Hymns are useful evidence of religious practice. Hymns are a basic element of personal devotion, but at the same time the compilation of the hymnbook is carefully monitored by church leaders and the performance of hymns is modeled during the sessions of General Conference and other broadcasts, so hymns lie somewhere between high theology and lived religion. Our hymnbook provides an insight not quite like any other source on what Latter-day Saints believe.
And the hymns of the church are strongly apocalyptic. Keep in mind, however, that “apocalyptic” does not simply mean the belief that the world is ending tomorrow. There is also no agreement about some benign “eschatology” to contrast with sinister “apocalypticism”; as far as scholarship goes, it’s all just one form or another of apocalypticism (much as the proper term for someone who believes that God brought the universe into its present form through the Big Bang and natural selection is “creationist”).
A hymn can be apocalyptic in a number of ways:
- It can of course make specific reference to the Second Coming, as does “The Spirit of God” (2): “And Ephraim be crowned with his blessing in Zion, As Jesus descends with his chariot of fire.”
- A hymn can also refer to other events that are generally understood to be part of the Latter-day Saint version of the Christian end-time drama, such as a finite succession of dispensations or the preaching of the gospel to the whole world. This context gives “Hark, All Ye Nations!” (264) and many other missionary-themed hymns an apocalyptic element (“Chosen by God to serve him below, To every land and people we’ll go”).
- A hymn also counts as apocalyptic if it refers to divine rule, Christ’s return, or the final judgment as things that will be experienced on earth and in history, rather than being deferred to a postmortal heavenly existence. A good example is “High on the Mountain Top” (5), which doesn’t describe the world’s end, but instead the intrusion of God into history: God remembers his ancient promises, unfurls truth’s standard on Zion’s hill for all the world to see, fills his house there with his glory, and extends his law over the entire earth.
With that in mind, what portion of our current hymnbook is in some sense apocalyptic? By my count, around 40% (138 out of 341 hymns, including choral arrangements) have at least one apocalyptic allusion. The hymns with apocalyptic notes include sacrament hymns (“Jesus, Once of Humble Birth” , with the line “Now he comes on earth to reign”) and Christmas carols (“Joy to the World” , with the line “He’ll come and make the blessings flow”).
There are of course edge cases, and people can reasonably disagree with how I decided whether some passage or another counted as apocalyptic. Is every reference to “latter days” necessarily apocalyptic? (Yes, I would argue, it is, because the “latter days” are embedded in a framework of salvation history that knows only three events, the Creation, the Crucifixion, and the Second Coming, and if you situate yourself later than the meridian of time, your only option is to anchor events somewhere along the final approach toward the Last Days. In our other religious framework for measuring cosmological times, the succession of dispensations, “latter days” still lands you at the end of the story.)
However loose or strict the criteria, apocalyptic hymns are unquestionably common and include many of the most popular and frequently sung hymns. With a hymnbook revision underway, will apocalyptic texts become less common? Considering that three of the topics where the church is particularly interested in new music are the Restoration of the Gospel, the Gathering of Israel, and the Second Coming, the answer is: These are unlikely to be the last days of apocalypticism in our hymnbook.