“The Power of Hymns,” Ensign, July 2001, 15
Some time ago I attended a concert featuring classical music with a religious theme. As the end of the concert approached, a friend nearby leaned over and said: “The last number will be a well-known hymn. You will feel the Spirit enter the room.” As the orchestra played the hymn, the words associated with the music were on the minds and lips of everyone. A special spirit entered the room, and a feeling of reverence encompassed the audience as they quietly contemplated the message. My spirit resonated with the music and the words as I softly hummed the melody.
I enjoy classical music. I appreciate listening to a great orchestra playing Beethoven, Mozart, or Tchaikovsky. But the classical experience is qualitatively different than listening to one of my favorite hymns. The difference may be due partially to familiarity, it may be the poetic message of the hymn, it may be that the music and words open the door for Spirit to speak to spirit. Whatever it is, most hymns touch my inner being, bringing peace, feelings of gratitude, and a sense of awe for the goodness of the Lord. I cherish the sacred feelings that accompany Church music.
The experience with the hymn at the concert reminds me of an earlier experience. Many years ago, while living in the East, I attended a stake conference that left an indelible impression with regard to the sacred role played by music in a Church setting. Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was the visiting authority. Fifteen minutes before the general session began, Elder Packer took his place on the stand along with the stake presidency. Many in the congregation had traveled 75 to 100 miles to attend and were engaged in conversation with friends from other wards and branches. Some were seated, while others were visiting with friends as they entered the chapel. The organist had chosen various Bach selections for the prelude and was absorbed in presenting a Bach concert. As the music crescendoed it forced the members visiting with each other to raise their voices. The louder the din, the more determined the organist, and the volume of voices and music rose higher and higher.
Five minutes before the session was to begin, Elder Packer suddenly stood up and approached the podium. He asked the organist to stop. He asked the congregation to cease speaking and find their seats. He spoke clearly and firmly to the congregation, reminding them of their need to be reverent and prepare for the general session. He then turned toward the organ and told the organist that he had a special responsibility to bring the Spirit into the building and prepare the members for the meeting. Elder Packer continued, “This can be accomplished best by playing hymns.” He then suggested that hymns be a central part of the prelude for subsequent conferences in that stake.
In the intervening years, that experience has returned often in memory and caused me to reflect on the various sacred and important roles performed by hymns both in Church settings and in our personal lives. Church hymns are a form of worship; they serve as a prayer of thanks and an expression of commitment. Many hymns build unity among the Saints as well as build a community of Saints. They invite the Spirit into meetings and into our lives. They teach doctrine. Hymns often express testimony and may even be a form of protection or a source of comfort and healing.
I wish to comment on some of these roles and bear witness of the power of Church music. I begin with music as a form of worship.
Each time I hear “How Great Thou Art,” something happens inside. I think my spirit becomes taut like a string on a violin and begins vibrating with the beauty of the music and the hope expressed in Stuart Hine’s words. In particular, the third and fourth verses, combined with the lyrical nature of the chorus, cause my spirit to swell with deep appreciation for the Lord’s Atonement and mercy:
And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died to take away my sin, …
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, “My God, how great thou art!”1
Music is one of the most effective forms of worship. In our hymns, we praise God, give thanks for His love and mercy. I am impressed with this statement by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “Sacramental hymns are … like prayers, … and everyone can give voice to a prayer!”2 Although I had thought of some hymns as prayers, I had not thought of each sacramental hymn in that form. And yet it is! Like the chiasmatic writing structure of old, the sacrament, the central feature of our key weekly meeting, occurs near the center. In an important way, it is the climactic feature of the service. As the priests break the bread, the entire congregation is given the opportunity to voice their prayerful thanks through music. Sacramental hymns focus our attention on the Lord, His atoning sacrifice, and the gospel plan.
In the process of singing together, a spirit of unity builds within the Saints. This occurs not only within a ward and stake but across the world. We can travel the earth from Sunday to Sunday, and wherever we are the music of the hymns will be familiar. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of his first trip to Brazil to attend a regional conference. He states: “Over three thousand Saints gathered for a regional conference. The printed program listed the musical numbers, but the Portuguese words meant nothing to me. But when their beautiful choir began to sing, the music crossed all barriers of language and spoke to my soul:
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
Lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled! …
The dawning of a brighter day
Majestic rises on the world.3
Another hymn which binds both Saints and missionaries together is “Called to Serve.”4 A few years ago when Elder Packer was assigned to the Missionary Department, he felt the need for a missionary anthem. As he and Sister Packer discussed what a special hymn could accomplish, she reminded him of “Called to Serve.” He knew immediately that it was the appropriate song. I remember being in the BYU stadium in 1997 for the pioneer sesquicentennial celebration. After various vignettes depicting the pioneer beginnings and subsequent Church history, the last number included all of the missionaries from the Missionary Training Center marching into the stadium carrying flags of the various nations and singing “Called to Serve.” Instantaneously 60,000 people in the stands stood on their feet and began cheering the missionaries. This was followed by the audience joining in singing the hymn with them.
Each time that hymn is sung, my chest becomes heavy and a lump enters my throat as I see in my mind’s eye 50,000 or more missionaries scattered across the earth teaching the gospel. I see mothers waiting for the weekly letter and dads embracing sons and daughters as they leave the airport and when they return. I see missionaries knocking on doors and stopping people in the street. I see men and women clothed in white standing in baptismal fonts, near the beach, or at the river’s edge. I envision happy people of every race, color, and nation new to the gospel but embraced by other Saints who, like them, are also converts.
Church music is powerful. It not only builds unity among the Saints but also contributes to a community of Saints. The scriptures teach that the Lord expects us to become a “peculiar treasure” and a “holy nation” (Ex. 19:5–6; 1 Pet. 2:9). We are a people bound together by covenant with special attributes, attitudes, and a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.
Hymns aid in this process by teaching doctrine under the influence of the Spirit. My faith in and commitment to Christ deepen when I sing “I Believe in Christ.”5 My belief in eternal families grows as I sing “Families Can Be Together Forever.”6 The hymn “I Stand All Amazed”7 produces a sense of amazement within me as I contemplate the “love Jesus offers me” and am “confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me,” in that I do not fully understand it.
Hymns teach doctrine not only by word but also via the setting. The message inherent in “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet”8 is enhanced by the presence of the prophet. It is a wonderful experience to be at general conference just prior to the opening of a session and see the congregation rise and thank God for a living prophet as the Lord’s anointed climbs the steps to the podium, or to be in the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University and feel the Holy Spirit as President Gordon B. Hinckley walks from the tunnel to the stand as 22,000 students, faculty, and staff bear witness through music of their gratitude to be guided “in these latter days.” Sacramental hymns take on more meaning when sung in the presence of priests breaking bread in remembrance of the broken flesh.
The Topics guide in the hymnbook illustrates the wide variety of doctrines taught. Doctrinal topics from “Aaronic Priesthood” to “Zion” are covered in the hymnbook. There is an appropriate hymn for every occasion. For instance, if you had been invited to the Last Supper, what hymns from our hymnbook might have been appropriate? What about “How Great the Wisdom and the Love”or “Though Deepening Trials” or “Be Still, My Soul.”9 It is an interesting exercise to review our hymns and find those appropriate for that setting.
It is likely that many hymns were sung that evening. Matthew indicates that the Lord and His Apostles concluded the Last Supper with a hymn before leaving for the Mount of Olives (see Matt. 26:30). What did they sing? Although we have no way of knowing the concluding hymn, we do know one song. It is called the Hallel, which consists of Psalms 113–18. From before the time of Christ down to the present day, it is traditional for Jewish families to sing Psalms 113–14 before the Passover meal and Psalms 115–18 after. Why are these hymns important to the celebration? What is their message?
Psalms 113–14 praise God for delivering Israel from the Egyptians. They indicate that He rules both water and land in that He parted the Red Sea for Israel to pass through and brought forth water when Moses struck the rock at Meribah (see Ex. 14:21–22; Ex. 17:6–7). At the Passover meal, one would expect Israel to be singing about deliverance from the angel of death, preservation in the desert, the parting of the Red Sea, and the greatness of the God of Jacob.
In fact, the angel of death’s Passover in Egypt was a messianic type. After the meal, the hymns turn to the ultimate deliverance of the soul (Ps. 116:4), the breaking of the bonds of death, both physical (Ps. 116:8, 16) and spiritual (Ps. 118:22, 29). The Atonement, represented by the cup of salvation, is the centerpiece of the festivities following the meal. All who celebrated the Passover that evening in A.D. 33 would have sung about “the stone which the builders refused,” which became “the head stone of the corner” (Ps. 118:22). The stone or rock, which is Christ, was refused or crucified by the builders, the Jewish leaders. As a result, Christ became the chief cornerstone or name by which salvation comes.
Imagine, if you will, the Savior of the world singing these hymns with His disciples, which foreshadowed the events that followed later that evening and the next day. All members of the Jewish faith participated in these events. They committed to memory these Psalms. They understood the meaning of them.
A few months after the Passover feast, Peter used Psalm 118 to defend himself before the Jewish leaders.
When Peter and John healed a lame man at the temple, they were brought before the leaders of the Sanhedrin and asked to give an accounting of the power and authority by which the miracle was performed. Peter was clear and direct in his answer:
“If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole;
“Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole.”
Then Peter referred to Psalm 118, verse 22, which these Jewish leaders knew well, having sung the verse in the context of the Passover a few months earlier:
“This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.
“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:9–12).
By the use of a hymn, Peter bore testimony not only of the power by which he had healed the lame man at the temple but also of the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Christ. Of greatest importance is Peter’s testimony that salvation comes only through Him who is the chief cornerstone.
Just as Peter was able to bear testimony through the use of a hymn, so our hymns allow us to bear testimony. May I close with one of my favorite stories, which illustrates the power of hymns in testimony bearing.
This story concerns a young girl, the fourth child in a family of six children. Her name is Heather. Three of the children, including Heather, suffered from a rare disease called glutaric acidemia. In each case, the onset of the disease occurred during the first year of life when an enzyme attacked the brain, causing paralysis. The disease results in acid forming in the muscles similar to that which occurs following a period of intense physical activity. The problem faced by the children was that the acid never leaves and causes great pain. Cindy, the first child with the disease, died at the age of 23. She was one of the oldest living persons known with the disease. At death she weighed about 40 pounds.
Soon after Heather’s birth, the parents realized that she would be physically handicapped and that her spirit would be housed in a body with great restrictions. As she grew, she was confined to a wheelchair, was unable to speak, and could send messages only with her eyes. A direct gaze and a smile meant yes. A blink meant no. Despite the handicaps, one could feel her vibrant spirit.
As Heather progressed, it became obvious to her parents that she was extraordinarily bright. She would play guessing games with the family using her limited means to communicate. When she was old enough, the parents enrolled Heather in a special school to see if she could learn to speak. The teacher was a gifted therapist. One morning as Heather and the teacher visited about the prior weekend, the teacher learned that Heather had attended Primary. The teacher then sang for Heather “When He Comes Again.”10
The expression on Heather’s face revealed the delight within her. When the teacher asked Heather if she had a favorite song, the young girl’s wide eyes and engaging smile left little doubt. But what was the song? Through a series of questions, the teacher learned that Heather’s song was one she had heard in Primary. She wasn’t sure which songbook it was in, but it was about Jesus. The teacher sang all the songs she could think of, but to no avail. However, Heather was not about to quit; she wanted to share her favorite song. At the end of the day, the two were still searching. The teacher agreed to bring her songbooks to school the next day.
On the following morning, Heather and her teacher continued the quest. From the first hymn to the last, the little girl blinked her eyes, indicating no. They were still unsuccessful. Finally, the teacher told Heather that her mother would have to help her find the song and then they would sing it.
The next day Heather arrived with the green Church hymnal tucked in her chair, but there was no marker. So they began with the first hymn. The teacher would sing the first part of each song, and Heather would give her answer. After the first 100 hymns, there were 100 no’s. After 200 hymns there had been 200 no’s. Finally, the teacher began to sing, “There is sunshine in my soul today.”11 Heather’s body jumped, and a big smile crossed her face. Her eyes gazed directly into the teacher’s, indicating success after three days of searching. Both teacher and student rejoiced.
As the teacher sang the first verse and began the chorus, Heather mustered all her strength and joined in with a few sounds. After finishing the first verse and chorus, the teacher asked if she wanted to hear the rest of the verses, and Heather’s eyes opened wide with a firm yes. The teacher began to sing:
There is music in my soul today,
A carol to my King,
And Jesus listening can hear
The songs I cannot sing.
Heather’s reaction to these lines was so strong that the teacher stopped. As the reality and significance of the words pressed on the teacher’s mind, she asked: “Heather, is that what you like about the song? Is that what you want me to know? Does Jesus listen? Does He hear the songs you cannot sing?”
The direct, penetrating gaze indicated yes.
Feeling guided by the Spirit, the teacher asked, “Heather, does Jesus talk to you in your mind and in your heart?”
Again, the child’s look was penetrating.
The teacher then asked, “Heather, what does He say?”
The teacher’s heart pounded as she saw the clear look in Heather’s eyes as the little girl awaited the questions that would allow her to share her insights.
“Does Jesus say, ‘Heather, I love you’?”
Heather’s radiant eyes widened, and she smiled.
After a pause, the teacher asked next, “Does He say, ‘Heather, you’re special’?”
The answer again was yes.
Finally the teacher asked, “Does He say, ‘Heather, be patient; I have great things in store for you’?”
Heather summoned all her strength, and her head became erect and her eyes penetrated the teacher’s soul. She knew she was loved, she was special, and she needed only to be patient.12
Two years later, Heather died because of the ravages of the disease. Her younger brother Mark also suffers from the disease but not to the extent of his older sisters. He can talk, although it is not easy. As the parents discussed Heather’s passing and the funeral that would take place, Mark exclaimed, “No go Heather’s funeral!” Heather was his best friend. As the parents tried to explain death to him, he would not be consoled. He was crushed and did not want to attend the service. For two days he could not be persuaded.
On the morning of the funeral, the father went to Mark’s room to get him up. As he entered the room, Mark was sitting up in bed with a big smile on his face. His first words were, “Dad, go Heather’s funeral!”
The father responded, “Mark, what has changed your mind?”
“Dad, had dream.”
“What did you dream about, Mark?”
“Dad, dreamed about Heather.”
“Mark, what was Heather doing?”
“Oh, Dad, Heather running and jumping and singing, ‘There is sunshine in my soul today.’ Dad, go Heather’s funeral.”13
May we rejoice in the power of sacred hymns to lift our souls and to bear testimony. Truly “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto [God], and it shall be answered with a blessing upon [our] heads” (D&C 25:12).
Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussion. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:
How does the playing and singing of sacred music affect the mood in our weekly worship services?
How can we personally feel and benefit from the messages of the hymns?
What memories do you have of music uplifting or strengthening you in times of trial?