Racist, Sexist, Treasonous, Militant HymnsBy: hawkgrrrl
As child, I always wondered what the bumpy image on the hymn book was. I had never seen the tabernacle, and had no idea the image was organ pipes. As I would make rubbings of the image with a crayon or press it with silly putty, I envisioned it being some sort of temple ruin from some obscure location, like Angkor Wat. I was very surprised when I saw the tabernacle for the first time as a teenager and realized that it was the same image from the hymn books. Myth busted.
A few months ago, at church in my parents’ ward, we sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic , an old chestnut of a hymn with a long tradition. As I sat surrounded by Southerners belting out lines immortalized (for me) by the ignorant anti-evolution prosecutor in the film Inherit the Wind, somehow to my northern ears the congregation sounded racist.
As I thought about it, we have a few hymns that sound just a smidge lacking in political correctness or that I am aware have struck some people wrong in different contexts. What follows should be read with tongue firmly in cheek.
American Patriotic Songs. In college, I had a British roommate who was absolutely scandalized when the ward sang “My Country Tis of Thee,” since the tune is the same as “God Save the King,” a patriotic anthem well-known to all Brits. She couldn’t believe the Americans had stolen their song and that the church was actually singing this treasonous song in church. She refused to sing it because she considered it disloyal to her own country. I note that subsequent hymnals have added “God Save the King.”
The presence of several American Patriotic songs (and one British one) begs the question – should we be including others? Or are we singing American patriotic songs because it is a land choice above all others (a la the Book of Mormon)? Do these hymns ever get sung outside of the U.S.? If so, why? I am pretty sure they were not in the Khmer hymnal I used last month in Cambodia, but I could be wrong since I don’t read Sanskrit. But the hymnal, which was more of a booklet, was definitely light a few hymns.
Mountain Hymns. Hymns that referred to Zion being in the mountains or having a mountain home were always puzzling to me as a child growing up because I was taught that Zion was wherever the church members were gathered, mostly rural Pennsylvania in my case, which was hilly and green, not mountainous. (I also thought “deseret” was a way to add a syllable to “desert” as in “in our lovely deseret.”) I had this idea that the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains was exaggerated for poetic effect until my first trip to Utah when I was a teenager. I admit I was kind of blown away. Up to then, the songs just sounded foreign and hyperbolic to me.
I still think it’s off-putting to diaspora Saints around the globe who view Zion as their local ward, but when I reinterpret the songs to be a metaphor for the temple, they sometimes work metaphorically. The temple is often called “the mountain of the Lord,” and when there was no temple, mountains were a natural substitute in the Old Testament.
Pioneer Songs. Since I have no pioneer ancestry, I tend to think of these as metaphors for all people who pioneered, boldly going where no one has gone before, or immigrated or ever churned butter or opened a small business. But I still get choked up whenever the pianist slows down and painfully ekes out the line: “And should we die before our lot is through / Happy day! All is well!” Yes, even if your small business doesn’t succeed, at least you are free from toil and sorrow, too.
The Word “Race.” Two unique Mormon hymns use the word “race” in ways we no longer use it. Given the priesthood ban folklore, the use of the word “race” in If You Could Hie to Kolob sounds as if the author is claiming that one’s race (skin color) is eternal, not that the human race (species) is eternal. The use of “race” in Adam-ondi-Ahman seems to be about the human race (or at least the apparently superior alien progenitors of the human race).
Adam-ondi-Ahman (v. 1)
This earth was once a garden place,
With all her glories common,
And men did live a holy race,
And worship Jesus face to face,
If You Could Hie to Kolob (v. 3)
The works of God continue, And worlds and lives abound;
Improvement and progression Have one eternal round.
There is no end to matter; There is no end to space;
There is no end to spirit; There is no end to race.
According to National Geographic, there’s not only an end to “race” (which technically doesn’t exist anyway), but also to red hair, a recessive gene, that will cease to exist by the year 2050 unless the Weasley clan starts intermarrying with cousins right now! I suspect they are up for the challenge.
Militant Hymns. I remember as a kid loving the hymn “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand” with its rousing repeated chords at the beginning of each line, like John Phillips Sousa bouncing on the balls of his feet in anticipation of the big parade. Plus, that bouncing chord made it one of the few hymns I could credibly fudge my way through on the piano (well, the opening chord anyway, after which it sounded like someone opened Fibber McGee’s closet). I have always felt that the militant hymns make the best rest hymns because you really can’t continue to sleep through them. But some of the lyrics are a little more Old Testament than New Testament.
Hymns for or About Women. I remember when “As Sisters in Zion” first came out in the 1985 hymn book. Women were excited because it was all about them. Personally, I have a really hard time relating to the picture of women in this hymn, yet presumably, I am one of them.
As sisters in Zion, we’ll all work together;
The blessings of God on our labors we’ll seek.
We’ll build up his kingdom with earnest endeavor;
We’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.
The errand of angels is given to women;
And this is a gift that, as sisters, we claim:
To do whatsoever is gentle and human, Women are all meek and mild. Never opinionated or assertive.
To cheer and to bless in humanity’s name. Yeah, women are cheerleaders from the sidelines. Got it.
How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission, So vast and broad that this is our best description of it.
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed. It being the vast and broad thing we can’t really describe.
Oh, naught but the Spirit’s divinest tuition “Divinest tuition” seems archaic. Why not “divine intuition”?
Can give us the wisdom to truly succeed. Because for women, wisdom comes from outside of them.
Protestant Hymns. Personally, I like these a lot, but it’s a bit disconcerting when you hear other churches singing them, as if they should be paying us royalties. Of course, the reverse is probably more likely.
Primary Songs Retooled as Hymns. My objection to this just makes me sound old. Back in my day, hymns were hymns and children’s songs were children’s songs and never the twain shall meet. But now we’ve got children’s songs in the hymn book. Where does the mixing of ages end? Making toddlers dress like endowed adults? Making adults follow super stringent teen behaviour codes?
Alternate Versions. Because I moved from the east to Utah for college, I am not sure whether my home ward just preferred to sing different versions than Utah preferred, or if the church in general used to prefer other tunes that went out of vogue and were later replaced by their alternate versions. Of those with two different tunes, I prefer the traditional 174 of “While of These Emblems We Partake,” to the more unpredictable 173. I decidedly prefer the cheerier “let’s dance a Virginia reel” version of “Tis Sweet to Sing the Matchless Love” from page 177 to the plodding version that everyone else seems to prefer on 176.
Songs that Preach False Doctrine. Although we can certainly argue the accuracy of calling Golgatha a “green hill” faraway, I can only think a few other examples of potential false doctrine.
First from the hymn “I Stand All Amazed,” I’ve always wondered about this line: “I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine/to rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine.” Before his redemptive act, was Jesus already on a throne divine (as most trinity-worshipping Christian churches would say) or did the act of being a saviour advance him in the godhood ranks to the point that after his sacrifice he would then merit a throne? Since we are all sons & daughters of God, was it his act of atonement that moved him from a small “h” to a capital “H”? I think this is a question that actually goes to the heart of Mormon doctrine.
The second example is also just slightly off, IMO, from the hymn “Lord, I Would Follow Thee.” The hymn says: “I would be my brother’s keeper / I would learn the healer’s art . . . Lord, I would follow thee.” The questionable part is the concept of being our brother’s keeper. This was Cain’s argument back to God when he was being interrogated for fratricide. When asked where his brother was, Cain said: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” a pretty snotty answer under the circumstances, and God doesn’t justify it with a response. Nowhere is there a doctrine that we should be our brother’s keeper, implying that (like a zookeeper or parent) we take total responsibility for our brother, track his/her whereabouts, clean up his poop, and keep him/her ring-fenced in a safe little paddock. Being someone’s keeper goes beyond healing or serving others and to the realm of inhibiting others’ freedoms in order to protect them. Personally, I’m not surprised people have gotten the idea that we want to be our brother’s keeper. It’s just not sound doctrine. We can’t force anyone into the celestial kingdom; they have to get there on their own. I suspect this one is akin to members quoting Jesus as saying “I didn’t say it would be easy; I only said it would be worth it.” Find chapter and verse on that one!
A third example is in “Praise to the Man” when it says “earth must atone for the blood of that man.” Really? This line essentially calls for blood atonement for Joseph Smith’s murder, the opposite of Jesus’ example, since he forgave his murderers because they “know not what they do.” I suppose it’s also a little off in claiming that he (Joseph Smith) has “ascended to heaven” and is currently “mingling with gods” but based on our doctrine, he would go to spirit paradise (or prison) after death. I assume the god mingling and ascending to heaven (three degrees of glory) comes after one’s final judgment, which is after resurrection, right? Of course, we didn’t have as much clarity on the state after death until Section 138.
Drinking Songs. We’ve all heard the aforementioned “Praise to the Man” refrain played on bagpipes, whenever a Scottish policeman is killed in the line of duty in a television program, for example. There are claims, both in our and other churches, that many of the tunes used in hymns were originally drinking songs. I’m sure they probably were, or at least folk songs (and folks were known for drinking), especially the American hymns – after all, it’s really easy to take a simple tune and just make up new words, as we have all seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway. I suppose it belies the sacredness of the hymns to some extent, but as I learned in English major school, that’s how songs and stories are handed down – through drunken oral tradition.
- What hymn lyrics have struck you as off the mark when you were singing them in church?
- Do you have any other hymn stories to share (some of you may remember this gem of a post from Mormon Matters days)?
- What are your favourite and least favourite hymns?