The Sunday School played a prominent role in the development of LDS hymns during the late nineteenth century. In saying this, it is important to remember that in times past, auxiliary organizations had greater autonomy than they do today. For example, the Sunday School had its own publication, budget, meetings, and even its own hymnbook. Their involvement in Mormon hymn development included publishing the Juvenile Instructor (an important outlet for publishing new hymns at the time), hosting hymn-writing competitions, and producing their own highly-popular series of hymnals, starting with the 1884 Deseret Sunday School Union Music Book.
The Sunday School’s 1884 hymnal contained eighty-eight songs, and noted with pride that they were “mostly the productions of our home composers and authors.” Following national Christian trends, the “gospel song” style was followed by many of the songs produced for use in Sunday School. This was a style of songs with bouncy rhythms, repeated pitches, a verse-chorus pattern, melodramatic metaphor, and a tendency to focus on exhortation to the singers. They proved popular among Church members, though they often met the approbation of professional musicians (Evan Stephens called them “cheese-cloth music”). Most of the music chosen by the Sunday School focused on didactic instruction (on the Sabbath day, the golden rule, etc.), singing praises to Utah or Sunday School, and on use in specific settings like holiday celebrations or opening and closing of meetings. This hymnbook sold quickly—between the first book and its successor, the Deseret Sunday School Union Song Book (1891), six printings (30,000 books) were sold by time it took the Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody to sell one printing.
Over the next few decades the Sunday School continued to produce a series of highly popular hymnbooks that held a prominent place in LDS households. By 1908, there were over 100,000 copies of the Deseret Sunday School Union Song Book in circulation—more than one copy for every four Mormons on the Church’s rolls. A new production by the Sunday School—the 1909 Deseret Sunday School Songs rivaled the Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody in size and even included sacrament songs for use when the sacrament was administered during Sunday School meetings. This hymnbook would go on to serve as one of the main hymnbooks in LDS services until the late 1940s. In my own family, it is one of three LDS hymnbooks that were still in my parent’s possession when I was growing up, alongside the 1950 and 1985 hymnals.
The popularity and common use of the Sunday School hymnbooks began to lay bare an increasingly important tension in the LDS hymn tradition. The Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody was designed by a committee of professional musicians with classical choral performances in mind, and it appealed primarily to musicians. The Sunday School hymnbooks focused on a style of hymns that had greater appeal to the general membership of the Church. As a result, they were much more popular and well-used than their official counterparts. The 1909 Deseret Sunday School Songs began to work out a compromise to this tension, noting that it included the “higher grade of devotional hymns demanded by so many of our musicians” as well as the more popular style of hymns that Sunday School songbooks traditionally included. The tug-of-war between the needs and desires of musicians and non-musicians within the fold, however, continued to be a major theme of LDS hymnbook history in the 20th century.
Deseret Sunday School Songs (1909)
“Welcome, Welcome, Sabbath Morning” was one of many hymns included in the Deseret Sunday School Union Music Book as a song intended to be sung in Sunday School. It displays some of the jaunty rhythms associated with the Gospel Song style that were often used in the Sunday School hymnbooks. It is still included in the current hymnbook.
“Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” is a well-known hymn that was initially published by the Juvenile Instructor. It was first incorporated into the Sunday School and children’s songbooks before inclusion in the main LDS hymnbooks, as it is today.
“If the Way Be Full of Trial, Weary Not” was a hymn that first appeared in LDS hymnals in the 1891 Deseret Sunday School Song Book. The image shown here is from the 1909 Deseret Sunday School Songs, where President Thomas S. Monson likely was introduced to the hymn. It became a favorite of his and has been repeatedly performed in recent years by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, partly to honor his love of the song.
“The Bees of Deseret” is a gem of the Sunday School hymnbooks. Despite Evan Stephens’s animosity to the Gospel Song style, this piece of his seems to match the description given above (bouncy rhythms, repeated pitches, a verse-chorus pattern, melodramatic metaphor, and a tendency to focus on exhortation to the singers).
 Deseret Sunday School Union Music Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884).
 Cited in Hicks, Mormonism and Music, 124.
 Hicks, Mormonism and Music, 123.
 Hicks, Mormonism and Music, 128.
 Preface of the Deseret Sunday School Songs.