Hymns eloquently portray the faith of those who sing them. In 1827, Alexander Campbell put it well: a hymnbook is “as good an index to the brains and to the hearts of a people as the creed book.”In Campbell’s day and long thereafter, every new church needed a new hymnbook, and every old hymnbook came to need revision. Not only did hymnbooks pervade the early American printing industry, but they also became part of the American sacred canon, as necessary to worship as the Nicene Creed or sectarian articles of faith. They helped worshippers attain their distinctive religious identities in the New World. What Nathan Hatch calls “the democratization of American Christianity” relied as much on gospel song as it did on gospel.
But while all hymns represent themselves equally in the index of a hymnbook, some hymns are sung far more often than others—and many hymns in a hymnbook are seldom, if ever, sung. A hymnbook actually may be more an index to the brains and hearts of its compilers than of the people who use it. Churchgoers know well that those who choose the hymns to be sung in church meetings redact a hymnbook, emphasizing hymns they prefer, hymns they think congregations want to sing, or hymns that suit particular occasions. It is this everyday reshaping of a hymnbook that more accurately indexes the brains and hearts of religious people than what merely lies between the covers of the book. So, if we want to understand early Mormons, we should want to know not just what hymns they published but what and how they actually sang.
Early Mormon Record Keeping
Although we generally think of the Church in its more concentrated forms in New York, Ohio, and Missouri, we often forget that traveling elders held meetings and established branches in many regions. By the end of 1834, according to Matthew Crawford, the Church had organized 124 branches spreading not only through the three states just mentioned but also in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and even Canada.In May of that year, W. W. Phelps observed how perplexing the image of Mormondom was becoming: “New churches are continually rising as the light spreads, and it is our peculiar privilege to hear, frequently, from different individuals, calling themselves our brethren, of whose names we have before never heard, and whose faces we have never seen, and learning of saints where we had not heard that the gospel had been preached.” Consider how quickly the Church spread even in the Deep South: in February 1836, for example, Wilford Woodruff reported having established seven branches of the Church (memberships ranging from eight to thirty-one members apiece) in a single two-hundred-mile circuit in Tennessee. How these branches held meetings likely differed from worship services in New York and Ohio, especially in hymn singing.
What records do we have of the thousands of meetings held in this far-flung church during the pre-Nauvoo period? Even in the centers of Mormon population, minutes of meetings exist mainly for conferences and priesthood councils, not for less formal meetings and certainly not for the home devotionals that probably took place every day.Journals and diaries occasionally mention meetings but rarely suggest the meetings’ format and content. Most of the records we have from 1830 to 1838 yield precious little information about meetings: a few lines here and there, incomplete sentences, skimpy reporting, scant details. Surely, more records will resurface as Mormon historiography proceeds, but they will likely follow the bare-bones pattern of the records we know.
Still, when one considers the available minutes and personal records, a few trends emerge. The sources I have studied for the years 1830 to 1838—all the extant minutes as well as journals and autobiographies of nearly two hundred Latter-day Saints—mention on only fifty-eight occasions the names of the hymns sung.Among those fifty-eight occasions, only twenty-eight different titles appear. And only sixteen of those twenty-eight hymns (57 percent) were published in the first Mormon hymnbook (1835/1836). This means that although that first hymnbook contained ninety hymn texts, I can find record (through 1838) of only 18 percent of them being sung. (Table 1 shows the occurrence of all the hymn names mentioned. )
While the sketchy records yield only a small sample for us to consider, one can easily conclude the obvious: some hymns were more popular than others. Of the twenty-eight hymns identified by name, “Adam-ondi-Ahman” is mentioned ten times, “The Spirit of God” is noted seven times, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “Now Let Us Rejoice” appear five times, “How Firm a Foundation” turns up three times, and five more (“Go On Ye Pilgrims,” “Hark, Listen to the Trumpeters,” “Ere Long the Veil Will Rend in Twain,” “How Precious Is the Name,” and “O Happy Souls Who Pray”) are mentioned twice each. In other words, two-thirds of the fifty-eight occurrences of hymn names from 1830 to 1838 are these ten hymns. More telling, perhaps, is that almost half of the hymns mentioned are the same four hymns (“Adam-ondi-Ahman,” “Spirit of God,” “Glorious Things,” and “Now Let Us Rejoice”).
Why are so few hymns mentioned by name? It is partly a matter of record keeping. Clearly, clerks and scribes differed on whether it was important to record the names of hymns sung. And even those who thought it important may not have known the name of any given hymn, even if they wanted to record it. The seemingly limited repertoire of hymns also results from the choices of the people leading them. Those who chose the songs to sing—and we do not know how many different people that might have been—could choose only songs that they knew and probably chose songs they preferred. Thus, biases in both record keeping and song choosing skew our results.
Consider, for example, that five different hymns on our list of fifty-eight were sung in the same meeting on August 17, 1835. Thankfully, the minutes record the names of all of them (and that one of them was sung twice). So careful an inventory of singing is rare; thus the list may not be representative. The minutes of that meeting say that Levi Hancock was appointed to “lead in singing” (a phrase that may become clearer below).As a leader he could only “lead in” songs that he knew, and he probably chose those he liked or thought suited the meeting’s purposes. As it turned out, four of the five different hymns he led that day did not appear in the soon-to-be-published Mormon hymnbook. But he knew them, and that was enough to have them sung. Would anyone else have chosen any of those five hymns?
Hymns Mentioned by Name in LDS Records, 1830–1838
• listed in order of number of mentions (highest to lowest), then chronological
• all mentions are from the Far West Record, except where indicated
• all titles/first lines shown in italics did not appear in the first official LDS hymnal (1835)
|Adam-ondi-Ahman||December 16, 1835†|
|January 6, 1836|
|January 15, 1836**|
|March 27, 1836**|
|April 24, 1837|
|June 11, 1837|
|March 15, 1838|
|April 28, 1838|
|June 28, 1838†|
|The Spirit of God||March 27, 1836**|
|May 29, 1836***|
|July 25, 1836|
|June 28, 1838|
|July 6, 1838|
|August 29, 1838†|
|September 16, 1838†|
|Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken||August 4, 1831|
|August 24, 1831|
|October 25, 1831|
|February 14, 1835*|
|August 17, 1835*|
|Now Let Us Rejoice||March 27, 1836†|
|June 28, 1838|
|July 6, 1838|
|October 5, 1838|
|How Firm a Foundation||April 21, 1834*|
|March 17, 1838|
|April 7, 1838|
|Go On Ye Pilgrims||October 26, 1831|
|December 7, 1831|
|Hark, Listen to the Trumpeters||1834§|
|February 14, 1835*|
|Ere Long the Vail Will Rend in Twain||September 10, 1834|
|March 27, 1836**|
|How Precious Is the Name||August 17, 1835*|
|August 17, 1835* |
(sung twice that day)
|O Happy Souls Who Pray||March 27, 1836**|
|October 5, 1838|
|My Loving Fellow Travellers||December 7, 1831|
|He Dies, the Friend of Sinners Dies||April 27, 1832|
|Age after Age Has Rolled Away||July 7, 1834|
|Awake My Soul in Joyful Lays||July 14, 1835*|
|When I Can Read My Title Clear||August 17, 1835*|
|Beyond These Earthly Scenes in Sight||August 17, 1835*|
|All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name||August 17, 1835*|
|There’s a Power in the Sun||December 16, 1835†|
|There’s a Feast of Fat Things||December 16, 1835†|
|Religion, Which the Soul Must Have||February 9, 1836***|
|How Pleas’d and Blest Was I||March 27, 1836**|
|The Towers of Zion Soon Shall Rise||April 7, 1836|
|Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise||1838‡|
|O God, Our Help in Ages Past||April 7, 1838|
|He Died, the Great Redeemer Died||July 6, 1838|
|Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?||September 16, 1838†|
|The Gallant Ship Is under Way||September 16, 1838†|
|To Him That Made the Sun and Moon||October 6, 1838|
Sources: * Kirtland Council Minute Book, ** Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, *** Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, † Journal History, ‡ Lewis Barney Autobiography, § William Cahoon Autobiography, §§ Wandle Mace Autobiography
Farewells, Love-Feasts, and “Adam-ondi-Ahman”
Many hymns Latter-day Saints published and probably sang were for gatherings other than church services, meetings likely without clerks or recorders. For example, the first LDS hymnbook has a section titled “Farewell Hymns.” The well-established Protestant tradition of farewell hymns was that people sang them not so much in regular conference or council meetings but at special meetings held for ministerial departures (that is, “farewells”). That first hymnbook also contained sections labeled “Morning Hymns” and “Evening Hymns,” common designations in Protestant hymnbooks of the day.These hymns were for families to sing at home, not at church. Thus, the hymnbook included six of each, probably one for each day of the week except Sunday, when other hymns would be sung at church. Although one of the evening hymns in the 1835/36 hymnbook, “The Day Is Past and Gone,” never appears in the records of meetings through 1838, William Smith, the Prophet’s brother, recalled that it was his father’s favorite evening hymn to sing during family devotionals: “Again and again was this hymn sung while upon the bending knees.” People also sang hymns at work, at home (for example, as lullabies), and certainly at funerals and baptisms. We have few records of such occasions. John Murdock wrote of his own baptism that “the spirit of the Lord sensibly attended the ministration, & I came out of the water rejoicing & singing praises to God, and the Lamb.” Was he singing hymns? Maybe. But since he used the generic term “singing praises,” we cannot say with certainty.
Some Mormon gatherings, while religious, were not strictly devoted to worship or devotion. One hymn on the list, “There’s a Feast of Fat Things” (also known as “The Proclamation”) was intended primarily for the feasts for the poor in Kirtland. The New Testament mentions “feasts of charity” (Jude 1:12) held by early Christians, who probably based them on Jesus’ story of the rich man who threw a feast and invited—even compelled—the poor and disabled to attend (Luke 14:12–24). Some Protestants revived the tradition. Methodists often held such “love-feasts” in the early nineteenth century—at least once a year among smaller church populations and more frequently among larger ones.In Kirtland the Latter-day Saints held such feasts, for which W. W. Phelps wrote “The Proclamation” in February 1835. The song invited people to the actual feasts in the city and ultimately to the wedding supper of Christ (see Rev. 19:7–9):
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.
In the song’s twelve verses, Phelps calls on Latter-day Saints to gather everyone into their millennial community:
Go gather the willing, and push them together,
Yea, push them to Zion (the saints’ rest forever,)
Where the best that the heavens and earth can afford,
Will grace the great marriage and feast of the Lord.
The song was sung at a Kirtland feast in fall 1835, a sixty-guest affair, about which Phelps wrote that it was the “greatest blessing feast I have [ever] attended.”Elizabeth Ann Whitney described a later Kirtland feast in words evoking the song: “This feast lasted three days, during which time all in the vicinity of Kirtland who would come were invited. . . . To me it was ‘a feast of fat things’ indeed; a season of rejoicing never to be forgotten.” Although the hymn ended up in the first Mormon hymnbook, it might not have been sung except at such feasts.
Another hymn on the list, “Hark, Listen to the Trumpeters,” abounded with military and Old Testament references:
Hark! listen to the trumpeters,
They call for volunteers;
On Zion’s bright and flow’ry mount
Behold the officers.
Their horses white, their armours bright,
With courage bold they stand,
Enlisting soldiers for their King,
To march to Zion’s land.
Such a song appealed to Mormons in the paramilitary march known as Zion’s Camp. William F. Cahoon wrote that “Hark, Listen to the Trumpeters” was “our favorite song” when that group marched.From Zion’s Camp, the song entered a February 14, 1835, worship meeting held in Kirtland where several brethren who had been on the march were blessed and the new Quorum of Twelve Apostles was chosen and ordained. Although the hymn later became more popular as Mormons developed militias in Nauvoo and Utah, it may well not have been sung in other worship meetings of the pre-Nauvoo period. It did not appear in the first hymnbook.
If some hymns thrived in special circumstances, others had broad appeal. For instance, the hymn most often mentioned in our limited sample from this period is “Adam-ondi-Ahman”—mentioned ten times. This hymn celebrated the place where early Mormons would make a last attempt to gather and build a city in Missouri. Latter-day Saints believed this to be the site where Adam and Eve dwelt after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. It is also believed to be the place to which Jesus will return and where Adam’s original language—from which the name “Adam-ondi-Ahman” derived—will again be spoken by all faithful Church members.Although Smith first referred to Adam-ondi-Ahman in 1832, he did not identify its location until 1838 (D&C 78:15; 116:1). But Phelps had already written a hymn about it in 1835. The first verse went:
This world was once a garden place,
With all her glories common;
And men did live a holy race,
And worship Jesus face to face,
Phelps goes on to acclaim “the Savior’s second comin’” when Saints will find a “holy home / like Adam-ondi-Ahman.”The hymn was sung at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in March 1836. For the next two years, Church members sang it often, most notably, perhaps, in a meeting held on June 28, 1838, to organize a stake of Zion at Adam-ondi-Ahman. After the Saints were driven out of Missouri they surely sang the song less. But by then it was indelible. Mormons revised, rewrote, and republished it for decades. It remains in the current hymnbook (1985, no. 49).
On the other hand, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” mentioned five times, occurred three of those times in 1831 and twice in 1835 but not thereafter. We can see why such a venerable Protestant hymn resonated with early Mormons. The words dwelt on Zion, the “city of our God,” which Latter-day Saints interpreted literally. They intended to fulfill the prophecy implicit in the text:
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God!
He whose word cannot be broken,
Chose thee for his own abode.
After the third recorded instance of singing the song (in a general conference of the Church in Orange, Ohio, on October 25, 1831), Sidney Rigdon arose and noted how God was unifying the hearts of his people: “And in this thing God has taught his children to sing a new song even about Zion which David Spoke of, &c.”Despite its relevance to early Mormons, the song could easily get crowded out of their repertoire because it was not really a new song. It was perhaps too Protestant, too much a part of the Saints’ past and not their independent future, a future where newly written hymns like “Adam-ondi-Ahman” strove with old ones for a place in the canon.
Like “Adam-ondi-Ahman,” “Glorious Things” also remains in the current hymnbook (no. 46), though both hymns are rarely sung. That is not true of the second-most-oft-mentioned hymn in these early Mormon records, “The Spirit of God.” Phelps wrote the hymn for the Kirtland Temple dedication, at which it had its premiere. That first hearing, in the midst of the ecstatic manifestations of the dedicatory services—angels, visions, speaking in tongues, and so forth—led some to believe that the song had been given by God spontaneously to the temple choir.The hymn was printed in the first hymnbook and has likely been sung at all LDS temple dedications since. That was certainly enough to make it a Mormon standard. But most other hymns mentioned by name in early Mormon records fared differently. While all five of the most oft-mentioned hymns appear in the current hymnbook, twenty of the remaining twenty-three titles do not. It is fair to say that most hymns early Mormons sang have long since ebbed away.
How and Who
As to how early Latter-day Saints sang hymns, it is important to understand first that hymn names refer only to texts, not tunes. What the Latter-day Saints (like their Protestant peers) called “hymns” were just words copied by hand into journals or letters and eventually—for some of them—typeset in newspapers, broadsides, and hymnbooks. One could sing any hymn to any existing tune that fit it (or even a tune that did not quite fit).How can we know what tunes were sung? Sometimes an epigraph on a hymn tells which tune to use. At other times one can deduce a tune because a hymn’s words so clearly derive from those of a well-known song (with its own well-established tune). Occasionally, if a text has a peculiar structure (like “Adam-ondi-Ahman”), only one basic tune (and slight variations) will work. But all of these are special cases. Usually we cannot reasonably speculate on what tune was sung with a hymn’s text, especially in any given locale. So when we consider early Mormon hymn singing, we can generally be certain about the words but not about the music.
Surprisingly, we also know little about who actually sang the hymns in church meetings. We assume early LDS congregations sang each hymn in unison or harmony from start to finish, more or less as we do today. But I have seen no Mormon sources from 1830 to 1838 stating clearly that “the congregation sang” a given hymn. If there are any such statements to be found, they are rare indeed. Most of the minutes, if they mention singing at all, say only that “a hymn was sung” or that a meeting was “opened by singing” or “by singing and prayer.” By far the most common wording in Far West Record is the statement that a meeting was “opened by singing [a title] and prayer by [a person’s name].”From our modern perspective we read this statement as (1) a hymn sung by the congregation and (2) a prayer offered by an individual. But the statement “opened by singing [a title] and prayer by [a person’s name]” could mean that before praying, the named individual sang. A few passages in Far West Record may connote this interpretation. On November 7, 1837, for example, Thomas B. Marsh was chosen as the “Moderator” of the meeting. The minutes then say that “after singing, the Moderator addressed the Throne of Grace in prayer.” A slightly later passage reads simply, “The Council was opened by singing by Prest Marsh” (June 23, 1838). In the Kirtland Elders Quorum minutes, we read phrases such as “meeting was opened by [a person’s name] by singing and prayer” (March 6 and 12, 1838). Joseph Smith records this about an 1835 marriage ceremony: “After opening our interview with singing and prayer, I delivered a lecture.” Erastus Snow also wrote that he closed a meeting by administering the sacrament, blessing some children “& after singing a hymn I dismissed [the congregation] with the blessing of the Lord.” William McLellin wrote of a Sabbath service in March 1833, “I opened the meeting by singing and prayr and then spoke about half an hour.” Meanwhile, as singing in tongues began to infuse Mormon meetings, one source notes that “Elder Brigham Young arose and in the Spirit of God sung a song of Zion in a foreign tongue. After which he delivered a very animated address to his brother ministers.”
We should understand such passages in the context of their time. Biographies and diaries of Protestant ministers from the late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries commonly describe how ministers opened evangelistic meetings. First they would “give out,” “read,” “start up,” or “sing” a hymn.Next they would pray. Then they would speak (“preach”). Descriptions of this three-part practice abound. One writer describes it nicely: “[a] homely, awkward frontier preacher, clad in ill fitting, homespun preacher garb . . . places his chair before him as his pulpit, and begins to read a hymn, in a soft and charming voice. After the singing of the hymn, comes the prayer, which is uttered with . . . eloquence and pathos. . . . And then follows the sermon on the text.” In an 1802 account of a camp meeting, Jesse Lee noted, “The preachers were singing, praying, or preaching all night.” Another diary entry by Lee shows that he experienced the three tasks of a preacher—singing, praying, speaking—as an almost mystical self-induction. About the opening of a meeting, he wrote, “As soon as I began to sing, I felt my soul happy in the Lord, and while I was praying, the power of the Lord was sensibly felt in the midst; but while I was speaking from the text, the Lord was more powerfully present.” To understand these three aspects of a preacher’s duty, one should think more broadly on what it meant to be a preacher or a missionary: it was not just sermonizing but singing and praying aloud as well.
Descriptions not just of evangelistic meetings but also of public worship meetings from this period show that ministers sang, prayed, and spoke. In his diary for 1825, Free Will Baptist circuit preacher Abel Thornton recorded the standard practice in this way: “After opening the meeting by singing and prayer, Br. Asa Dodge preached to the people.”A similar formulaic description fills the 1840s minutes of Methodist conferences. Those minutes commonly record that a particular individual opened the conference by “reading a portion of the scripture, singing and prayer” or that the conference was “opened by reading, singing and prayer by” a particular person. Ministers’ descriptions of how they opened meetings make it clear that they sang in some form—with the “singing” possibly meaning “lining out” (see below)—then prayed. One Methodist minister recalled of his youth in Missouri in the 1840s, “I would have gone a hundred miles to Conference if for nothing else but to hear the preachers sing.”
Their own accounts show that, in evangelizing at least, Mormon missionaries often followed the pattern of Protestant circuit preachers. In March 1833, William McLellin wrote that, when preaching to potential converts, “I sung considerable, then opened by prayr and addressed [the congregation].”George A. Smith wrote descriptively of how he and his companion, Lyman Smith, conducted proselyting meetings in Ohio and Virginia. On June 6, 1835, for example, “As brother Lyman was the oldest, he agreed to preach first. . . . He read the 33rd Chapter of Jeremiah and prayed, gave out a hymn which he sung and then preached five minutes.” Two summers later, after being forbidden to preach in a local meetinghouse, Smith stood on a pile of staves, “gave out a hymn and preached.” Later he held a preaching meeting of which he reported, “I read a long chapter, and two long hymns . . . and [preached] two and a half hours.” Jonathan Crosby wrote that during his 1838 mission to Ohio, he and his companion visited a home where they “preached & sang to them half the night.” Lewis Barney recalled that in late 1838, two Mormon elders set up a meeting that he attended. “At the opening services they sang the hymn, ‘Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise, Her Light Begins to Shine,’ after which they prayed.” Wandle Mace recorded a similar meeting in the winter of 1837–38 when Parley Pratt and Elijah Fordham had come to the home of a Mrs. Dexter to administer to her daughter. “Together they sang [‘Now Let Us Rejoice’] to soft pleasant music. . . . After singing, Elder Pratt offered a prayer and then explained the principles of the gospel.” Even when baptizing converts, a Mormon elder might sing. Wilford Woodruff wrote in 1838 that “after Singing a hymn I led a man down into the water and Baptized him.”
Given these common practices, it seems reasonable that at least some early LDS worship meetings (especially conferences) followed the pattern we see in contemporaneous Protestant meetings. That is, when we read that a Mormon meeting was opened “by singing and prayer by” a particular person, that person might well have done the singing in addition to the praying. It would have seemed only natural for these “brother ministers” to follow a procedure they had practiced in their missionary labors and which was the standard practice in frontier Protestant churches.
What then was the role of congregational singing? We may never fully know. But we have to consider that solo singing by a preacher and group singing by a congregation were often linked by the practice of “lining out” (or simply “lining”) the hymns. Although seldom discussed nowadays, probably the greatest debate in nineteenth-century American church music concerned this way of singing. And since phrases like “giving out” a hymn or “leading in singing” often pertained to lining out, we should consider it as a possible practice in the early LDS Church.
As commonly done in Protestant churches of the day (and still done in some), lining out the hymns consisted of several steps. First, the hymn leader—usually the minister or someone he appointed—started singing a tune without words. Those who recognized it joined in heartily. Those who did not made a valiant attempt at singing along. The first category of singers sang slowly but emphatically—partly for the benefit of the second category—but they also embellished the tune, decorating it with grace notes and sliding tones to demonstrate their religious fervor. Those who did not know the tune, of course, dragged behind the already slow singing of those who did know it.
After the singing of the tune, the leader hastily chanted or sang one or two lines of the hymn text. The congregation then sang those lines back, setting them to the appropriate part of the tune they had just sung. As they finished, the leader chanted one or two more lines and the congregation sang them back. They continued this call-and-response singing until the hymn was completed (or the leader stopped leading)—always one or two lines at a time. The leader chanted quickly and precisely; the congregation sang slowly and loudly.
Although lining out may strike us as awkward and tedious, it had practical origins. In 1645, Presbyterian reformers explained, “For the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the Psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.”By the next century, not being able to read was often less a matter of literacy than of access; many churchgoers did not own hymnbooks (the standard pocket-size variety) and even those who did would seldom have the same collection or edition as their peers. So when a hymn was announced, even a literate congregation might have trouble getting to its words. William Warren Sweet wrote that, even in the early nineteenth century, “frequently no one in the congregation possessed a hymn book except the preacher, who gave out the verses, two lines at a time.” Only as a congregation learned hymns by repeating them often was it “able to sing them without the process of lining out.”
Lining the hymns became known as “old way” or “usual way” singing. These two terms suggest what this style of singing meant to its practitioners. First, it was old—that is, traditional or original. Lining was to them the only true form of singing hymns, the way hymns were performed in biblical times (they believed) and again during the Reformation. Second, it was usual—the way most American Protestant congregations sang hymns from colonial days through the mid-nineteenth century, especially if those congregations pursued “authentic” or “pure” Christian worship.
With such virtues to commend the old way of singing, an Ohio conference of Methodists resolved on August 29, 1834, “that all preachers in this conf be instructed to line their Hymns in all our publick congregations.”On this matter, Methodists wanted to be in step with most reformist Christian groups—Puritans, Baptists, Reformed Presbyterians, Mennonites, Amish, and so forth—who perpetuated the practice in their revivals, camp meetings, and public worship meetings of the late eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries in America. Even as late as 1846, an American music historian wrote that “to this day, [lining the hymns] prevails over three-fourths of the territory of the United States.”
But from the early 1700s on, many trained musicians objected to lining out and to that “screeching, dragging style that is too common in this country.”They wanted singing that would not break up the tunes. Some even insisted that hymns never be sung by the untrained voices of a congregation but rather by trained choirs. Their bias was toward what was known as “regular singing,” sometimes called “continuous singing” or “singing by note,” in which singers sang only what was on a printed page of music (thus regulating the singing with written notes). Training singers to do that necessitated singing schools, community classes run by a musically educated teacher who could convey the “rules” of music (basic theory, proper tone production, and so forth).
Choirs and Regular Singing
Most mid-nineteenth-century nonmetropolitan American congregations opposed regular singing, choirs, and musical instruments in church—all state-church practices that were inappropriate in the New World. As late as 1854, the antichoir members of an Ohio Methodist congregation heckled the choir whenever it tried to sing, hoping to “bring discredit on the singers by creating discord.” One heckler defended his tactics by arguing that “there could not be a revival of religion with a Choir tolerated in the Church . . . [because] choir singing originated with the devil.”In another midwestern Methodist church in about the same year, members of the choir, weary of being condemned by some of their hearers, quit coming to meetings and let the multitude musically fend for itself. Of these schismatic meetings one writer recalled that “sometimes one [choir member] was present, and sometimes all; and sometimes the choir would sing, and sometimes there was no singing by any body in the church.”
In 1840, a large group of Ohio Presbyterians publicly defended lining out by tracing it back to the Hebrews, the early Christians, and the Reformers. Their leader went on to explain, “It is often objected that the reading of the line interrupts the singing and ‘spoils the music.’ Well, the singing is indeed necessarily and temporarily interrupted; but edification is thereby promoted; and suppose the music [is] marred, or even ‘spoiled,’ what then? Is the chief end now to worship the music? This is idolatry, however refined.” Regular singing, he said, was “an outrage upon Divine institution, a violation of solemn vows, and a manifest insult to common sense.”As late as 1862, the Associate Presbyterian called regular singing a “stupendous Babel” by which “persons may become infatuated by music” until “artistic display takes the place of decent and unified praise to God.” Once a church adopts singing by note, “an insuperable barrier is soon presented, and a large number in each congregation, not having suitable qualifications, are deprived of joining in.”
In 1827, Alexander Campbell also taught against regular singing: “Psalm and hymn singing, like every other part of Christian worship, has been corrupted by sectarianism.” To learn hymns in a singing school, he wrote, was a “desecration” of the hymns. Although he produced a hymnbook for his followers, he objected to hymnbooks with printed music, arguing that he would “prefer to have an organ, or a fashionable choir as a means of my worship than the words of a hymn set to the notes of a tune on which to fix my eyes while engaged in the worship of God.” For Campbell, lining the hymns was the true order. Congregations should learn the hymns’ music by ear and therefore by heart.
So the question, of course, is whether early Latter-day Saints lined the hymns. I have found no direct evidence that they did, other than the few suggestive references to “giving out” a hymn (which generally meant some form of reading the text aloud before singing it) or “leading in singing” (which seems to mean something different from beating time). Beyond those statements, there are four good reasons why, if early LDS congregations sang, they may well have wanted to line out their hymns. First, since Mormon converts came out of many other churches (or no church), they shared no common hymnody. If congregations were expected to sing, they expected at least some hymns to be lined out for them. Second, since LDS converts were clearly attracted to the idea of a “restoration” of the primitive Church, at least some of them would expect lining the hymns as a sign of authenticity; widespread and long-held tradition maintained that lining was the biblical standard. Such converts might have resisted anything that smacked of popery or the high Protestant traditions of European state churches. Third, while most LDS converts were probably literate (at least if the Book of Mormon played a role in their conversion), they had no restoration hymnbook to sing from until the book compiled by Emma Smith. Even after that book appeared in 1836, it would have taken some time for it to proliferate among the communities of the Saints.Fourth, while new converts kept joining, LDS authors kept writing new hymns. Each new hymn needed to be taught in some way to a congregation. Lining out was the tried and true method.
But regular singing had strong advocates in early Mormondom. Joseph Smith Sr. endorsed it, according to William Smith, who wrote that his father “was a teacher of music <by> note to a concidera[b]l[e] extent.”That would likely bias Joseph Jr. toward regular singing, though he apparently did frequent camp meetings and Methodist services where the old way of singing prevailed.
Things New and Old
In the end, it was the Lord’s instruction for the Saints to erect a temple that seems to have tilted the scales toward regular singing. A costly building for worship—the kind primitivists such as Alexander Campbell had vigorously opposed—seemed to require high-church traditions of formality, dignity, and aestheticism. Believing that such a temple needed a choir, Joseph Smith recruited a newly baptized singing teacher to organize one. The tension that must have surrounded such a move is suggested in Smith’s journal account of it. He wrote on January 4, 1836, that he met at the chapel “to make arangements for a Singing School.” There, “after some altercation,” he wrote, “a judicious arangement was made, a comittee of 6 was chosen, to take charge of the singing department.”
A Mormon singing school bespoke a basic dichotomy in the early Church. The Millennial Star put it succinctly: “In this last dispensation God will send forth, by His servants, things new as well as old, until man is perfected in the truth.”Those who had converted to Mormonism because of its “restoration” of ancient Christianity were, in principle, pursuing the old. Those same converts then had to accept, often suddenly, the very new—new doctrine, new Church organization, new ordinances, and new social habits. The dilemma became which of the old ways to preserve and cherish as authentic (and not merely habitual) versus which of the new ways to embrace as progress (and not just erosion). For many who had converted from reformist churches such as Campbell’s, from Methodism, or from any of the “seeker” traditions, the old way of singing denoted the genuine church. But the “new way” of singing—with choirs and singing schools—signified to others prophetic advancement, a step in building a more orderly and beautiful kingdom of God. In singing as in doctrine, old ways suggested security, new ways, growth.
In the fall of 1840, after proselyting in England for a few months, Brigham Young wrote to his wife that the missionaries had converted “a grate meny musisions.”Meanwhile Wilford Woodruff wrote that at Herefordshire “church ministers are alarmed” in part at the “numbers of . . . musicians . . . [being] baptized.” As they emigrated to Nauvoo, these musicians, trained in then-modern European styles (including regular singing), ensured the demise of any old way singing that might have existed in the Church. It is with that thought one should read the editorial on music published in the January 15, 1842, Times and Seasons, which praised “the laudable zeal manifested by some of our musical friends, to bring about a uniform and tasteful style of sacred singing.” Noting the “different prejudices and habits” of the Saints, the editorial celebrated “the improvements made, and the judicious order established within a few months past.” As accounts of Nauvoo church meetings increasingly referred to hymns by their numbers in the hymnbook—not their names—it became clear that hymn singing now centered on the printed page. And as Mormonism entered its second generation, hymn texts gradually attached to specific tunes. Mormon hymnody was crystallizing, and by 1844 the first Mormon hymnbook with printed musical notation had appeared—not in Nauvoo, though, but in Vermont, the state where the Prophet had been born.
Mormon hymn singing probably echoed that of many rural American churches that tried to domesticate their revivalist past. But Latter-day Saints may have felt a shift more abruptly since, just two generations after the American Revolution, well-schooled British converts were flooding into their community and taking over the sacred musical life of the Church. Not only did regular singing prevail, but choirs and singing schools also flourished alongside instrumental music; even British-style brass bands played in some worship meetings. One can only wonder how such blandishments might have discouraged American-born Saints who rallied to Mormonism for its restoration of the true Church.
Nevertheless, even in the mid-twentieth century, the Church Music Committee (heir to Joseph Smith’s “singing department”) attempted a rapprochement with the old way. In 1952, the committee recommended to the Presiding Bishopric that the leader of a meeting should read “distinctively and effectively” the first verse or at least the first line of each hymn that was to be sung. The Presiding Bishopric approved the recommendation and on March 25, 1953, sent a letter to all bishoprics telling them to “revive” this practice.But by all accounts, the recommendation never caught on.
Now, looking back from the early twenty-first century, what can we confidently say about which hymns early Latter-day Saints sang and how they sang them? We can say what historians must always say about earlier generations: they were like us and not like us. Early Latter-day Saints were like us in that they valued musical worship and seem to have had favorite hymns. But they were not like us in several 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 scattered in the branches of the Church—probably thought lining out was the “true” way to sing as a group. And at least some of those Saints probably wondered if choirs or singing schools could be approved by God.
A list of probabilities is as close as we may come to knowing what and how Latter-day Saints in the 1830s sang. But perhaps that is enough to uproot some of our common assumptions about hymn singing in the newly restored Church.