“Blessings upon Our Heads,” Ensign, Feb. 2004, 16
In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord declares that He delights “in the song of the heart” and that He will answer “the song of the righteous … with a blessing upon their heads” (D&C 25:12). The Lord has surely showered blessings upon me and my family as we have sung hymns to Him with all our hearts. Through hymns, I have taught and been taught lasting and life-changing gospel lessons. The hymns have moved me to “repentance and good works,” strengthened my “testimony and faith,” comforted me, consoled me, and deepened my determination to endure.1 I have felt the Spirit through the hymns in powerful ways. Indeed, some of my sweetest and most tender spiritual experiences are associated with hymn singing.
I recall a precious family experience on a Sunday evening not long ago, when my wife, Susan, and I spontaneously gathered around the piano with our teenage children and a few of their friends to sing the songs of Zion. This scene has been repeated often in our family. On this occasion, I went to the living room by the piano and started to sing. Soon I was joined by Susan, who sang with and accompanied me. One by one our children joined us. One daughter brought her friends. As we sang, the Spirit came tangibly into the room, filling our hearts with love for the Lord and for each other. We each chose favorite hymns. The texts let us speak of truths that lay close to our hearts, while the music let us express tender feelings of testimony and joy which, in contemporary culture, parents and teenage children rarely share so openly or without embarrassment.
As I looked around the room, my heart swelled with joy, and I felt the urge to seize this precious moment in time, for “the fugitive moment refuses to stay.”2 So I fixed the scene in my mind as a treasure for future reflection, like Wordsworth’s jocund daffodils,3 and will remember always that tender tableau of loved ones gathered around the piano, fervently singing hymns from our hearts as the sun cast its soft, fading glow on a peaceful Sabbath. Surely this moment was a taste of heaven on earth and a foretaste of what joys await us in heaven when we shall sing a new song before the throne of God (see Rev. 5:9; Rev. 14:2–3). We lifted our hearts in song to God, and He answered with a blessing upon our heads.
I treasure many such moments, including experiences from my youth. Perhaps my sweetest childhood memory of hymns is of singing them on long family trips from southern California to Utah. Each of us took turns choosing a favorite song; often we chose hymns. I always chose “Carry On” first.4 I am not sure why, because my favorite hymn as a child was “I Stand All Amazed.”5 But this was a long piece, by page count the longest in the previous hymnbook, and I liked that. Plus it seemed well suited to our desert journey.
My fondest memory of these trips is of curling up late at night on the front seat between Mom and Dad. There, in the black night, the sky studded with myriad stars, I’d listen to the blending of my parents’ voices as they sang hymns and old-fashioned favorites. The songs often focused on the Savior. They sang of their testimony of Him:
I know that my Redeemer lives.
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
· · · · · · · · · · · ·
He lives to bless me with his love.
He lives to plead for me above.
He lives my hungry soul to feed.
He lives to bless in time of need.6
And they sang of their need for His presence:
I need thee, oh, I need thee;
Every hour I need thee!
Oh, bless me now, my Savior;
I come to thee!7
Even now, after so many years, the memory of my parents singing these songs brings a lump to my throat. From such moments I learned about my parents’ love for the Savior and for each other. What blessings have been answered upon my head because my parents lifted up to God the songs of their hearts!
No doubt my parents had us sing not only to edify us but also to control and curb the chaos created by about a dozen restless children crammed in a station wagon for hundreds of miles. Susan and I have adopted the same strategy as parents, as I’m sure many other parents have. When we travel, we frequently sing to forestall a fight. Many a child’s spirit has been subdued and softened, many a quarrel quelled by the mollifying magic of music. Singing is an effective form of parental crowd control.
But it is more. It is a moving and memorable way to teach the gospel. Hymns can be powerful sermons. As the First Presidency says in the preface to the hymnbook: “Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns. Hymns move us to repentance and good works, build testimony and faith, comfort the weary, console the mourning, and inspire us to endure to the end.”8 I like this statement. I especially like its implicit recognition of why hymns can be such effective sermons: “Hymns move us.” Similarly, the First Presidency states, “Music has boundless powers for moving families toward greater spirituality and devotion to the gospel.”9
Hymns combine the power of poetry and of music. Anciently, poetry was praised for its ability to teach and delight. How much more apt is this maxim for hymns, which at their best wed inspired poetry with inspiring melody. Music doubles the delight and deepens the power of words to teach. It enables us to remember the words better, which can come into our minds almost unbidden on the wings of song. And it suffuses the verse with emotion, thus bringing the message home to our hearts and not just to our minds.
Since I am not competent to account for the ineffable power of music, let me focus on hymn texts that have instructed and delighted me and my family. In so doing, I shall describe how Susan and I have tried to teach our children to love the hymns, which love in turn has been the source of so many rich blessings upon our heads.
Many of the things we have done to communicate love for the hymns can be illustrated by “Lead, Kindly Light,”10 a family favorite. Our children associate it with stories from our days in graduate school. They know that the phrase “one step enough” was our family watchword in the early years of our marriage as Susan and I tried to walk by faith, not knowing “the distant scene.” We have told them often of how the hymn inspired us. We have taught them the doctrine the hymn teaches about walking by faith. And now, as young adults, they are striving to apply the doctrine by discerning and following the light that illuminates their own footsteps into uncertain futures.
We have also tried to teach them something about the history of the song. I have explained the circumstances under which John Henry Newman composed it. And I have taught them that my great-uncle, President Harold B. Lee, loved this song, that he lived close to the Spirit, and that he loved the last lines because he looked forward to the day when he would see again “those angel faces” of his wife, Fern Tanner Lee, and his daughter Maureen, whom he “loved long since, and lost awhile.” We sing the song often. And many, if not all, of the family have learned the words by heart.
I like the metaphor for memorization: “learning by heart.” Memorization is unduly disparaged by our culture. But there is great power in committing things to memory, where they can work their way into our being and be recalled in times of need. I encourage my children to memorize by telling them that the best present they can give me for my birthday or for holidays is to memorize a poem, scripture, or piece of music. That way they get to keep what they give away.
Many of us can memorize the words to our hymns. And even if we don’t know them perfectly by heart, we can sing them in a way that is not so book-bound. Perhaps then we might pay more attention to the message. We ought to sing more joyfully and with more feeling.
Another way to love the hymns is to talk about the lyrics. I like to call attention to rhymes and wordplays, such as in the concluding line of “Because I Have Been Given Much”: “thus shall my thanks be thanks indeed” (in deed).11 I like to explain archaic phrases, such as “in the sultry glebe” (in the sweltering field),12 “hie to Kolob” (hasten to God’s home),13 or “without a city wall” (outside a city wall).14 I like to discuss the structure of the texts, such as Edward L. Hart’s “Our Savior’s Love,” which focuses in each successive verse, respectively, on the Savior, Spirit, and Father.15 I like to interchange tunes and texts so as to bring the words to life in new ways.16 Using Karen Lynn Davidson’s book Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages (1988) as my guide, I tell stories about the composers or the uses to which the hymns have been put.
I also like to call attention to the thematic groupings in the hymnbook. I’m fond of a group of hymns unified by imagery of the sea, such as “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”17 and “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.” “As a mother stills her child, thou canst hush the ocean wild.”18 What a wonderful line!
It’s good for families to develop favorite hymns and for children to learn what songs their parents love. My children know that I like “Away in a Manger” and any hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander. They know that I like comforting hymns such as “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” and “How Gentle God’s Commands,” and rousing anthems such as “Press Forward, Saints,” “For All the Saints,” and “Hark, All Ye Nations!”19 And they know that the second verse of the latter hymn has special meaning for their grandparents, who sang it in Czechoslovakia immediately after the fall of Communism: “Searching in darkness, nations have wept; watching for dawn, their vigil they’ve kept. All now rejoice, the long night is o’er. Truth is on earth once more!”20
I like to recall the story of an early Saint for whom the seventh verse of “How Firm a Foundation”21 became an answer from the Lord and a blessing upon her head. Her name is Amanda Smith, a woman of great faith. A Campbellite convert from Ohio, she arrived with her husband and five children at Haun’s Mill, Missouri, just in time to be caught up in a brutal massacre. When the mob attacked, Amanda fled the scene with two of her children, bullets flying around her. Others in her family were not so fortunate. As she returned from hiding, she discovered that her husband and a son were dead and another son was seriously wounded.
But it is not the horror of those events I want to recall; rather, it is how the Lord revealed to Amanda that He would not forsake her—not even in her deepest distress. He did so in the words of the hymn.
Amanda describes an event that took place in the weeks that followed:
“All the Mormons in the neighborhood had fled out of the State, excepting a few families of the bereaved women and children. … In our utter desolation, what could we women do but pray? Prayer was our only source of comfort; our Heavenly Father our only helper.”
The mobbers warned the women to cease their praying, so Amanda tried to pray in silence. But she could not bear it. So, she continues:
“I stole down to a corn field. … It was as the temple of the Lord to me at that moment. I prayed aloud and most fervently. When I emerged from the corn a voice spoke to me. It was a voice as plain as I ever hear[d] one. It was no silent, strong impression of the spirit, but a voice, repeating a verse of the Saint’s hymn”:
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, …
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!
She testifies, “From that moment I had no more fear. I felt that nothing could hurt me.”
And, in fact, no more harm came to her. When the mob came back to her house, she confronted them boldly and they dispersed. The two men she thought had stayed behind to kill her took pity on her instead and left her a fat hog to eat.
Shortly thereafter, when her injured son had recovered enough to leave, Amanda walked boldly into the home of the captain of the mob and demanded her horses back. “I did not fear the captain of the mob,” she says, “for I had the Lord’s promise that nothing should hurt me.” She took one horse from the man’s home and another she found nearby. Rather than kill her, as was threatened, the man gave her flour and honey and sent her on her way. “The Lord had kept his word,” she concludes. “The soul who on Jesus had leaned for succor had not been forsaken.”22
Amanda Smith learned the truth of the revelation given only months after the Church was organized—that the Lord delights in sacred song and blesses those who lift their hearts in hymns to Him (see D&C 25:12). She learned as well that He blesses us not only for our hymns but by our hymns.
In our day, the First Presidency has said: “Brothers and sisters, let us use the hymns to invite the Spirit of the Lord into our congregations, our homes, and our personal lives. Let us memorize and ponder them, recite and sing them, and partake of their spiritual nourishment. Know that the song of the righteous is a prayer unto our Father in Heaven ‘and it shall be answered with a blessing upon [your] heads.’”23 We, too, will be blessed both for and by singing sacred hymns.
“Sacred music has a unique capacity to communicate our feelings of love for the Lord. This kind of communication is a wonderful aid to our worship. Many have difficulty expressing worshipful feelings in words, but all can join in communicating such feelings through the inspired words of our hymns.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Worship through Music,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 10.
Visit www.lds.org or Church magazines on CD.
Ask family members to find how the Tanner family uses hymns and to identify the blessings they have received from using them (see pages 16–20). Hold a family activity that uses some of the ideas in this article.
Read together the story of Amanda Smith, looking for how she was blessed by a hymn (see pages 20–21). Invite family members to share experiences of how they have been blessed by hymns.