At the Provo MHA in 2004, Michael Hicks, Professor of Music at BYU, gave a terrific presentation on the captioned subject. The latest issue of BYU Studies that just hit my mailbox now has a formal article by him based on that presentation. So I thought I would take a shot at summarizing it here.
Mike begins by talking about how important an understanding of hymns is to understanding a church or a people. As Alexander Campbell said in 1827, a hymn book is “as good an index to the brains and to the hearts of a people as the creed book.” Hymnbooks pervaded the early American printing industry and became part of the sacred American canon.
But there is a difference between compilation and usage. Just because a hymn is listed in the index doesn’t tell you anything about how often it was sung or whether it was loved. Those who choose the hymns to be sung on a weekly basis in effect redact the hymnal. So we can’t just look at the published books, we have to examine how the Saints actually sang.
We tend to think of the major centers of the Church, forgetting how quickly and widely Mormonism spread (by the end of 1834 there were 124 branches all over the place). Our records for the many thousands of meetings held in the early church are limited, tend to be bare bones and focused more on conferences than regular Sunday worship. Mike studied the available sources for meetings held from 1830 to 1838 (including over 200 journals), and in all that material on only 58 occasions is the name of the hymn sung given. Of those 58, only 28 different titles appear, and of those 28 only 16 were published in the first Mormon hymnbook. So although that hymnal contained 90 hymn texts, we can only find record of 18% of those texts being sung.
Mike gives a chart of all of these songs; here I’ll just reproduce the ones that appeared more than once:
- Adam-ondi-Ahman (10)
- The Spirit of God (7)
- Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken (5)
- Now Let Us Rejoice (5)
- How Firm a Foundation (3)
- Go On Ye Pilgrims (2)
- Hark, Listen to the Trumpeters (2)
- Ere Long the Vail Will Rend in Twain (2)
- How Precious Is the Name (2)
- O Happy Souls Who Pray (2)
Much LDS singing probably took place at gatherings other than church meetings. The first hymnal had a section for farewells (sung at ministerial departures), and also morning and evening hymns (to be sung at home, not at church). [William Smith recalled that his father's favorite evening hymn was The Day is Past and Gone, which they sang over an over on bended knee.] There’s a Feast of Fat Things was intended primarily for the feasts for the poor at Kirtland, based on Methodist love-feasts. The song, written by W.W. Phelps and called The Proclamation, had 12 verses and began as follows:
There’s a feast of fat things for the righteous preparing,
That the good of this world all the saints may be sharing;…
Come to the supper–come to the supper–
Come to the supper of the great Bridegroom.
What we mean by hymns of this period is just the words, not the tunes. In special cases we can deduce what tune was used, but usually there is no way to know for certain; a hymn could have been sung to any tune that fit it.
We have a tendency to assume that they sang hymns as we did, as a congregation. But that was not necessarily the case; the singing was sometimes done by individuals, and this particularly was the case as singing in tongues became more popular. These practices were similar to the evangelistic style of ministers of the day, who would often sing a song before praying and then speaking.
Solo singing by a preacher and congregational singing were often linked by the practice of lining out or lining the hymns. In lining a hymn, the leader would first sing the tune without words; those who recognized it joining in. After having gotten all the way through, he would then quickly give a line or two of words, and the congregation would slowly and loudly sing the words he had given them, and then he would give the next line or two, all the way through the song. There were practical origins to this practice: people not being able to read and not having access to a hymnal, for example. Even where people had pocket hymnals, they would seldom all have the same one (things weren’t as standardized back in those days!). Lining out was known as “old way” singing, but over time trained musicians objected to it and argued for “regular way” singing, also called continuous singing or singing by note. This required hymns printed with music and singing schools to teach people how to do it. As of 1846, old way singing still prevailed over 3/4 of the U.S. territory.
In the mid-19th century there was substantial opposition to regular singing, choirs and musical instruments in church, which were seen as state church practices. Choirs would often be heckled by anti-choir members; some proclaimed that “choir singing originated with the devil.”
There were probably both styles of singing in early Mormon meetings. New converts would have brought their old way singing, but there were also strong forces in favor of regular singing in the early church, not the least of which is the fact that Joseph Sr. taught music by note. In the end, it appears to have been the Lord’s instruction to build a temple that tilted the scales in favor of regular singing. Believing that such a building required a choir, Joseph hired a singing teacher to organize one. Joseph writes in his journal of organizing a singing school “after some altercation.” This development underscored a basic dichotomy in Mormonism between the restorationist impulse and the old ways and between newer and grander aspirations in their worship.
The British Mission baptized many trained musicians, who emigrated to Nauvoo and greatly influenced the Church’s music culture there. In 1844 the first Mormon hymnal with printed music appeared, published in Vermont where the Prophet was born. Some worship services even featured British-style brass bands.
Early LDS were like us in that they greatly valued music worship, but they were also unlike us in a number of ways. Their seemingly favorite hymns seldom became ours. They sometimes sang hymns that never appeared in a Mormon hymnbook. In some meetings, the same individual may have sung a hymn, prayed and spoken. Many Saints, especially those in the scattered branches of the Church, probably thought lining out was the true way of singing. And at least some of those Saints probably wondered whether choirs or singing schools could be approved by God.
 Michael Hicks, “What Hymns Early Mormons Sang and How They Sang Them,” BYU Studies 47/1 (2008): 95-118.