The History of LDS Hymnbooks, Part 5: The Sunday School Hymnals

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.”[1] 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”).[2] 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.[3]

SS Union

The 1884 Deseret Sunday School Union Music Book

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.[4] 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.

Deseret Sunday School Songs

The 1909 Deseret Sunday School Songs

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.[5] 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.


Digital Versions:

Deseret Sunday School Union Music Book (1884)

Deseret Sunday School Song Book (1891)

Latter-day Saints’ Sunday School Hymn Book (1896)

Deseret Sunday School Songs (1909)


Hymn Examples:

Welcome, Welcome

“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.


First Prayer, part 1First Prayer, part 2

“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

“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.


Bees of Deseret, part 1Bees of Deseret, part 2

“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).



[1] Deseret Sunday School Union Music Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884).

[2] Cited in Hicks, Mormonism and Music, 124.

[3] Hicks, Mormonism and Music, 123.

[4] Hicks, Mormonism and Music, 128.

[5] Preface of the Deseret Sunday School Songs.

9 comments for “The History of LDS Hymnbooks, Part 5: The Sunday School Hymnals

  1. ji
    July 1, 2018 at 7:50 am

    ”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.”

    We have some of these hymns in our present hymnbook — but they are rarely sung. To be effective, a hymn must appeal to the people. A hymn can magnify it’s calling, so to speak, only if it is sung.

  2. The Other Clark
    July 2, 2018 at 11:49 am

    “If the Way be Full of Trial Weary Not” is still popular in Mexico, and is still included in the Spanish version of the 1985 hymnal as “Si la via es penosa en a lid”

    I suspect that many of these “Thanks for the Sabbath School” hymns will be first on the chopping block during the next revision. My understanding is that a proper hymn is a prayer to God, not an exhortation to the singers. I’d make an exception for the “We are sowing, daily sowing” I like that one.

  3. Celebro carminibus antiquis
    July 2, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you, Chad. Your discussion of the musician–congregation tension has helped me understand LDS hymnody so much better. I look forward to seeing you develop that tension in the coming posts.

    It seems like the hymnbook that fills the pews should be a collection to please congregations. A separate collection to please musicians could be printed separately, with just one or two copies given to each ward. Then our choirs wouldn’t have to scrounge around for unusual, artistic arrangements of great but uncommon hymns.

  4. July 2, 2018 at 3:38 pm

    The Other Clark, I would agree on the Sunday school hymns bring dropped. With the 3 hour block, we don’t have the opportunity to do a music moment in Sunday school, and we don’t often sing opening hymns there either so they’re kind of obsolete. As to the nature of a true hymn, there is an interesting article in an Ensign from a while ago in which Alexander Schreiner discussed the five types of songs in our hymnbooks. He does agree with you there, but makes room for some of the instructional hymns as spiritual songs. If you’re interested, it’s at

    Thank you Celebro. That’s a good idea. The Church does have a small choir book somewhat along those lines, but something more extensive would be nice. I totally agree that the hymnbooks should be full of hymns people want to sing. One way to better understand where the musicians are coming from, though, is that sometimes musicians (both in our tradition and others) think of themselves as musical dieticians for their religion when putting together hymnbooks. Some types of hymns are deemed higher quality (and therefore more spiritually healthy) while others are looked at as the spiritual equivalent of junk food. A big goal of LDS music committee while it lasted was to wean Mormons off of what they thought was junk food to hymns that they believed would be more sustaining to the soul. It might come off as a bit snobbish, but it was a sincere effort on their part that they thought would benefit the faith of members in the long run.

  5. JR
    July 3, 2018 at 7:08 am

    The great difficulties about the notion of “hymns people want to sing” include the facts that different people within the same congregation want to sing different hymns and that comments from some that certain hymns are “not often sung” are often wrong as to the use of those same hymns in other wards and stakes. I am reminded, e.g., of a 1985 experience with Elder Boyd Packer at a regional conference. After a great deal of back and forth, we had finally had approval for hymns at that conference including “Sing Praise to Him” (Hymns 1985 No. 70). But during the prelude Elder Packer asked whether that hymn was new to the 1985 hymnal. He indicated he was afraid that the people didn’t know it. I had to point out that it had been in our LDS hymnal at least since 1950 and had been used enthusiastically and reasonably often in the wards and stakes I knew. Also, the congregation had the printed hymn in front of them.. (I guess Elder Packer hadn’t been studying that 1950 “course in doctrine”! :) I suggested that if he wanted a different hymn than had been approved, he should choose one he was confident the congregation could sing from memory. We sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” a hymn President Spencer W. Kimball had said he was quite tired of. Another example: in my own ward there are those who love and claim to be inspired by the “sunshine songs”. Others in my ward detest them and are sometimes irritated when they find those songs inflicted upon them. (As a ward music chairman choosing hymns, I tried to inspire everyone sometime and not offend the same people all the time. I generally chose the “sunshine songs” for Sundays when I would be out of town. :)) Good luck to anyone trying to find even a North American list of “hymns people want to sing.”

  6. Anonymous
    July 3, 2018 at 8:10 am

    This set of OPs has been personally educational for me.

    This particular conversation echoes my personal struggle as a young man after being specifically educated in American nationalism and voluntarily steeping myself in American conservatism, then coming upon the works of Ayn Rand.

    I was so resistant to concepts of collective thinking and action that I once felt self-righteously justified in not joining the institute choir to sing “No Man Is An Island.”

    Partially due to experiences on an LDS mission to South Carolina and Georgia, I had to part ways with Ms. Rand. However, I still hang on loosely to the core concept of her philosophy: the individual ego versus group identity.

    LDS congregational hymn singing is primarily a social experience, otherwise you’d just organize an official volunteer choir like many Protestant congregations, or even some Catholic/catholic parishes. MoTab doesn’t count; they’re more like the LDS show choir.

    So this somewhat tension between LDS musicians and congregational popularity seems to echo this individual artistic ego versus the community of saints, at least for me.

    Congregational hymns have always functioned, at least in Protestant congregations, as a democratic dissemination of doctrine, so this tension may be unavoidable as participation and doctrinal soundness simultaneously remain as criteria.

  7. JR
    July 3, 2018 at 9:31 am

    Anonymous, The “musician/congregation” distinction is troublesome. There are musicians in the congregation. Your “otherwise” comment is confusing. Many of the Protestant congregations for whom I substitute as organist sing better and more enthusiastically than the LDS congregations I’m familiar with. What is a ward choir, if not an “official volunteer choir”. You are right about the MoTab. It has essentially nothing to do with our church’s worship music. My Protestant music director acquaintances are generally surprised and disappointed to learn that the MoTab is not representative of anything about Mormon music, singing, choirs, or congregations.

    I am old enough to remember using the LDS hymnals prior to the the 1950 hymnal (because they were still in use after it was published) — old enough to remember competent ward choirs and enthusiastic congregational singing — old enough to have been a General Music Committee employee teaching organ and conducting classes to numerous people who wanted to learn — therefore also old enough to remember those musicians (certainly not all musicians) who wanted to “raise the standard” of LDS church music. But even among those there were highly trained musicians who found it appropriate at times to sing silly ditties like “Do What is Right” to the tune that was well known as “The Old Oaken Bucket” though it originated as a completely different song called “Araby’s Daughter”. The pitting of LDS “musicians” as a class against LDS “congregations” as a class is a false and destructive categorization — even if only because it is such a gross over-simplification of historical and current reality.

  8. The Other Clark
    July 3, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    Chad, thanks to the link to the Schreiner article.

    On the “junk food vs. spiritual sustainance” debate, I believe this will be most evident in the new Children’s Songbook. The songs designed for the annual primary program are docrinally rich, but the tunes are neither catchy nor memorable, and have nearly entirely replaced the old standards (Give Said the Little Stream, Jesus Once Was a Little Child, I Know My Father Lives, I Have A Garden, etc.) Elder Maxwell notwithstanding, I hope the pendulum swings back towards the simple tunes once more.

  9. ji
    July 3, 2018 at 6:14 pm

    The Other Clark, I agree. Generally, the songs children sing in Primary today are not neither catchy nor memorable. A 50-year-old of today who was raised in the Church will likely still remember old Primary songs, and will find him- or herself singing them from time to time — and will be strengthened because of it. But a 50-year-old in thirty years likely will not have that experience — and will not be thereby strengthened — because the songs sung in Primary today are wholly unmemorable. Note: I speak in generalities, not specifics.

    Regarding the dietician analogy, pity the person who can eat only what the dietician approves! Even so, dieticians serve a useful purpose. Pity the members who have to serve on the new music committee — they will not be able to make everyone happy; indeed, they may not be able to make anyone happy.

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