This last Sunday I was released as Ward Music Chairman, a post I have occupied for a year. I had also been asked to speak in sacrament meeting about the importance of music in the church and in the home. The talk (abridged & adapted) follows.
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.” (Psalm 100)
Do we make a joyful noise? When we sing, are we singing to the Lord? Do we sing with praise and thanksgiving?
Many of the Psalms were written by David, and we read in 1 Chronicles his introduction of a psalm to the people:
“Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous works. Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord. Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his face continually. Remember his marvellous works that he hath done, his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth;” (1 Chronicles 16:9-12)
David reminds them of the covenant God has with them and goes on:
“Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation. Declare his glory among the heathen; his marvellous works among all nations. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised:” (1 Chronicles 16:23-25)
Singing praises to the Lord did not begin with David: the Jaredites sang praises to the Lord (Ether 6:9); the children of Israel sang praises to the Lord following their deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 15:1); in Judges we read of Deborah and Barak singing praises (Judges 5). And music continued to be an important part of worship after the reign of David. At the dedication of the temple built during the reign of Solomon:
“It came even to pass, as the trumpeters [there were 120] and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the Lord; So that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God.” (2 Chronicles 5:13-14)
When we sing together, we come together as one and can feel an increased unity as members of the congregation.
When Hezekiah restores worship of the Lord and has the Levites cleanse the temple, they have a service with music (2 Chronicles 29:25-30). Music has a role in the passover feast in Jerusalem to which Hezekiah invites all Israel (2 Chronicles 30:21). Jeremiah in the midst of his woes declares:
“Sing unto the Lord, praise ye the Lord” (Jeremiah 20:13)
On their return to Jerusalem, following captivity, Ezra and Nehemiah both record that an inventory of the people was taken; amongst the temple staff they needed to count were the singers: Nehemiah records 245 singing men and singing women, whilst Ezra records 200. Singing is clearly a vital part of worship. Music was a part of the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27-46). We also read:
“And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord, after the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord; because he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.” (Ezra 3:10-11)
“Blessed be the name of our God; let us sing to his praise, yea, let us give thanks to his holy name, for he doth work righteousness forever.” (Alma 26:8)
A hymn was sung at the last supper (Mark 14:26).
The writer to the Hebrews exclaims:
“I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.” (Hebrews 2:12)
And whilst in prison:
“…Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.” (Acts 16:25-26)
That night they were able to both teach and baptise.
It was only 3 months after this the restored Church was first organised that Emma Smith received the instruction to put together a collection of hymns:
“And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church. For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” (D&C 25:11-12)
At the time the church was organised there were many denominations. Some denominations sang whilst others did not. In this revelation the Lord tells us that the singing of hymns is a good thing, and in the instigating of a hymn-book wishes the saints to have a collection of hymns for their use.
The preceding religious reforms in Europe had led to the translation hymns into the vernacular languages for congregations to sing, as well as the writing of many new hymns in those languages often set to folk tunes that would have been familiar to the congregations, and which most of us now only recognise as hymn tunes. So there were hymns available from which Emma could make her selection. Music for worship continued to be important to the church once the saints settled in the Salt Lake valley. In addition to members being sent to medicine and agriculture and so forth a number of members with musical talent were sent to study the rules of composition at the Boston Academy of Music. Our current hymn book includes: hymns from Emma’s original collection; many restoration hymns written by members, some set to folk tunes popular at the time they were written or existing hymn tunes, and others set to new compositions.
Our current hymn book was published in 1985, now almost 30 years old. At the official launch Thomas S Monson said:
“My prayer is that we will learn once again in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to really sing. We simply must do something with our congregational singing to bring out the spirit of music in the heart and soul of every boy, every girl, every man, and every woman.”
Have we done this? One of my biggest frustrations serving as Ward Music Chairman has been the restriction placed on which hymns can and cannot be used in our sacrament meetings, because not enough people know them. There is a wonderful world of hymns out there. Our hymn book contains only 341, and some of those are duplicates, having a choir setting as well as a congregational arrangement. My dream would be to have a greatly expanded hymn book with some of those wonderful hymns that are not currently included. Can we hope for more hymns when we can’t even sing together much more than half the current hymn book?
In a talk given at Conference in 1994 Elder Dallin H. Oaks said:
“Sacred music has a unique capacity to communicate our feelings of love for the Lord. This kind of communication is a wonderful aid to our worship. Many have difficulty expressing worshipful feelings in words, but all can join in communicating such feelings through the inspired words of our hymns.”
“I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.” (Psalm 104:33)
For me, limiting the hymns we sing, limits our worship, our praise of the Lord. Borrowing from Psalms my plea is:
“Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.” (Psalm 149:1)
“O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things” (Psalm 98:1)
We can worship with hymns in our homes as well as during our weekly church services. In the words of the Psalmist:
“Sing unto the Lord, bless his name; shew forth his salvation from day to day.” (Psalm 96:2)
In the preface to the hymn book we read:
“Ours is a hymn book for the home as well as for the meetinghouse. We hope the hymn book will take a prominent place among the scriptures and other religious books in our homes. The hymns can bring families a spirit of beauty and peace and can inspire love and unity among family members.
“Teach your children to love the hymns. Sing them on the Sabbath, in home evening, during scripture study, at prayer time. Sing as you work, as you play, and as you travel together. Sing hymns as lullabies to build faith and testimony in your young ones.”
Do we do this? Singing and learning hymns together with our families, or on our own, is easier than it has ever been. The hymns are available online. We can listen to the music. We can even separate the parts if we want to learn the harmonies. We don’t need our own personal pianist. We can download an app free of charge to our mobile devices and learn the hymns that way. For those who prefer, the hymns and accompaniments are available on CD. If enough of us know the hymns then those visitors and new members joining our congregations will be able to sing along with us. Everyone should be able to join in singing hymns. The preface to the hymn book encourages “all members, whether musically inclined or not, to join with us in singing the hymns”. The verses in Psalms don’t refer to a beautiful noise nor a perfect noise.
“O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” (Psalm 95:1)
Let’s spend more time familiarising ourselves with the hymns in our homes. Let’s expand our repertoire of worship.
“Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises…” (Psalm 47:6-7)
- Do you listen to hymns outside a church setting?
- Do you sing hymns outside a church setting?
- How many of the hymns in the current LDS hymn book would you be able to sing well in a congregation?
- Do you use the LDS music app?
- Do you go online to learn parts?
- Serving as Ward Music Chairman I tried to introduce unfamiliar hymns as musical items, but at a rate of one musical item a month that’s over a decade to cover all those hymns it had been decided the ward don’t know well enough for congregational singing. How well does your ward know the hymn book?
- We don’t have a ward choir because the vast majority of members are too busy with other responsibilities to make a regular commitment. For musical items I would assemble varied groups from a single person up to about 7 or 8 (at most) to learn a particular piece. The single most aggravating request was, “can’t we just sing something we know?” How would you respond to learning a new hymn for a musical item?