Singing A New Song

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for Square Two Journal in which I advocated for a move away from military/war imagery in LDS religious discourse. I suggested that even though the Abrahamic tradition has always included such language, the LDS church’s contemporary message is one of “healing for all of creation that is grounded in God’s love” and that “military/war language detracts from what we are actually called to do as Christians generally and as the ‘true and living church’ specifically.” I continue to believe that.

Yet, as Michael Austin noted in his blog post last year, we have a number of LDS hymns that use conflict imagery. Austin summarized his discussion of these types of hymns with the insightful comment: “It is hard enough to renounce war and proclaim peace under any circumstances, but it is virtually impossible when you have been raised to see warfare as God’s ideal solution to difficult spiritual problems. If we want peace to prevail among nations and within our own hearts, then maybe it is time to stop singing about war and sing hymns of peace instead.” 

All around, we see conflict: wars among nations, domestic abuse in the home, deadly aggression in our schools, the victimization and oppression of marginalized groups, vitriolic and divisive political discourse… the list goes on and on. This conflict comes with devastating results for individuals and communities, and at its core it is tearing apart human-human, human-creation, and human-God relationships. Considering that a central tenet of the LDS Church’s gospel message is the forging of these very same relationships, it seems counterintuitive–to me at least–to sing hymns of worship which employ imagery that pits one person or thing against another. Austin is right: now, maybe more than ever, it is time to sing hymns of peace.

As a way to embody this idea of excising conflict imagery from my own personal vocabulary, in my Square Two Journal article, I offered new lyrics for hymn 259, “Hope of Israel (Zion’s Army).” Today, inspired by President Nelson’s call in the most recent general conference to be a peacemaker, I want to continue that exercise with two more hymns (both of which are on Austin’s list). I have no illusions that these lyrics will be adopted or used by anyone; rather it is the exercise of intentionally replacing words of conflict with words of peace that I find compelling. Said differently, this is about turning my own doxological sword into a plowshare and molding my own liturgical spear into a pruning hook, and never again singing about war (to paraphrase Isaiah 2:4).

Behold! A Loving Legion” (Alternative text for hymn 251 “Behold! A Royal Army”):

Behold! a loving legion
With kindness, hope, and zeal
Is coming forth to minister
To those who need be healed.
Disciples of the Master,
United, bold and strong.
They follow the Good Shepherd
And sing His joyful song:

And now they see the hungry,
The sad, the poor, and weak;
The brothers, sisters most ignored,
Are those for whom they seek.
The Leader calls, “show mercy!”
They pass the word along.
Rememb’ring his example,
they share his joyful song!

Oh, when the suff’ring’s ended;
When exploitations cease.
When all are known as our own kin
And, finally, all have peace.
Before the loving God of all–
One heart, one mind, one voice–
In Zion we’ve all found a home
And each can now rejoice.

Charity, charity
Like His, that redeemed us.
Charity, charity
Like Jesus Christ, our Lord!
Charity, charity, charity
Like Jesus Christ, our Lord!


Up, Awake, Ye Who Seek to Bring Zion” (Alternative text for hymn 248 “Up, Awake, Ye Defenders of Zion”):

Up, awake, ye who seek to bring Zion!
The Savior’s already at your door.
He looks like the jailed, the pariah.
He is the unshav’n and the poor.
Rember the Pool of Bethesda;
Forget not the ten lepers cleansed.
When we help those in need of assistance
It’s Jesus, Himself, that we mend,
It’s Jesus, Himself, that we mend,
It’s Jesus, Himself, that we mend,
When we help those in need of assistance
It’s Jesus, Himself, that we mend.

By God’s servants will Zion be founded
One simple, loving act at a time.
Their faith upon Jesus is grounded,
And their visage is both humble and sublime.
In each person’s heart is a longing
To do the work Christ sent them out to do.
So, among all creation they labor.
They heal, and lift, and bless, though they be few.
And they’ll always be tender and true,
And they’ll always be tender and true,
And they’ll always be tender and true,
They heal, and lift, and bless, though they be few.
And they’ll always be tender and true.

Oh! The task it appears overwhelming;
Pain and suffr’ing cause millions to mourn.
Yet, with Jesus our guide and our helmsman
We’ll succor all the sad and the forlorn.
In time all our griefs will be passed us;
At last, among all people will be found
The power of love and of kindness.
Then let us to char’ty be bound!
Then let us to char’ty be bound!
Then let us to char’ty be bound!
The power of love and of kindness,
Then let us to char’ty be bound!


  1. Gwendolyn Wyne says:

    I am deeply moved by “Behold! A Loving Legion.” To my mind these battle hymns are about casting out evil, which for me is definitely a fight and struggle, but to what end? I agree that it is spiritual healing, continuous healing until we can be one with God and each other, that is the ultimate purpose .

  2. Bravo! Changes like this matter and so do the conversations about them.

  3. Jeremy Spilsbury says:

    It’s time. The covenant people have been halting between two kingdoms for long enough, continually resorting to the ways of worldly kingdoms as depicted in 1 Samuel 8: 9-22. As predicted, the result has been endless wars which will continue to be our reality until God has a people “…whose heart is perfect toward him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). Perfection comes as a result of having charity. The only force powerful enough to engender love for our enemy and establish God’s kingdom here upon the earth. This must be our most earnest desire and is going to require a culture that idealizes it before we can actually start to believe that it’s possible. Our music, stories, artwork, gospel lessons, etc. should single-mindedly serve this ideal. Thank you so much for bringing attention to this too often neglected topic and your beautiful revisions to the hymns. It’s time!

  4. thank you for the article

  5. So beautiful! Thank you.

  6. This is wonderful! You’re a person after my own heart. We sang “Up Awake” a couple weeks ago in sacrament meeting and I just couldn’t sing the words as written. My daughter was totally delighted by my earnest attempts at a spontaneous rewrite (things like: “we’ll not rest ‘til our foes we’re embracing”), then really cracked up when I ran out of good ideas and had to resort to “this song is ga-a-a-arbage; I do not like thi-is song!” Thank you for fleshing out something much better than that. I absolutely love it.

  7. Raymond Winn says:

    THANK YOU for raising this topic again. It is daunting and frustrating to contemplate attending a meeting where The Prince of Peace and His message are [hopefully] discussed and championed, and then sing a war-chant at meeting’s end, in order to [again hopefully] understand what He is really about and how He really wants us, His followers, to deal with the world-full of our brothers and sisters, His [adopted] children.

  8. Bryan S says:

    Ah, David, thank you. I really love these.

    I admit that I have a certain fondness for Paul’s theology of cosmic rulers—where we fight “not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” I’ve been spiritually galvanized and helped by the idea that I am fighting daily against the Archē and Exousia—whether that be Mammon or Technopoly, nationalism or consumerism, lies or “logismoi”, actual angelic beings or simply a pre-modern name for systemic forces—and that armor and sword are appropriate images within *that* domain.

    But, having said that, it does seem like we fight against, and hate, our own “flesh and blood”—our brothers and sisters—far too often; that we “employ imagery that pits one person or thing against another.” I’ve not done a close reading to see how the original lyrics to our songs encourage hating people (rather than sin or the devil or powers), but I’m assuming that we often read them that way. And insofar as that’s the case, I love this message. I love the lyrics. I love the idea of shouting “Charity, Charity” with my brothers and sisters. (Have you submitted these to the new hymnbook? Because really, it’s a slim chance of getting in, but it would be worth a try!)

  9. This has real “feed two birds with one scone” energy. I don’t think changing the words to beloved hymns advances the cause of peacemaking. Like all attempts to sanitize language and culture, it’s off putting and seems to miss the point of the original material.

    If the Prince of Peace can, in appropriate circumstances, note that He has come with a sword, invoke images of cutting off body parts, and craft a whip to cleanse the temple, we can also occasionally speak of marshaling armies to fight evil without interfering with our mission of being peacemakers.

  10. This has real “feed two birds with one scone” energy. I think changing words away from aggressive, violent words advances eat cause of peacemaking. Like all attempts to elevate language and culture, it’s hopeful and enlightening and improves the point of the original material.

    If the Prince of Peace can say ‘Father, forgive them, for they know what what they do,’ we, too, can approach our mission of being peacekeepers with more humility.

  11. Brian, I agree that we can approach our mission of being peacekeepers with more humility. But that certainly doesn’t require refraining from criticism of things that we perceive to be ineffective, off-putting, or otherwise misguided. There’s no humility in providing “alternative texts” to beloved hymns. I think the suggestion that we reduce the use of violent or belligerent images and language is worth serious consideration. I also think the “alternative texts” are pretty good standing on their own. But I also think that sanitizing every reference to armies, battles, and defense is absurd.

  12. Dsc, changing language is hymns, no matter how beloved, is not knew and not even to close to sanitizing ‘everything.’ That would be absurd.

    “that certainly doesn’t require refraining from criticism of things that we perceive to be ineffective, off-putting, or otherwise misguided.” Sure, make your criticism. Realize, also, that’s what this OP is doing. Why not let it be? Because it’s a ‘beloved’ hymn of yours? I don’t like the originals of these hymns. Many people don’t. And with good reason.

  13. OK, no more songs about Stripling soldiers and their deeds.

    Got it.

  14. A Disciple says:

    “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass.”

    There will be conflict on earth as the forces of evil (ie lies, deceptions & murder) oppose the powers of righteousness. Do we engage in that fight? Or do we sit it out and expect others to do it? And if no one fights for truth and righteousness who is to blame when the weak are trampled and society collapses?

    The Book of Mormon provides four approaches to the battle with evil:

    (1) Leave and find a place to live peacefully. Lehi, Nephi, Mosiah and Alma did this, with Alma leading his followers to join with the people of Mosiah.

    (2) Fight. This is what king Benjamin, Captain Moroni and Helaman successfully did. Mormon tried and was unsuccessful.

    (3) Die with dignity. This is what the converted Laminates did. Note that after the initial slaughter the Nephites stepped in to provide armed protection. Then the sons of these Lamanites took up weapons to join the armies lead by Moroni and Helaman.

    (4) Preach the gospel. The Book of Mormon shows this approach had success and it was one of the preferred methods of establishing peace. At the same time, this approach often lead to opposition requiring one of the responses previously listed.

    It is a Christian duty to not proactively seek conflict. But it is also a Christian duty to defend Christ and the liberties and obligations intricately linked to faith in Christ. I personally oppose proactive military conflicts. Likewise, needless confrontation and argument destroys the spirit as well as social trust – contention is of the devil. However, Christians need to have a backbone and they need to use it!

  15. (OP) MDavid says:

    To reply to just a few comments:
    Bryan S.–Yes–There is something powerfully moving about the cosmic struggle/Christus Victor theology. I appreciate the careful way you acknowledged that language occurs within a specific “domain.”

    DSC–As I fully acknowledge and document in my Square Two Journal article, war/military imagery has always been part of the Abrahamic tradition–so sanitization (or critique) was never the intent. If these alternative texts come off as lacking in humility, then that is on me. For me, it was the practice of replacing/adjusting the words of existing tunes (not unlike has been done with “Scotland, the Brave”)–i.e., carefully thinking about the words I use in worship–that was compelling. It is the exercise, not the outcome, that I find rewarding. I fully appreciate that for some this exercise may not resonate, but that doesn’t mean there is anything inherently unfaithful in what I’ve done. Indeed, as the Deseret News points out, this was a common practice in the early church:

    Thanks to the many who enjoyed these lyrics and for your kind words. I’d love to see any alternative texts that you might create!

  16. (OP)MDavid says:

    Disciple–I’m not convinced that opposition by definition equals conflict. Lehi’s teaching seems to be as much (more?) about joy and misery–that’s the language Lehi uses anyway (not about peace and conflict). Perceiving all “opposition” as conflict sets us up to be in a perpetual fight. That’s just not how I’m wired, I guess. I understand opposition (in the way Lehi uses it) more like running up a very big hill. The hill isn’t fighting me, and I’m not fighting the hill. It’s just hard to run uphill sometimes.

    wmsfam–That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing. For specific songs, sometimes I make up words on the spot too … or just hum.

  17. MDavid, I apologize if my critique came off as an insinuation that there is something unfaithful about even the suggestion that the Church do away with these hymns (which you’ve clarified wasn’t your intent).

    Thank you for the clarification on your intent here. As an exercise in identifying and finding alternatives to bellicose language, I can see the value, although it’s not exactly my cup of (herbal) tea. With that in mind, I don’t think my criticisms apply here, so feel free to disregard (not that you need my permission to do so anyway).

  18. Jeremy Spilsbury says:

    A Disciple – don’t you think Blacks who engaged in non-violent resistance against Jim Crow had a backbone? How about Gandhi and his followers?

  19. Believe what you want, draw on whatever parts of your tradition you want to and make it your own. You still can’t bring about peace while you’re aiding and abetting a hate group.

  20. Geoff - Aus says:

    There was a time when war was seen as glorified, which was when these hymns were written. Marching of to glory.

    With returning soldiers suffering from gassing, ptsd and other physical or mental damage we see the reality of war and are less convinced of the glory.

    I have been uncomfortable with hymns that glorify war, and appreciate your effort to improve these hymns.

  21. Charli G. says:

    It seems to me that those who are so against the military/war imagery/language in hymns and other Church discourse may be missing the point of said imagery/language. We *are* at war! We are at war with whatever you wish to call the force for evil – Adversary, Devil, Lucifer, Satan, or any other name you choose to refer to evil by. That is why the imagery/language is present – it is to remind us that we are fighting evil daily.

    I realize that the idea of war makes people uncomfortable, but to be honest, if you think the hymns are glorifying war, you probably aren’t paying close enough attention to the lessons we are being taught.

  22. (OP)MDavid says:

    Dsc–your thoughts and observations are always welcome; I’m glad we could understand each other a little better.

    Charli–See my Square Two Journal article (the link to it is above) for a much more thorough treatment of the topic you raise. Briefly, military/war imagery is part of the Abrahamic tradition and that language can serve theological and pedagogical purposes. But it is not the _only_ way (and in my view maybe not even the best way) to understand the situation we are all in. And such language comes with the effect of creating an “us” and a “them”–too often the “us” (the “good”) is perceived as being personified in only those we’re sitting next to when we sing, and the “them” (the “evil”) is perceived as being personified in everyone else. That doesn’t resonate with me. Bryan S’s comment above does a better job of saying this same thing, perhaps.

  23. A Disciple says:


    Physical conflict is just one option, and the least desired. Observe that in the Book of Mormon the first action of Captain Moroni was to proclaim freedom. This message was successful at beating the Kingman at the ballot box. But then the Kingman plotted subterfuge and sedition of the Nephite government and that is when Moroni took to arms.

    As explained by Charli G the battle & military language in hymns is figurative. Christians are a royal army going to battle against dark forces that aim to destroy our souls. We see the destruction of souls all about us! As Christians are we taking a stand for the life of souls, including our own, or do we shrink from the fight?

    A real risk of the “us vs them” mindset is it promotes unnecessary aggression. It invites Christians to find reasons to judge their “heathen” neighbors. This is wrong and should be avoided. At the same time, permissiveness leads to acceptance of beliefs that are corrosive to human development.

    I find the goodwill expressed in Articles of Faith 11 and 13 to be a helpful guide to how Christians should conduct themselves. We claim the privilege to worship our God and we need to defend that liberty. All the while we extend to others their freedom of conscience. Guiding our faith is the pursuit of what is virtuous and good and we ought not apologize or shy away from that effort.

  24. Jeremy Spilsbury says:

    A Disciple – The history of non-violent resistance is not a record of permissiveness, it is the closest thing to fearlessness as it gets. The problem with using violence as a metaphor for better understanding our spiritual journey is that our natural man has a propensity toward violence and feels very justified in using it. It also misunderstands the true nature of this battle as one that takes place inside us. That’s where I think the focus should be. Based on President Nelson’s most recent conference address, I would say he feels the same way. As much as I admire Captain Moroni, I admire Christ’s approach much more. Moroni won some battles, Christ overcame the world.

  25. Julie Woolley says:

    These new hymns are beautiful! We need more Jesus and love and charity instead of marching and war and musket fire.

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