Some of you may already know of the Mormon Artists Group and subscribe to their newsletter, Glimpses. To those who are unfamiliar with the MAG, I give them a hearty recommendation. I reprint with permission of the author, Glen Nelson, the latest installment of their newsletter.
In front of me are two hymnbooks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One is the 1927 edition. It is 8” x 5.5”. Its dark green bookcloth cover is embossed with the words Latter-day Saint Hymns and decorative scroll work of a harp and floral pattern. The front cover features a severe geometric border at its edges; the back cover has a small, round embossing of a harp at its center. It was published by the Deseret Book Company, copyrighted by Heber J. Grant, and printed by the Press of Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company. It is the hymnbook my parents grew up with.
The other hymnal will be familiar to anyone reading this newsletter. The 1985 book which includes 341 hymns, ending with “God Save the King,” sells for $16.95 for the coil-bound version I use at home. It has a blue-green cover with the word “Hymns” printed boldly in gold over an embossed relief of the Tabernacle organ pipes.
But enough of comparisons.
What will the hymnal of 2043 be like?
If the evolution of our hymnbook is any indicator, the 2043 book will have many new voices. I don’t mean singing voices. The 1927 hymnbook had 421 hymns, 86 of which were written by Evan Stephens. As hymnbooks go, we call this a monopoly. (Stephens has only 19 hymns in the current book.)
Hymnals are a reflection of the church’s population. They contain the creative ideas of average church members elevated through the arts of music and literature but made sacred by their prominent use in our worship. The early hymnal employed various popular Christian works, but it prided itself on its uniqueness, and the creation of hymns spoke with our point of view—our beliefs, our fears, our history. Sometimes it employed folk tunes and melodies of Scotland, Ireland, England, Spain, and Sweden, which was only fair since the people singing them were Western European immigrants.
With that trajectory, won’t the 2043 hymnal include melodies from Argentina, Samoa, Russia, and Nigeria too? Won’t the Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Sibelius, and Vaughn Williams scores be joined by the world’s greatest modern composers? Will Stravinsky, Copland, Britten, Bernstein, and Messiaen appear? The pattern of our history says yes.
There is a phrase I’ve been hearing lately, “hymns of the restoration.” Its usage worries me. People speak of limiting acceptable music to “hymns of the restoration.” What does this mean? Surely, they are not suggesting that my great-great granddaughter’s hymns written in the year 2108 will be unwelcome because they came too late. Or because they are written in Mandarin because she was raised in Beijing. At least, I hope not.
I, for one, welcome the idea that my children (who will be merely my age in 2043) will sing the testimonies of people whose landscapes were starkly different from Mormon pioneers of the American West. I want them to sing the hymns of African, South American, and Asian LDS songwriters. I fully expect them to sing harmonies and rhythms that would have sounded completely wrong to my grandparents. We call that inclusion. It is the anthem of progress.