Church History

“Hymns,” Church History Topics



The singing of hymns in private and public devotions traces back to antiquity and was as an important part of American Christian worship services in Joseph Smith’s day. Three months after the Church was organized, in July 1830, Joseph Smith received a revelation for his wife Emma, instructing her to make a selection of sacred hymns for the Church of Christ. “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart,” the Lord declared. “Yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me” (D&C 25:12). This revelation affirmed the value of music as a part of the Church’s worship, and its appointment of Emma Smith was unusual as hymnals were rarely compiled by women.1

photo of hymnal open to title page

A copy of the Church’s first hymnal, published in 1835 with hymns selected by Emma Smith.

The earliest Mormon hymns appeared in 1832 in The Evening and the Morning Star newspaper published by William W. Phelps and in 1834 in The Messenger and Advocate. Some of these hymns were included in Emma’s hymnal, A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The hymnal, officially published in 1835, was prepared for publication by Phelps, and printing was completed in early 1836 in Kirtland. The book was small enough to fit in a pocket and contained 90 hymns. Between 30 and 40 of them were written by Latter-day Saints; the remainder were popular Protestant hymns. Emma’s second hymnal, printed in Nauvoo in 1841, contained 304 hymns.2 These and other early hymnbooks included only the words of the hymns and had no musical notation. Saints selected familiar tunes to which the hymns were sung.

Hymns were an important vehicle for teaching and reinforcing the doctrines of the Church. The preface to the 1835 hymnal noted that the collection contained “‘Sacred Hymns’ adapted to their faith and belief in the gospel.” Many early Mormon hymns were written by Latter-day Saints, such as Eliza R. Snow, Parley P. Pratt, and William W. Phelps. Other hymns written and sung by people in other faith traditions were included, and some of them were modified by Phelps to fit specific Latter-day Saint teachings. Since that first 1835 hymnal, topics such as Zion, the Second Coming of the Savior, the Restoration of the gospel, the Book of Mormon, and later the premortal existence, latter-day prophets, and the pioneer experience have filled the pages of hymnals and allowed Latter-day Saints to give voice to cherished beliefs.

Besides the hymnals compiled by Emma Smith, other hymnals were compiled in different places and for specific uses. One early hymnal was printed in Manchester, England, in 1840 under the direction of Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, and John Taylor.3 Saints immigrating to Utah from England brought their hymnals and treasured hymns with them to the Salt Lake Valley. The Manchester hymnal continued to be published in England until 1890. The first large collection of hymns to include musical notation was the 1889 Latter-Day Saints’ Psalmody, published under the direction of President John Taylor. Auxiliary organizations such as the Sunday School, Relief Society, and Primary published their own hymnbooks beginning in 1880.4 The Northern States Mission, based in Chicago, printed 11 editions of Songs of Zion from 1908 to 1925. This book became a “mission field” hymnal.

Church leaders formed a Church Music Committee in 1920 to better coordinate music and the production of hymnals. In 1927, the committee combined hymns from different publications into one volume, Latter-Day Saint Hymns. Then, in 1948, the Church published a revised hymnal titled Hymns: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the 150th anniversary of Emma Smith’s first hymnal in 1985, the Church published a new hymnbook, which is used today, that includes many well-known hymns from the Latter-day Saint tradition, a variety of hymns drawn from other Christian traditions, and many recently composed hymns. The Church publishes hymnals in dozens of languages, each containing roughly 200 hymns translated from English as well as familiar cultural and historical hymns specific to different parts of the world. The Church’s hymnal for children—Children’s Songbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, first published in 1989—has also been translated into many languages.

Inspirational music continues to be an essential part of Latter-day Saint worship. Congregational hymns unify members, reinforce identity, and teach doctrine. In 1985, the First Presidency encouraged the use of hymns not only for the music quality, but also for the hymns’ doctrinal content: “We hope leaders, teachers, and members who are called upon to speak will turn often to the hymnbook to find sermons presented powerfully and beautifully in verse. … We hope the hymnbook will take a prominent place among the scriptures and other religious books in our homes.”5

Related Topic: Emma Hale Smith