns of the late 1800s, and other hymns created by Latter-day Saints.
With the 1985 edition, new hymns from this generation have been added to a balanced selection of old and borrowed hymns. This new English edition will serve as a basis for dozens of new hymnbooks in as many languages. Although a selection of standard hymns that are in the Western European musical tradition serves as the basis for these hymnbooks, eventually other cultures will have their own contributions to make and new hymnbook editions will be compiled to serve future generations of Latter-day Saints throughout the world.