Early Mormon Hymn Singing

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.[1] 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.

[1] Michael Hicks, “What Hymns Early Mormons Sang and How They Sang Them,” BYU Studies 47/1 (2008): 95-118.


  1. Thanks for the write-up, Kevin. I’ve started reading this issue, but haven’t gotten to this article yet. I’m now looking forward to it.

    Was the “old way” of singing really that old though? It seems to me that part of the new evangelicalism, as manifest in the Methodist and Baptist wildfires, was a vernacularization of the hymns and a move away from high-church music.

  2. Kevin,

    I had just read this particular article on Sunday, and learned about “lining out” for the first time, which gave me a better understanding of the “call and response” elements of blues and gospel music that I’ve been exposed to through my guitar playing.

    I also noted the “after some altercation” phrase, and in the footnotes, Hicks said that in his earlier published book that the editors changed it to “after some discussion”. Altercation gives us a better feel for the emotions than discussion, which always reminds of the diplomatic phrase “frank discussions”.

    I was also interested to note that Hicks is leaning towards a meeting format for early church meetings where the presiding elder would sing a hymn, offer a prayer, and then teach from the scriptures, with often no other participants. I’ve heard two of our bishopric members sing, and I’m glad that we don’t follow that particular practice any more.

  3. Kristine says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I’ll be doing a less erudite and more participatory presentation on early Mormon hymns at Sunstone this August–everybody please come sing!!

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I saw that one in the program, Kristine. If, as I seem to recall, it’s on Saturday I’ll be there.

  5. John Hamer says:

    J (#1): The old way was “lining.” The congregation leader would call out a line of the song, and then the congregation would sing it. Then the leader would call out the next line and the congregation would sing that. The singing was also different. Rather than singing to a tune, the words follow a sing-song style.

    You can hear a good example here: http://www.arts.state.al.us/actc/compilation/real/smith.rm

    For those of us used to continuous or choir style singing, lining is very alien sounding. Imagine if you were used to lining how alien it would be to sing hymns continuously to popular tunes — in many cases folk drinking songs.

  6. John Hamer says:

    J (#1): I’m sorry, I totally misread your comment. Please ignore mine (#5).

  7. Thanks for this review Kevin, it sounds like a great article. Unfortunately, having to pay international rates makes me have to pick and choose which journals I get, so I appreciate reports from ones I don’t subscribe to.

  8. Kevin Rex says:

    One of the old hymns “Hark, Listen to the Trumpeteers” is a commonly sung hymn in Spanish and is in the current Spanish hymnbook. Many Spanish-speaking returned missionaries and Spanish-speaking members will recognize it as “Oid El Toque del Clarin”. Up until our 103 year old chorister was too fragile (she lead the music well into her 90’s) to lead the music any more, she occasionally had the bulletin print the words to a hymn from a really old Sunday School hymnal and have us sing it as a congregational hymn. It provided a fun diversion in the middle of sacrament meeting.

  9. Antonio Parr says:

    Is the “William Smith” to which you refer the brother of Joseph Smith? (Are there any biographies on William Smith?)

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    #9 Antonio Parr, yes. So he is referring to Joseph Sr. I don’t think there is a good biography on William, but I seem to have the impression rattling around in my brain that someone is working on one.

  11. Aha! I tried to get my wife to use “Adam-ondi-Ahman” as a rest hymn in church the other day (she’s the ward music director/chorister), but she said nobody knew it. I just pointed out the finding cited above as she walked by, but she remains unimpressed.

    Marvin Payne sung it on one of his earliest albums, and I’ve loved the hymn ever since. I’ll work it in next time I’m substituting for her as chorister. :-) ..bruce..

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Bruce, when we had one of those music testimony meetings a few months ago, where people request that we sing a particular hymn, this young black girl shyly walked up to the podium and asked for Adam-ondi-Ahman, so we sang it. The music is really cool, I think. I also got to sing it at the MHA devotional in the Kirtland Temple, because we were singing all of the songs from the dedication and that was one of them.

  13. When I was a kid in the 70s and early 80s, we sang that hymn all the time. In the past twenty years, it has kind of dropped off the map. In the 1985 book it was renamed (it title used to be the same as the first line, This Earth was once a Garden Place) and placed in a somewhat anonymous location next to other rarely-sung hymns like Come, Thou Glorious Day of Promise, and Sons of Michael, He Approaches. In the old book, it was in prominent position as the last hymn in the book, a single congregational hymn after all the choir and men’s and women’s arrangements. Probably the main reason that it has fallen into disuse is that the doctrine its text expounds is also much less talked about now than before.

  14. gillsyk says:

    My understanding is that Adam-ondi-Ahman achieved its place of prominence (last hymn) in the old blue hymnbook because … it was originally not even included in that compilation. But Pres. McKay asked what happened to it, and it was included because he wanted it.

    Bruce, agree with you that Marvin Payne’s splendid version makes you love that hymn!

  15. gillsyk says:

    p.s. Thanks, Kevin, for the good summary.

  16. I loved this summary. One thought as I read it: brass bands.

    I understand that brassy instruments do not carry with them the atmosphere of reverence that we usually associate with church meetings, but I hope bishops have the courage to allow, from time to time, an occasional “other” instrument, outside of the usual recommendations.

    I recognize that if we let people start playing whatever instruments they want, we may verge into some perhaps not-so-reverent music, but sometimes I feel like our meetings need a little more…um…soul? Feeling? Less monotony? I don’t know what it is I’m trying to capture, but I’m sure others can more accurately describe it.

    I recall having read in Richard Cowan’s book on temples that one of the temple dedications (Pres. McKay, I believe) had a trumpet quartet on the roof of a nearby building play “An Angel from On High”. What an incredible performance it must have been. Inaccuracies in my recollection aside, I hope that members of the church become more accustomed to the variety of beauty that can be found in music.

    Patience I suppose. May we continue to allow reverence in the best way that we can, encouraging worshipful music and talent where it may be found.

  17. the web is open says:

    so LDS congregations used to be able to make their own decisions? what happened, how did Mormons become so culturally cookie-cutter bland? conformism not a winning long term strategy.

  18. Very cool article, Kevin! Thanks for sharing your research on this fascinating topic. Many modern composers still “re-invent” hymns using different melodies with lovely results. I actually think that lining would come as a great challenge to members today! It would certainly take some extra concentration and involvement in the musical experience (hey…perhaps we ought to reinstate it!) :)