Category: Music and Poetry

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 58-59: Timing of Blessings, Sabbath Day

The end is always a new beginning. The arrival of the first Latter-day Saints in Independence, Missouri was both an end and a beginning. They accomplished the goal of gathering to Zion, but then realized that now they had to actually build Zion—a process that has, in a variety of ways, continued ever since. For the Saints at that time, the revelations contained in D&C 58 and 59 show the process of realizing that the new beginning of Zion contained a new set of struggles, and struggles that were very different from what they expected. For us today, these sections point out, symbolically, at least, that we are also facing struggles in our process of building Zion. And in these sections we find two different messages about the blessings we often expect. First, we learn that blessings don’t come automatically—God is not a vending machine. Instead, blessings come according to God’s timing. And second, we learn that by keeping the Sabbath, we will receive both temporal and spiritual blessings.   The Timing of Blessings The Saints who lived when the bulk of the Doctrine and Covenants were written faced a lot of struggle and suffering. These trials were often seen as necessary to their salvation, and the blessings they would receive were expected only in the future, if not in the next life. Eliza R. Snow captured this view in the following poem, written in late 1843 during her stay…

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 51-57 — Temporal Zion

By going in order through the Doctrine and Covenants, the Come Follow Me lessons sometimes show the concerns of the Church at a particular point in time. The seven sections included in this lesson are quite varied, but all demonstrate temporal concerns — where to put all the immigrants arriving in Kirtland, how members should share what they have, how should church members fulfill the command to gather to Missouri and who should be doing the printing of Church publications. But despite these temporal concerns, in these sections there are clearly spiritual lessons which are germane to the temporal needs and directives. These include learning to become a faithful, just and wise steward, and learning to be pure in heart.   Being a Faithful Steward Eliza R. Snow is likely considered to be a faithful steward by most Church members. But like most of us, she had to make the decision to follow the gospel. She wrote about that decision in the following poem, and of the stewardship responsibilities that came with that decision. When I espous’d the cause of truth by Eliza R. Snow (1841) Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”-Matt. 7:14 When I espous’d the cause of truth, The holy spirit, from on high, Promply instructed me, forsooth, To lay my youthful prospects by. I saw along the “narrow way” An ordeal, which the saints…

Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 14-17

This week’s Come Follow Me lesson includes several similar sections of the Doctrine and Covenants: three revelations to David Whitmer, John Whitmer and Peter Whitmer, Jr., who have asked the Lord where they should focus their efforts. The fourth section in this lesson is essentially the call to David Whitmer, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery to be the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. But while these sections have similar purposes and focus on the Whitmer family, they are far from the same. Even the most similar, the revelations to John and to Peter Whitmer, Jr., have some differences. And those differences lead to the discussion of several different principles.   John Jaques and Measuring Arms with God In section 14, a revelation given to David Whitmer, the revelation again uses the “marvelous work and a wonder” phrase that is so common in the Doctrine and Covenants. Often this phrase comes with a bit of a paradox, since it is clear that we are supposed to participate, but that regardless of what we do, God will accomplish His purposes. I like how poet John Jaques catches some of this in the following poem. Born in England in 1827, Jaques joined the Church in 1848, and in addition to serving a mission, he wrote poetry, including several hymns in our current hymnal. He is perhaps best known for “Oh Say, What is Truth?” He immigrated to Utah in 1856, and…

A Christmas Hymn Wishlist

I’m always curious to hear what people think about music in the Church, particularly in recent years with the forthcoming new hymnbook.  Usually this time of year is insanely busy for me—with the bell choirs that I’ve been a part of, ward Christmas parties and programs, etc., around now I’m used to an endless series of rehearsals and performances of Christmas music.  This year has been much more quiet, but both Christmas music and the recent update on the forthcoming hymnbook and children’s songbook have still been on my mind.  As such, I’d be interested to hear what is on everyone’s wish list for the Christmas sections of the new music collections of the Church.  What Christmas hymns and songs would you like to see included and why?  Are there other changes with the Christmas music of our hymnal or children’s songbook that you think should happen? I’ll share some of my wish list while I’m at it.  There are several Christmas hymns that are currently included in Latter-day Saint hymnals outside of the English language one that I would love to see be included in the new hymnal.  “Sing We Now of Christmas,” “He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child,” and “What Child Is This?” stand out among them for me.  I also would not object if “Stars Were Gleaming” (or the older text associated with the tune, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”) migrated from the children’s songbook to the…

A New Update on the New Hymnbook

Last week, the Church released some new updates about the new hymnbook and children’s songbook.  The short and sweet version is that we’re still several years away from the books being published and that the process and the books themselves are evolving (both due, at least in part, to the sheer volume of material that is being evaluated for inclusion and current world circumstances).  We’ll look into the specifics in a minute (and I’d love to have some discussion about what you think about the projects from what we know), but first I’ll take a moment to link this to previous discussions I’ve posted about the new hymnbook (which, in turn, link to the previous news releases on the Church’s site): The New LDS Hymnbook: Changes and Possibilities (discussion about original announcement June 2018) Updates on the New Hymnbook (discussion from the last time we received new information about the hymnbook and children’s songbook May 2019) “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” Throughout the Restoration (discussion about the history and likelihood of the titular hymn being included in the new hymnal) Spanish Hymns and the Future Hymnbook (discussion about which hymns original to the Spanish hymnals of the Church may be included in the new hymnal) The sheer amount of material that is being evaluated is overwhelming.  According to the new article on the Church’s site, over 16,000 original hymns, songs, and texts were submitted for consideration.  About 55% of…

When You Believe: An EP Review

Last Friday, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square released a new extended play record (EP), “When You Believe: A Night at the Movies.”  I bought and downloaded the music this weekend and I have listened to it several times since then.  The EP is short (totaling five tracks and about 23 minutes), but it is a lot of fun and displays a high quality of performance.  My biggest complaint is that there isn’t more. One of my first thoughts with the idea of the Tabernacle Choir recording soundtrack pieces was the question of whether the choir can bring something to the pieces that the original soundtrack recordings do not have.  With the two pieces from blockbuster sci-fi films featured on the EP (Avengers and Star Wars), it feels like having a 300+ member choir combined with a virtuosic performance by the Orchestra at Temple Square packs a punch that added something extra to the tracks.  While I enjoy the originals, I think I enjoy these recordings more because of that added umpf.  The choir has also cultivated a lighter, younger sound in recent years that worked well for a softer, angelic tone at the start of “I’ll Fly Away” (though I felt like they had a difficult time making the transition to the rowdier, gospel-style singing I that I feel like the piece asks for later on in the arrangement) and makes for a pleasant rendition of “When You Believe.” …

COVID, Conference, and Choir

The world is facing extraordinary times.  With the COVID-19 pandemic raging worldwide, everyone is (or soon will be) feeling an impact from it in one way or another.  It will likely leave some lasting changes on our society.  Within the Church, it provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on how we have been doing things and to consider how we can change and possibly improve.  In the age of technology that we live in, there are plenty of opportunities available, such as the has been shown with how the Church is handling general conference. In the past, pandemics and epidemics have changed how the Church has done things.  Towards the end of WWI, a the most severe pandemic in recent history spread across the world, infecting nearly a quarter of the world’s population, shutting down many countries for a time, and killing somewhere between 17 million to 50 million people between January 1918 and December 1920.  During the ongoing battle with this H1N1 influenza virus, the spring 1919 General Conference was delayed from April until June.  Beyond the impact on the timing of general conference, the Spanish flu influenced a few other events and policies in the Church.  It was that pandemic that spurred the Church to change the Sacramental water from being partaken from a shared cup to using separate cups.[1]  It was also in this era of massive death due to the Great War and the…

Resources for Ward Choirs

This week, the American Choral Directors Association is meeting in Salt Lake City, so choral music is on my mind.  While my career isn’t in music, it’s an art form that plays an important role in my life.  I have some training in piano, choral performance, and organ while my wife was trained in vocal performance.  We’ve spent most of our married life in music-related callings as a result.  It’s not a stretch to say that leading a ward choir is, perhaps, the most rewarding and most difficult of the music callings we’ve been involved in.  Few people want to put in the extra time at Church or (especially if young children are involved) feel like they can do so, which means that ward choirs are often small.  Budgets are limited, so finding music that is usable in sacrament meetings can be difficult.  Luckily, however, there is an ever-growing corpus of free or inexpensive choir music available for Latter-day Saint ward choirs online, and my goal here is to gather a good list of those resources into one place here.[1] One of the newest sites to join this list is Ronald Staheli’s sheet music site.  Staheli is an internationally known and respected choral conductor who retired a few years ago from leading choirs at Brigham Young University.  Apparently, he’s spent a fair amount of time during retirement focusing on writing music for ward choirs.  Launched just a few months ago,…

Book of Mormon Stories: New Verses for the Liahona, Nephi’s Bow, and Building the Ship

I teach nine-year-olds for Primary, and I’ve started composing new verses to the old primary song Book of Mormon Stories as a way to recap the events before we get into discussion and activities. Here are four verses (which are arguably terrible but also instructive: I’m clearly not a songwriter) that go along with tomorrow’s Come, Follow Me lesson for 1 Nephi 16-22. At the end of many lines are optional interjections (in the style of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer“). I share them in case they might be useful for primary or family lessons tomorrow.   The Liahona Lehi and Sariah needed guidance on their way. (in the wilderness) One day Lehi left his tent right at the break of day. (good morning!) There was a ball outside, and it did show them the way. (how curious!) The Liahona led if they lived righteously. Nephi’s Bow Nephi and his brothers went out hunting to find food. (delish!) Nephi broke his bow and his whole family did boo. (boo!) Nephi built a new bow, asked his dad where he should go. Lehi prayed, Nephi hunted, they all ate. (yay!) Building the Ship Then the Lord called Nephi, told him he should build a ship. (wow!) His brothers did make fun of him so that working they could skip. (lazy!) Nephi did remind them of all that the Lord can do! (miracles!) They got mad, then got shocked, and helped grudgingly. (fine!)…

Updates on the New Hymnbook

It’s been nearly a year since the new core hymnbook was announced. While there have been a few rumors about the book (like a smaller size and getting rid of hymns with problematic copyrights), very little actual news has come up. Recently, however, the Church published an updated set of guidelines for the hymns and children’s songs that are being submitted. The timing is opportune, with less than two months to the submissions deadline left. Accompanying this publication are a few articles on the Church’s newsroom and on What do these reveal about the forthcoming hymnbook? First is the announcement of the committees that are going to guide the creation of the hymnbook and children’s songbook. Two committees (one for each book) have been organized. Each has members with expertise in areas relating to the hymnbook and songbook (music, various cultures, doctrine, etc.). Members of the hymnbook committee include Steve Schank (a music manager for the Church), Ryan Murphy (the associate music director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square), Cherilyn Worthen (Utah Valley University professor of Choral Music Education and the director of the Tabernacle Choir’s training school), Stephen Jones (BYU professor of music composition), Sonja Poulter (a German alto in the Tabernacle Choir), Carolyn Klopfer (author of the words to “Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth”), Herbert Kopfer (a long-standing member of the Church Music Department and composer of the hymn tune for “Home Can Be…

Spanish Hymns and the Future Hymnbook

Recently, Walter van Beek wrote an interesting post on this blog about Global Mormonism. Globalization and decentralization are important topics in the Church right now. Even within the past few weeks, the gathering of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in Rome has been portrayed as a hugely symbolic moment for the Church’s broadening its focus beyond Utah and the USA. When the new hymnbook was announced last year, Elder Erich W. Kopischke stated that one goal of the new edition was to “include some of the best hymns and songs originating in other languages that will then be translated into English and the other languages around the world.”[1] So far, the only hymn in the English hymnal to be written by a Latter-day Saint that had translated from another language is the stirring Restoration hymn “Sehet ihr Völker, Licht bricht heran!”, written in German but known in English as “Hark All Ye Nations!” The hymn was included in the English hymnal for the first time in 1985.[2] From there, it has spread around the world. As far as I can tell, the non-English hymn that stands the best chance of making its way into the new hymnal is the Spanish missionary hymn, “Placentero nos es trabajar.” One thing that must be faced to achieve the goal described by Elder Kopischke is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has historically prioritized the hymns of English-speaking…

“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” Throughout the Restoration

I remember seeing a survey several years ago that claimed that the two most popular hymns among Latter-day Saints were “I Stand All Amazed” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”. I have not been able to find that survey online in recent years, but the latter hymn would be an interesting case, since it is not included in the current English hymnbook published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am pondering on hymns that may find their way into the new hymnbook, however, and there seems to be a lot of interest in the hymn and requests for its return. This made me wonder—what is the history of this hymn in our hymnbooks? Why is it not in the current English one? What is the status of the hymn in other Latter-day Saint hymnbooks? The hymn was written by Robert Robinson and was first published in the United States of America in 1759. It is uncertain what tunes it was sung to originally, but the hymn tunes NETTLETON and NORMANDY became standard in the USA and the UK, respectively. For Latter-day Saints, the hymn text was first included in A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, published in Nauvoo during 1841 as an updated edition of Emma Smith’s 1835 Kirtland hymnbook. The hymnbook competed with a different one published by the Quorum of the Twelve in Manchester,…

Sing a Christmas Carol: Christmas Music in the Latter-day Saint Hymnbooks

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather today around the world for their Christmas Sunday meetings, Christmas hymns and songs will be sung and performed as an important part of those meetings. One thing that not everyone may realize, however, is that the options for that music varies around the world. As a teenager, I had a strange obsession with collecting Church materials in different languages. When I picked up a few hymnbooks, I was surprised to find that they were not only much smaller than the English hymnbook I was used to, but that there were some different hymns in them. This was most noticeable in the Christmas section, where I was able to spot a few carols that I knew but that weren’t in the hymnbook as I knew it. I have been curious since then what Christmas songs have received approval from the Correlation Department to become part of the corpus of Latter-day Saint Christmas music that aren’t in the English hymnbook or children’s songbook. Finally, I sat down this weekend to spend a few hours browsing in order to find out. My first area of interest was in the hymnbooks. Do you agree with the Living Scriptures blog that “He is Born” (“Il est Né, le Divin Enfant”) is one of the most gorgeous Christmas hymns not in our hymnbook?[1] It actually turns out that it is in the Latter-day…

The New LDS Hymnbook: Changes and Possibilities

Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that they were going to prepare a new hymnbook and children’s songbook for use in the worldwide Church. Specifically, the goal is to create unity in hymn numbers and selections that reflect the needs of a global organization. This is the first time in over thirty years that the official hymnbook for the Church has changed, and it is a matter of no small excitement for Mormon musicians and general membership. The current hymnbook is wonderful, but change can always bring new opportunities and improvements. Part of the excitement is that there is an unprecedented amount of involvement of general membership being made possible through online surveys and song submission opportunities. Based on trends within the Church, the history of hymnbooks in Mormonism, and the statements that have been made about the forthcoming books, what might the new hymn and song books look like? There are a number of faucets to examine in considering this question, including continuity with past hymnals, new LDS music available for use, what might be removed and changed, and the hymnbook and songbook’s relationships to the general Christian tradition of music, and the tunes being used. Let’s look at each of these in turn. Continuity During the latter half of the twentieth century, hymnbooks in the LDS tradition have been kept around the same physical size. The major consideration has been the size of hymnbook…

Being subject to Voldemort

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Donald Trump is likely to destroy American democracy while leaving the nation in ruins and the world in flames, and let’s further assume that all of these are bad things. (I don’ t think the situation is quite as hopeful as that, but I’m not particularly interested in arguing about any of these assumptions in this post.) What should the Church do about it? What should you do about it?

Brandon Flowers and the Song of Redeeming Love

This is going to meander a bit at first but bear with me. Each semester I have to grade something like 1,340,567 pages of student exams. It is horrible. To dull the pain, I pick a new music group each semester as my “grading discovery.” Last semester I picked Brandon Flowers and the Killers. I’d never paid much attention to them, but I got interested after I saw Brandon Flowers’s “I am a Mormon” video spot. It was a happy discovery. I like them. Much to my surprise a long-time friend of mine, an accomplished lawyer and former stake president, also recently discovered Flowers’s music through his daughter. After hearing that I was enjoying the Killers, he sent me a long and fascinating email with his theological interpretations of Brandon Flowers’s lyrics, which he finds filled with Mormon ideas. For example, in “Crossfire,” a song about a man rescued by his love he finds a reference to the Mormon interpretation of Eve and the fortunate fall. (That would make Chelize Theron in the video into the mother of the human race.) In “Only the Young” he finds embedded ideas from the plan of salvation and even coded references to the Hebrew terminology of redemption and atonement. My friend then turned his attention to Brandon Flowers’s song “Magdelena,” which he notes is Flowers’s most overtly religious song but also his least distinctly Mormon one. The song is sung by a man…

King Noah’s Blues

I could see them before I crossed Michigan Avenue into Grant Park. There were probably five of them, holding big yellow signs with blocky letters, Bible verses. It seemed out of place, fifty feet in front of the entrance to the Chicago Blues Festival, but maybe I just didn’t understand the logic behind it. I don’t remember the verses the signs promoted, and the picketers seemed nice enough, holding signs but not harassing the passersby, passersby who, like me, basically ignored them. Maybe they’d picked out verses of scripture with special applicability to fans of the blues; then again, maybe these were just generic holy protest signs.

Literary Lorenzo Snow #1: Provo Sunday School

I love the first lesson in the Lorenzo Snow manual. It seems like Snow’s love of learning is second to none among latter-day Prophets. And his statements about learning are wonderful: “Though we may now neglect to improve our time, to brighten up our intellectual faculties, we shall be obliged to improve them sometime. We have got so much ground to walk over, and if we fail to travel to-day, we shall have so much more to travel to-morrow.”

Authenticity and The Book of Mormon

I know, I said a year and a half ago that I wasn’t going to see The Book of Mormon. But then it came to Chicago and, in spite of the fact that it is sold out through at least March, a friend set me up with a ticket. So I’ve now seen the show. I’m not going to review it, though. It’s already been widely reviewed, and frankly, I don’t have the musical theater chops to provide a credible review.

Literary DCGD #1: On the Latter-day Dispensation

The initial lesson in the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History course of study points out that the revelations found in the text are meant for our time and cover our dispensation, while the history presented is the history of our people, as opposed to those who lived aeons ago. This course should, therefore, be relevant to us today in a way that the other Gospel Doctrine courses can’t hope to accomplish. The poem below discusses not only a few of the major events that opened our dispensation, but also follows the prediction often made; that our dispensation has a great destiny leading to the coming of our Lord.

Glory to God; Peace on Earth

Some time ago while singing Christmas carols at a non-Mormon event, I suggested that the group sing “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains.” I was greeted with blank stares and questions. “What song?” “Never heard of it.” It turns out I was so immersed in Mormon culture (I still am to a large degree) that I didn’t know that “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” is an LDS hymn by a 19th century Utah author, and is therefore unknown to most non-Mormon audiences, even though its doctrine is universal enough for most of them.

An Immodest Proposal

As Sarah noted, Saturday and Sunday bring us our Fall semiannual General Conference.

As part of our twice-yearly ritual, we’ll hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir up to three times: one session of Conference Saturday, one session Sunday, and the Music and the Spoken Word broadcast before the first Sunday session.

Literary BMGD #35: The Savior is Coming

Spiritual history is replete with types and shadows. The similarities that appear between events in widely-separated places and times lead to the conclusion that the Lord is trying to point out some truth to us, something we need to understand. I see a kind of repetition in this week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson, in which Samuel the Lamanite tries to call the Nephites to repentance (Helaman 13-16). Samuel preached just a few years before the birth of Christ, and he prophesied about the destruction in the Americas that would accompany Christ’s crucifixion soon afterward. But somehow his prophecies don’t sound very different from those that we hear concerning Christ’s second coming.

Literary BMGD #30: The Saddest Death

As Alma talks with his son Corianton in Alma 40-42, he realizes that Corianton does not understand some basic elements of the Plan of Salvation. From what Alma teaches him, we can surmise that Corianton doesn’t understand that all will be resurrected, that each person will be resurrected according to their words in this life (the righteous to happiness and the wicked to misery), and the roles that justice and mercy play in the great plan of happiness. From the context, it is clear that all these teachings were in response to Corianton’s misdeeds while serving a mission, a similar situation to that described in this week’s poem.

Literary BMGD #29: Two poems — Oh taste not of the cup; Be Slow to Condemn

Alma 36 to 39 contain Alma’s advice to his three sons, Helaman, Shiblon and Corianton, which led me to the idea of parental advice—something that usually accumulates bit by bit over years rather than all in one block as Alma seems to have done with his sons. Of this advice, perhaps the most famous, especially when it comes to Mormon literature, is the advice given to Corianton and the reason for that advice. Corianton’s story has been the source for dozens of literary works — so much so that encountering a character in a Mormon story named “Cory” should automatically make you think of Alma 39.

Literary BMGD #25: To Elder L. Snow

Among the most beloved figures in the Book of Mormon are the four sons of Mosiah, who, after their conversion, take leave of their native land and homes and serve missions among the Lamanites. Where missionaries today serve for just a couple of years or less, the sons of Mosiah served a total of 14 years which I assume (the record doesn’t say exactly) was much longer than anyone expected. Instead, I suspect, they and their friends and family must have wondered if they would even return alive, for, after all, the Lamanites were the enemies of the people of Nephi.

Internet Radio and the Church

I recently bought a couple wireless speakers so that I could listen to my music collection away from my computer, without earphones. It turns out that these speakers not only play music off my computer, though: they’ll also allow me to listen to, among other things, podcasts, Pandora, and any number of radio stations, as long as the radio station broadcasts online.

Literary BMGD #10: An angel came down from the mansions of glory

Perhaps the most common theme in early Mormon poetry is the restoration. But while the Book of Mormon itself prophesies about the restoration (as it does in the 10th Book of Mormon lesson), it wasn’t until this hymn was published in 1833 that Mormon poetry addressed the subject. Of course, soon after the Restoration became a very common theme in Mormon poetry from many authors. William Wines Phelps, the author of this hymn was also one of the first and most prolific of Mormon poets, although unlike his contemporaries Parley P. Pratt, Eliza R. Snow and John Lyon, Phelps never published a volume of his own poetry. He is also unique because he is likely the author of the only poem, outside of scripture, attributed to Joseph Smith (The Vision, a paraphrase of D&C 76). If I recall correctly, he is still the Mormon author with the most hymns in the current hymnal.