Sacred Anthems: Why Latter-day Saints Worship with Music
By Philip Volmar, Church News and Events
Since the first hymnbook was assembled by Emma Smith, Latter-day Saints have used hymns to “invite the Spirit of the Lord, create a feeling of reverence, unify [them] as members, and provide a way for [them] to offer praises to the Lord” (see “First Presidency Preface,” Hymns, ix).
But at the official 1985 launch ceremony for the Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a new period of LDS music was ushered in.
During that event, Thomas S. Monson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said, “My prayer is that we will learn once again in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to really sing. We simply must do something with our congregational singing to bring out the spirit of music in the heart and soul of every boy, every girl, every man, and every woman.”
Since that day 27 years ago, millions of Saints around the world have experienced the role sacred songs can play in inviting the Spirit and teaching gospel truths.
The hymnbook itself emphasizes the importance of music in worship for Latter-day Saints, whether in Church meetings, in members’ homes, or in one’s personal life.
Music in Church Meetings
In a 2006 devotional given to Brigham Young University students in Provo, Utah, USA, Elder Douglas L. Callister, then a member of the Seventy, said that “we could not have a Christmas without carols or a general conference without sacred anthems.”
“There could not be a heaven without music of surpassing beauty,” he taught.
The effect of such music is apparent in Church meetings, devotionals, and conferences.
In April 1985 Church leaders were gathered in the Temple Square Assembly Hall to address mission presidents about the challenges facing missionary work. President Boyd K. Packer, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was to speak last. He wanted to leave an impact on the mission presidents, who were eager to help renew missionary efforts.
President Packer arranged for 80 full-time missionaries to sing an unfamiliar Primary song that celebrated mission calls, a move that those present say gave a memorable crescendo to the gathering’s end.
As the missionaries marched two by two through the aisles and sang the hymn, its “electrifying” effect moved the audience to tears, said Herbert Klopfer, a member of the Church’s General Music Committee at the time.
Brother Klopfer and the rest of the music committee had already finalized the selection of hymns for inclusion in the Church’s new hymnal, which was to be published later that year. However, when word of the spiritual power of the missionaries and their hymn reached the committee, everyone knew the song they had sung had to be included in the new hymnbook, Brother Klopfer recalled.
“The simple act of singing the hymn turned an otherwise fine meeting into a spiritually moving experience,” he said, “and we knew what we had to do.”
Hymnbook organizers shifted half of the book’s songs in order to accommodate “Called to Serve,” now a famously popular hymn sung by missionaries and congregations the Church over (Hymns, 249).
Listening to or singing “sacred anthems” during Church meetings is only one way hymns are used as worship, however.
General conference speakers, for example, regularly quote from hymns, lacing their sermons with lyrics and demonstrating that the power of sacred music is inextricably intertwined with its message.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles emphasized the ability sacred music has to make our worship more meaningful. “Sacred music has a unique capacity to communicate our feelings of love for the Lord,” he said. “Many have difficulty expressing worshipful feelings in words, but all can join in communicating such feelings through the inspired words of our hymns. When a congregation worships through singing, all present should participate” (“Worship through Music,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 11).
Music in the Home
In addition to encouraging music in Church meetings, the First Presidency preface continues by teaching that “music has boundless powers for moving families toward greater spirituality and devotion to the gospel. Latter-day Saints should fill their homes with the sound of worthy music.”
One way that families worship with music and teach the gospel to their children at the same time is through music, President Packer taught. “The hymns of the Restoration are, in fact, a course in doctrine!” he said.
Diane Bastian, music manager in the Music and Cultural Arts Division of the Priesthood Department, explained how hymns effectively teach doctrine.
“All the hymns and children’s songs in the Church contain doctrine,” she said, noting the scripture references at the bottom of each hymn and each song from the Children’s Songbook. The hymns Latter-day Saints sing throughout their lives teach gospel principles, based upon the doctrine contained in the scriptures. “It will be the doctrine of the Church that you’re learning [and remembering],” she emphasized.
Church leaders have encouraged the use of music in the home during family home evening, a program initiated by Church leaders in 1915.
In a First Presidency letter, then-president Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) and his counselors wrote, “‘Home Evening’ should be devoted to prayer, singing hymns, songs, instrumental music” and other meaningful activities.
The letter continued: “For the smaller children appropriate recitations, songs, stories, and games may be introduced.”
Jenny Oaks Baker is a classical violinist and recording artist who has experienced the difference sacred music can make in the home. (Watch and read a story about Grammy-nominated Jenny Oaks Baker.)
She recalled her experiences as a college student playing hymns in her bedroom: “I would be practicing wonderful classical music, [then] I would just play the hymns, and a different spirit would come into the room,” she said. “I was always so grateful to be able to feel the Spirit so strongly when I played the hymns.”
Today, each of her four children play an instrument.
“They play classical music, but they also are always learning and performing hymns,” she said. “I’m grateful that their musical development is also spiritually developing them.”
Playing sacred music, she continued, “has really brought the Spirit into our home. It’s brought our family closer together . . . and it’s helped my children to feel the Spirit in a truly profound way.”
In 1985 the First Presidency declared of the new hymnbook, “Ours is a hymnbook for the home as well as for the meetinghouse.”
“Teach your children to love the hymns,” they counseled. “Sing them on the Sabbath, in home evening, during scripture study, at prayer time. Sing as you work, as you play, and as you travel together. Sing hymns as lullabies to build faith and testimony in your young ones.”
Music in Personal Life
In addition to teaching doctrine in the home, hymns can greatly benefit individuals. “Hymns can lift our spirits, give us courage, and move us to righteous action” (“First Presidency Preface,” Hymns, x).
More than 70 years ago, President J. Reuben Clark Jr. (1871–1961) taught, “We get nearer to the Lord through music than perhaps through any other thing except prayer” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1936, 111).
In the case of Gancci—a five-year-old boy who, with his siblings and a babysitter, was trapped in the rubble of a three-story apartment complex following Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010—hymns brought hope.
Rescue workers found four survivors in the fallen building—Gancci, his two siblings, and their babysitter—by following the sound of Gancci’s voice singing Primary songs during his entrapment in the rubble.
The rescuers dug Gancci and the other survivors out after 10 grueling hours of labor.
Though Gancci’s right arm had to be amputated to save his life, his story highlights the power of music as a form of faithful worship and, in particular, prayer (see D&C 25:12).