Saints and Angels Sing

Our opening hymn at Church today was no. 201, “Joy to the World.” I looked around, wondering whether there were any non-LDS visitors in attendance. I don’t really know, because except for the old-timers I don’t have a really good grasp on who everyone is, which is a continual embarrassment to me. But if there were any visitors there, I wondered what they would make of the unusual form of the song we were singing as reflected in the green hymnal.

When I was at law school at the University of Illinois, my friend Michael Hicks was in grad school there working on his Ph.D. in music. I remember him researching early Mormon adaptation of Protestant hymns, which I found fascinating. He published the results of this research first in his “Poetic Borrowing in Early Mormonism,” Dialogue 18/1 (1985): 132-42, and again in the first chapter of his Mormonism and Music: A History (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

A good example of this phenomenon is the way in which W.W. Phelps adapted Isaac Watts’ hymn commonly known today by its first line title, Joy to the World. To see this for yourselves, first consider the Watts lyrics most of the Christian world sings:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

Now here is the adapted version written by Phelps, with the changes marked:

Joy to the world! the Lord will come!
And earth receive her King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare him room,
And saints and angels sing.

Rejoice! rejoice! when Jesus reigns!
And saints their songs employ:
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more will sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He’ll come and make the blessings flow
Far as the curse was found.

Rejoice! rejoice! in the Most High,
While Israel spread abroad,
Like stars that glitter in the sky,
And ever worship God

As you can see, Phelps turned this into a millennial anthem, looking forward to the second coming rather than looking back to the Savior’s birth. He also changed the personifications of heaven and nature singing to those who would greet the Savior at his coming. He made other changes to match this theme, including completely replacing the final verse.

Our modern hymnal restores the verb tense in the first two lines so that the hymn retains a Christmas feel, but retains the remainder of the Phelps adaptations. So as it stands now, this hymn is both a Christmas carol and a testament to the early Mormon impulse to adapt Protestant hymnody in ways that make it less personal and more corporate, more millennial looking, and in other ways to better match the experiences and insights that were flowing from the Restoration.


  1. This is fascinating, Kevin. I’d never thought to contrast the differing versions.

  2. My husband makes fun of me for this. He says, this is why people think you Mormons aren’t Christian, you don’t even know the words to Joy to the World.
    So I do a very Christian thing and slug him.

  3. “Saints and angels,” bah humbug! As for me and my house, we shall sing “heaven and nature.”

  4. While assembling 200 Tempe Arizona Mission gift bags last night, I pondered this hymn change as my husband and I stuck labels with the 4th verse on the 200 gift bags. (The missionaries are singing the final verse with the ladies who are serving them lunch on Thursday).

    Thank you for answering my question about that last verse. I wish I could get answers to all my questions this quickly. Thanks Kevin.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I alerted Mike to this post, since it is based on his research. He thanked me for the shoutout and added the following note, which I am sharing here by permission:

    Our BYU choirs sang the John Rutter arrangement of “Joy to the World” at their Christmas concerts Friday and Saturday.

    Some of the singers told me they had to work hard to sing “and heav’n and nature sing” instead of “and saints and angels sing”–they’d never heard the real words before. Some of them didn’t even seem to know that this wasn’t a “hymn of the Restoration” or that other Christians had been singing it (differently) for centuries.

  6. pinkpatent says:

    I prefer Heaven and Nature, and that’s what I sing.

  7. Every time we sing our version at Christmas I lean over to my wife (of which she is surely tired by now), and whisper, “This is a Second Coming song.” It doesn’t make much sense to sing it for Christmas, but I like it anyway.

  8. “Some of them didn’t even seem to know that this wasn’t a “hymn of the Restoration” or that other Christians had been singing it (differently) for centuries.”

    I had the exact opposite reaction in a sacrament meeting the first year after I joined the church. Everybody in the ward was heartily singing “Far Far Away On Judea’s Plains” and I was struggling with this unfamiliar and obscure christmas hymn. I asked my future brother-in-law about this song and he was stunned that I had never heard of it. He was convinced that everybody had to know this famous Christmas song – but this recent convert from New England was completely unfamiliar with it.

  9. OK- I’m organizing some copies of carols for LDS carolers at a public location in the DC area..which version do you think I should print?

    personally I refer the saints and angels version

  10. Left Field says:

    I’ve heard both versions interchangeably for so long, I can’t keep track of whether “Saints and angels” or “Heaven and nature” is the LDS version. “Heaven and nature” has too many syllables, though. I don’t really think of the LDS version as a second coming song any more, since they switched to “is” instead of “will” in the last edition of the hymnal.

  11. I won’t sing the LDS version. I don’t really know why it bothers me so much, but it does. It was a perfectly nice song before, and then some hack decides to “improve” it. Ugh.

  12. John Turner says:

    At least in my Protestant church (a not particularly millennial Presbyterianism), at least one advent hymn typically focuses on the Second Coming. I’m not sure if any of our standard advent or Christmas hymns make the connection, but I often at least think about it when I sing hymns like “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” The season invites the hope of Christ coming again. Thus, if I ever happen to find myself in a sacrament meeting when No. 201 is sung, I’ll just sing along.

    [Also, I’m so used to mainline Protestants changing lyrics they don’t like for any number of theological reasons, that it would be easy to take in stride].

  13. John Turner says:

    Sorry — meant to say “at least one advent sermon” rather than “at least one advent hymn.”

  14. Interesting. I had not realized that so much was changed. I wonder why because I have sung both versions at differing times.

    I am ok with either and find Phelps’ take interesting.

  15. This has bugged the crud out of me since the first Christmas after I joined the church. I remember singing in Sac meeting, and going WHAT THE HECK? right in the middle of the song. There are a few others too- and it never fails to bug me.

  16. #9, Heaven and Nature !

    #3,6,11: me too — I sing the right words!

  17. I’m of two minds about this one. It’s one of Phelps’ less awkward paraphrases, and I’m a big fan of millennialist anthems generally. But I really miss “He rules the world with truth and grace…”

  18. I was raised Catholic, and I was used to having things be different from mainstream Protestantism, such as the books of the Bible, which in any case we didn’t study as much as Protestants do, since we had Papal revelation (whatever it’s called) to guide us in addition to the Bible. Also, The Lord’s Prayer said by Catholics typically leaves off the last part “For Thine is the kingdom…” except that the “new” (in the 1960s) Mass had it tacked on a little while after the fact.

    I think such changes to Mormon hymns are quaint and curious and delightful, myself. Mormon doctrine gives me great joy to hear. In The Spirit of God we sing “Let glory to Them in the highest be given” where other Christians would likely say “Him”, for instance. It makes me smile and feel joyful each time I hear it. I’m just so excited and happy to have the fullness of the Gospel, now. It matters to me ever so much! I never felt this feeling of total elation over any religion before.

    So I love all hymns and passages that are specifically Mormon. So beautiful and precious they are! Yea, they are delightsome to me. =)

  19. Sadly, there is not a single advent hymn in the LDS book. In addition to “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” we are missing out on greats like “O come, O come Emmanuel,” “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,” and “Hark! the glad sound! the Savior comes,” to say nothing of the great Lutheran chorales, “Gottes Sohn is kommen,” “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” and “Wachet auf.”

  20. I’m not sure “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” is an Advent hymn per se. It’s used in that (Advent) context, of course, but it’s originally a “second coming” type hymn, IIRC.

    In that vein, then, why couldn’t we LDS folk use “Come Thou Glorious Day of Promise” (#50) or “Come, O thou King of Kings” (#59) during Advent?

    Still, like you, I bemoan the sad absence of (true) Advent hymns in our hymnal.

    Anyhow, thinking of millennial texts as applicable to Advent gives new meaning and depth to the W.W. Phelps text modifications to “Joy to the World.”

  21. 7 — I’ve done the same thing. But not with your wife. Last night, it was the ward choir director. The text clearly isn’t describing what happened in the First Coming. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I also point out to people that “We Thank The, O God, for a Prophet” isn’t about the prophet, and most haven’t thought about that either.

    Kevin — Thanks for fleshing this story out. Always joy in my world to plumb your writing.

    20 — I’ve seen Come O Thou King of Kings used in a Mormon Christmas setting once. FWIW.

  22. Kevin, I have heard anti-Mormons decry this change in wording. Glad to see a post explaining it.

  23. Stephanie says:

    Interesting. I never even realized there were different versions before. I listen to the song on non LDS CDs as much (or more) than I sing it in church. Sometime I’ll have to sing it to myself to see what I sing (but right now I can’t because I am thinking about it and would skew the results)

  24. Calling William W. Phelps “a hack” and suggesting that he was trying to “improve” on Isaac Watts’s anthem tell more about the writer of that comment than they do about William W. Phelps.

    By that reasoning, Sondheim and Bernstein were hacks for trying to “improve” on Shakespeare.

  25. Mark Brown says:

    We sang Oh Come, All Ye Faithful, and we actually sounded like we were joyful and triumphant. Sometimes that’s hard to do in sacrament meeting.

  26. Tanya Spackman says:

    The variation in wording has never bothered me. I sing both versions happily. I guess I just accept that the wording of songs varies all the time. Actually, I like collecting some of my favorite songs (not church-related) based on variations in wording.

    Re #19: Last week my ward sang “O come, O come Emmanuel” (using xeroxed copies from some random hymnal). It was great. I love that song!

  27. As a convert I love it when I come across adapted hymns in the LDS hymnal. It feels familiar and brings back warm memories of my childhood church.

    What amazes me, though, is how many of the current members who are unaware that so many of “their” hymns first belonged to other denominations! :)

  28. Tanya Spackman — Your ward sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”? That’s wonderful.

  29. alextvalencic says:

    I feel that both versions speak of a Millennial Christ. I’ve long-since given up trying to figure out why some folks feel the need to alter the words to hymns, but hey, Mormons aren’t the only ones to do it.

    Every time I have the chance to visit another denomination (usually for weddings) I flip their hymnals. One day I found the song “Come, Come, Ye Saints” and was like, “Whoa!” Checked out the words, and saw that the verse about finding the place that God has prepared for us “far away, in the West” was different. I tried to track down the words, but couldn’t find them. I believe the wedding was at the United Church of Christ.

    Incidentally, it was from a different blogger attending the University of Illinois (woo Illini!) that I first thought of “Joy To The World” as a Millennial hymn instead of a Christmas hymn. I won’t say names, as I think he tries to maintain some sort of anonymity, but he gave a talk on it in our University Ward at Christmas-time a couple of years ago. Pretty cool.

  30. Interesting analysis.

    Not to sound whiney, but my heart sinks every year when I open the LDS hymnal and look at our slim collection of carols. And even the ones we include are incomplete – where are the other 4 verses of The First Noel? Especially the last verse! It’s so beautiful (and it’s even corporate):

    Then let us all with one accord
    Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
    That hath made Heaven and earth of nought
    And with his blood mankind has bought.
    Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
    Born is the King of Israel!

    But I guess we’d have to change that word “nought” since we’re not creation ex nihilo people.

  31. While sitting in the chapel of another denomination to watch a mid-week broadcast, I flipped through their hymnal. I was not surprised to see “How Firm a Foundation”, as I know that not all our hymns are hymns of the Restoration (although I don’t always know which ones). I was surprised, however, to see that they had the same wording we have in our new hymn book for the first-verse chorus (“Who unto the Savior”), and not our old hymn book (“Yoo hoo unto Jesus”). (I may have misspelled that; I don’t have an old hymn book handy.)

    Which is the original wording? If the original is “You who” then did one denomination lead with the change, or did we all change independently?

  32. Mark Brown #25, did you sing it in Latin? That would be awesome?

  33. Researcher says:

    Lee #31 — The book “Our Latter-Day Hymns” (Davidson) doesn’t answer the question directly about the original wording, but looking at a few sources it seems that “You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled” is the original text.

    My dictionary notes that “Yoo-hoo!” was first used in the English language in the 1920s, so that is the first point at which that line in the song would have become awkward and needed revision.

    The hymn is sung to at least five tunes plus the one we use; see the cyberhymnal entry
    How Firm a Foundation
    . I also have an arrangement of the hymn (tune: Protection) that uses the words, “To you, who for refuge to Jesus have fled,” which seems even more awkward than the original.

  34. I was pleased to see that Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains has been included in a very Protestant online hymn site:

  35. It’s my understanding that WW Phelps changed the words, but not the general meaning of the original song. Joy to the World was a millennial hymn when it was first composed and only later adopted as a Christmas carol.

  36. Loved “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” ever since I heard it sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. I also am a recent convert from New England who has never heard of far far away on Judea’s plains. lol.

    Haha, and I find it kind of humorous that critics of the Church would go after hymns in this context. Talk about desperate.

  37. This Millennial shift is also why the people of Islam speak in terms of still looking for the Messiah to come. Jesus must return and complete the victorious establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. He would have done it among the Jews if they wouldn’t have crucified him. As we all can clearly see, they didn’t thwart Him, they thwarted themselves.

    I do not think it is any disservice to Jesus to consider that Christ yet has much in the way of unfinished business and for us all to look forward to its completion.

    What most LDS do not realize is that Joseph Smith taught about Christ as the “Stem”, “Rod” and “Branch”, which has the implication that when Jesus returns it will be in a similar manner to how Elijah “returned” manifesting as John the Baptist. They Jews were not looking for a strange man out in the wilderness for the Elijah, they were looking for his literal return in a more super-natural glorious manner. They simply failed to discern that John’s glory was because the Spirit and Power of Elijah was upon him. Thus, just as Jesus manifested his Father, we need to be thinking in terms of the “Branch” from the House of Joseph obtaining spiritual union with Jesus Christ and manifesting Him the same way Jesus manifested his Father.

    This of course does not preclude an appearance in glory either. The pattern of the past shows us both in the case of John the Baptist. While John was the Elias/Elijah the Jews were looking for that would prepare the way for the Messiah, the personage of Elijah appeared in glory to Jesus on the mount of transfiguration.

    There’s a lot more to this than most people realize. Studying these references will help put it together:
    D&C 113:1-6; Isaiah 11:1-11
    Genesis 49:1,10,22-24

    Also, while we are on the subject of hymns, take a look at the 4th verse of Hymn 59 “Come, O Thou King of Kings” where Parley P. Pratt demonstrates he clearly understood the doctrine of three advents of Christ: “Hail! Prince of life and peace! Thrice welcome to thy throne! …”

    Anyway, enjoy!


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