Guidelines for Writing Latter-day Hymns

By Alexander Schreiner

Tabernacle Organist

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    In declaring the glad message of the divine gospel, speakers in our church meetings demonstrate a great deal of imagination, resourcefulness, and innovation in their presentations. Latter-day Saint poets and musicians should also exhibit similar energy in furnishing us new hymns and anthems, new solos and cantatas, in praise of our Heavenly Father and in thanksgiving for the blessings of the restored gospel.

    The idea is often expressed that old hymns are the best hymns. Perhaps that is because the old standbys have an appeal like old friends and because they are likely to be those that have been winnowed from the many hymns members have learned to love over the years.

    Nevertheless, we read in the scriptures: “Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.” (Ps. 149:1.) And the prophet Isaiah also said: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof.” (Isa. 42:10.) These are but two examples from many in the scriptures that encourage us to sing new songs or hymns of praise before our Heavenly Father.

    Just as we have new interpretations in our sermons, we would be well advised to keep abreast of the times and write new hymns whose messages refer to the present day. Such music could incorporate a more recent and more modern style to please current tastes.

    Someday our present hymnbook will be revised, but that won’t be necessary until we have new hymns with which to compile a new edition. Some people may have in mind a new hymnbook that would merely reflect their own choice of hymns; however, a good hymnbook needs to be comprehensive, containing desirable older favorites as well as new hymns.

    The hymnbook that gave us the longest service was the one compiled in 1840 by Parley P. Pratt and his associates in Liverpool, England. This book was used extensively throughout the Church until 1927.

    Other books have been published, such as The Latter-Day Saint Psalmody (1889), a valuable collection for choirs; Deseret Sunday School Songs (1909), intended for use in Sunday Schools only; The Songs of Zion (1912), produced for use in the mission fields; Latter-day Saint Hymns (1927), which was stronger in music for choirs than for congregation; and our present Hymns, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1948), which is rendering splendid service in many ways.

    The task and challenge before us now and during the next few years is to produce a body of one or two hundred new hymns that will reflect the talents of our finest and most spiritual poets and our best musicians.

    Besides the necessary talent required for such work, these poets should have a deep love for the gospel and the Church. They should be well acquainted with the writings of the greatest poets and should emulate the finest qualities found in their work.

    Composers, in addition to their demonstrated musical talent, should be familiar with the greatest and best musical works and should love and understand, for example, the wonderful sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven. Otherwise, their writings may reflect and repeat only the common idioms of current, short-lived popular music.

    Because our environment becomes ever more modern, complex, and interesting, we should encourage the writing of new hymns that are more than just a rehash of former tunes and poetic sentiments. In our new hymns we should strive for new subjects, stronger subjects, timely subjects, faith-promoting subjects, and heartwarming subjects. The gospel contains an abundance of worthwhile subjects, and we should encourage our talented people to put them on paper and thus glorify the name of our Heavenly Father and express our thanks and appreciation for his wonderful blessings.

    Technically speaking, a hymn is composed of words only and need not have a musical accompaniment. The text is the hymn. That which accompanies it is the hymn tune. The hymn, or text, should always be written first. The poet selects the meter to suit his subject; then the musician writes the hymn tune. However, poets sometimes find it helpful to take a familiar tune for which to write their metered lines.

    For example, the hymn tune “Israel, Israel, God Is Calling” is in the same meter as several dozen other hymns, all of which can be sung very comfortably to the same hymn tune. There is no objection to this. The melodies for “Redeemer of Israel,” “Sweet Is the Work,” and many others can be of help in writing new words. Then either an old melody can be used with this new text or a new hymn tune can be composed especially for the new words.

    Other models can be examined, such as the classic hymns contained in the Harvard Five-foot Shelf of Books. Most public libraries contain a non-Mormon collection of beautifully poetic hymns entitled Hymns, Ancient and Modern. Another source is our own hymnbook, one of the finest in Christendom, which has many hymns that are especially valuable and sacred to us because they sing of the gospel restored in our time.

    A hymn is a special kind of poetry addressed to Deity as a prayer. The ancient Greeks sang hymns to their pagan deities. We sing to the everlasting God, our Heavenly Father, and we should address most of our hymns as prayers to heaven.

    In a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph, the Lord declared, “… yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me. …” (D&C 25:12.) Consider the following ideal examples of this declaration: “Come, O Thou King of Kings,” “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” “Sweet Is the Work, My God, My King,” “O My Father,” “Author of Faith,” “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and “Come, Dearest Lord.”

    The apostle Paul also gave instructions on hymns: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16.)

    This indicates that Paul understood something of the several types of hymns used in his day. He also reiterated what several prophets of the Old Testament often recommended, that we should sing “with grace in our hearts to the Lord.”

    Our hymnbook of 1840 is titled L.D.S. Hymns. But the title page goes into more detail: Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, and John Taylor, who published this book in Liverpool, correctly understood that there are different kinds of hymns. The 25th edition of this hymnbook was issued in Salt Lake City in 1912 and was used in our temples, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, in the Assembly Hall, and in our chapels until 1927.

    When using the hymnbook, we should refer to all of its contents by the overall term hymns. This is the proper ecclesiastical designation, because the hymnbook contains something far more important and significant than just songs. Hymns are classified technically under at least five types: true hymns, psalms, spiritual songs, chorales, and the so-called gospel hymns.

    The True Hymn: The ideal hymn is a sacred song addressed to Deity. Such hymns are the most important ones in our hymnbook. They may not always be spirited in rhythm, but they are always spiritual in quality. And spiritual values are the highest of all values.

    Psalms: Paul mentioned the singing of psalms. These are hymns taken from the Old Testament. The psalms are the Western world’s best-loved poems, and the noblest. The Pilgrims sang psalms, and the Puritans, in 1640, had the complete book of Psalms in rhyme and meter. The Calvinists preferred singing psalms to any other kind of hymn. Coming from the Old Testament, the psalms are addressed to Jehovah and do not mention the name Jesus Christ, although several of the psalms carry references to the life and mission of Jesus Christ. Several psalms are included in our hymnbook, such as “The Lord Is My Shepherd” and “Praise Ye the Lord.”

    Spiritual Songs: These are so designated because they exhort and uplift the worshipers and are addressed to them rather than to Deity. They are sung, as it were, before the Lord. Songs such as “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “Come, Let Us Anew,” and “Ere You Left Your Room This Morning” come under this classification.

    Chorales: These are characterized chiefly by their even rhythm, which lends great stateliness to their performance. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “The Voice of God Again Is Heard” are both classified as chorales.

    Gospel Hymns: The term gospel hymn is really a misnomer because these hymns rarely refer to the gospel. They were developed in the past century by enthusiastic gospel revivalist preachers. Examples of such hymns are “We Are All Enlisted,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “Today While the Sun Shines.”

    Songs with refrains usually belong to the gospel hymn style, which is characterized by frank cheerfulness, with dotted, dancing rhythms, spirited rather than spiritual in quality, and with practical, homely messages. The value of the gospel hymn lies chiefly in its optimism, in the fun of singing it, and in its ability to stir the singers to action. In general, these hymns are not considered to be very high in either poetic or musical quality, though their message may be strong.

    To be successful, a hymn must begin with a strong opening statement that can be used as its title. A poem usually has a title, but a poem is seldom usable as a hymn. Examples of good titles are illustrated in most of the hymns in our hymnbook. However, there are exceptions. The title of “Oh Say, Can You See?” is a peculiar opening statement. We once had a hymn that began with “Father, lead me out of darkness.” This has now been changed to “Lead me into life eternal,” which is both the title and the opening statement. A strong title should begin the first stanza and also serve as a central subject for each of the other stanzas.

    Traditionally, a hymn does not have a chorus. A song with a chorus stems from a ballad, in which a solo singer teaches the group (the chorus) to sing the chorus. Then he will sing alone, with perhaps guitar accompaniment, a verse that is then answered by the group singing the chorus. Following a second solo stanza, the chorus again sings, and so on.

    Writers should avoid using choruses for hymns, although one that is very brief might on occasion be effective. The meter of succeeding stanzas must be precisely the same, with all the accents in the same places.

    The number of stanzas to be sung when we sing our hymns is a question that is raised occasionally. According to an article written under the auspices of the Church General Music Committee, it is suggested that “our people should be asked to use their good judgment in the number of stanzas which are sung.” (Improvement Era, August 1962, p. 585.) Parenthetically, the terms stanza and verse are often used synonymously; but technically speaking, a verse is a single metrical line of poetry and a stanza is a group of such lines.

    Our present hymnbook contains hymns that usually have three or four stanzas, although a few have as many as seven and eight. In older hymnbooks the hymns often had many more. For example, in the hymnal Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some poets wrote as many as sixteen stanzas for one hymn.

    In our present hymnbook, “How Firm a Foundation” has seven stanzas. The hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” has seven, and in the earlier hymnbook it had ten. What we now sing as “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow” (the Doxology) was originally the eighth stanza in the hymn “Awake, My Soul” by Thomas Ken.

    It seems unlikely that all the stanzas were intended to be used each time a hymn was sung. Years ago the person conducting a meeting said something like this: “Let us sing hymn number so and so, verses one, three, nine, and ten.” This procedure is still followed in many wards with numbers posted on hymn boards thus: “Hymn 156, v. 1, 3, 9, 10.”

    The verses of an ideal hymn are not consecutive in thought as they are in a poem that is intended only to be read. The classic design of a hymn is so arranged that the beginning phrase—for example, “Redeemer of Israel, our only delight”—is not only the title but also the central subject of the entire hymn. All subsequent verses then relate to this central subject just as the spokes in a wheel relate to its hub. This procedure allows the verses to be sung at random in any order, because they all relate to the beginning title. In this method no stanza is dependent on a previous one.

    Conversely, all of us know hymns in which the stanzas are as consecutive as they are in poems. Likely they were first written as poems to be read and then later were set to melodies. In such instances it is logical that all verses be sung. This explains why President Heber J. Grant used to exhort the Saints that, whenever possible, they sing all stanzas of “O My Father.”

    Another interesting example of sequential stanzas is the United States national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (It is not designated as a hymn because it is not addressed to Deity. Therefore it is called an anthem.) “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a poem of four long, successive stanzas. When sung on patriotic occasions, the combined memory of the singing patriots is good for only one stanza, the first one. And this stanza ends with a question mark, “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” The banner had been seen during the night whenever a bomb had burst, but in the darkness there was no certainty as to whether the flag was still there. It is only in the second stanza, “On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,” that the banner was really seen to be still waving in the morning. This is a technical matter, but there are sensitive and logical people who argue with some justification that at least two stanzas must be sung, and preferably all four.

    The practical answer is that people cannot be expected to know from memory more than the first stanza. It is regrettable that the poet placed doubt at the end of the first stanza. The poem is perfect enough if it is meant to be read from a printed page, but it contains this unexpected technical flaw for singing.

    The number of stanzas to be sung is frequently determined by the amount of time available. If we sing all stanzas of “O My Father,” with a complete introduction on the organ, it takes five minutes. “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning,” at normal tempo, will take six minutes. Both these hymns are worth this time, if we can give it ungrudgingly.

    When, for example, a meeting has been held beyond its usual closing time, then the first stanza of the closing hymn will be the most spirited, but each succeeding stanza becomes less and less welcome. The principal message is traditionally found in the first stanza. The poet gives it his best, and the message in it is usually complete. It may surely be said that the quality, the fervor, and the devotion displayed in hymn singing is more important than the number of stanzas sung.

    In view of the foregoing, it seems impractical and unnecessary to require that, in every case, all the stanzas be sung. We are allowed the freedom of choice in this matter.

    Nevertheless, let us not be penurious in the amount of time that we schedule for hymn singing. This is an important mode of worship, one that allows participation on the part of all the members. If there is ample time, do not hesitate to sing many verses. If the time is far spent, one need not apologize for singing “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow” or only a single stanza of any other hymn. However, it is important that the person conducting in any meeting should determine and announce the number of stanzas to be sung.

    It would be wise to write most of our new hymns on the specific subject of the restored gospel. Today the Lord has launched his “mighty work and a wonder,” so let us poetize on the gospel restored in these latter days.

    It is both foolhardy and unnecessary for us to try to add new general Christian hymns to the vast library already in existence. For one thing, the competition is strong. However, if our poets will tell in their verses about the Lord’s great work in our own day, everything will be in their favor. The Lord will bless them, the people will be grateful, the work of the Lord will be promoted, and newly baptized members in the Church will be inspired to faithfulness.

    Here are some specific subjects upon which to write:

    1. Compose a new and better treatment of some hymns now found in the present hymnbook.

    2. The fervent sermons of our General Authorities can be consulted for appropriate ideas.

    3. We should have at least two dozen faith-promoting hymns relating to the Book of Mormon that will cause young and old to love this sacred book of scripture. These hymns should inspire those who are lukewarm in faith to put into effect the invitation of Moroni to gain the priceless pearl of a living testimony through reading the Book of Mormon. We need more heartwarming hymns on this subject, not so much to retell something already told in the Book of Mormon, but rather to allude to the grandeur, the divinity, and the heavenly boon that it vouchsafes to Latter-day Saints.

    4. The most beautiful of all our present hymns are those that rejoice over the gospel restoration. At least one dozen such hymns are urgently needed. And they should be superior in grandeur, nobility, and the promotion of faith.

    5. New hymns are needed on subjects of current work in the Church, of putting our all into our assignments.

    6. Hymns on the subject of baptism need to be written. When Jesus was baptized in Jordan, not many people were present, but this was one of the most hallowed moments in human history because all three members of the Godhead were present. Not only was their united presence extraordinary, but there is deep significance in the statement of God the Father: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” This event and its importance need to be commented on in poetic hymns so that a child or a convert can feel, through such music, the extraordinary holy occasion of his own baptism into the Church.

    We are the only people who understand the meaning of baptism for the dead. This can be treated in sublime hymns so that we are reminded of the Lord’s purposes in this regard.

    7. Throughout the Church there are a number of new temples, magnificent in structure and hallowed in atmosphere. We need hymns to sing with joy of the experience of attending the temples, and telling the nearness of God’s holy purposes.

    8. The Church is having extraordinary success in the Latin American missions, where large numbers of new members are being baptized. Someone needs to write about these people who do not sing in English and who did not come from England or Northern Europe, but who are descendants of father Lehi. The gospel is also being embraced by large numbers of persons in the Orient. He who is the Father of all peoples will be pleased to have us extend a melodious and poetic hand of fellowship to the new Saints in distant lands.

    9. More beautiful hymns are needed pertaining to the sacrament service.

    10. New hymns should be created in line with our effective missionary proselyting. How is the person converted? What does he feel? What causes him to rejoice?

    While considering the writing of hymns, we might also consider faith-promoting texts for anthems. Our choirs will be happy to sing on the subjects of our times, our needs, our hopes and fears, and our faith.

    There is also ample opportunity for writing new vocal solos on the subject of the Lord’s present-day work, which is ours by divine gift. We should consider the production of cantatas for choirs, cantatas to comprise recitatives (or narrative texts), solos, duets, and choruses.

    Bach himself wrote some 100 cantatas. These can be studied as wonderful models. The recitatives can ask questions and the chorus can answer them. Such productions should be approximately twenty minutes in length. Musicians are available for putting such texts to music. What all musicians need is lyricists to write the words.

    We can also use special youth songs and happy children’s songs, some of which may be recreational, but all of them should have a definite faith-building quality.

    When a hymn is written, the writer should exercise humility, at least in the beginning, so that he will not expect his first efforts to be masterpieces. It is likely that his first dozen hymns will only be exercises with which he gains power and skill to write something worthwhile.

    As has been mentioned, the poet may elect to use some tune to guide him in writing a hymn. The challenge, however, is that he may be able to produce a new hymn that will have some modernity about it, that will catch our interest, and that will strike us in a delightsome way.

    The melody on this page [see also Ensign, July 1973, 135] is slightly different from melodies and rhythms that we find used in many hymns. Perhaps our poets might like to use this tune for an exercise in writing a number of different stanzas.

    Catholic hymn writers centuries ago used much scriptural material and original writings for their chants. Lutherans made a great religious contribution in their writing of many beautiful, devout chorales. Methodists and other Protestants wrote a large number of hymns, among whom the Wesleys are reputed to have written 7,000, each with many stanzas. The Reverend Isaac Watts is credited with some 700 hymns. Our restored church in its earlier years produced many hymns expressing thanksgiving for the restoration of the gospel. It is now our turn in this century to make a great contribution.

    It is likely that for a newly revised hymnbook we should have at least 100 new superbly written hymns. However, it may be necessary for ten times that number to be written before 100 may be found of suitable quality.

    It is not necessary that hymns be written only by the greatest poets. Indeed, very few fine hymns have been written by famous poets. The successful hymn writers have been people who loved the Lord and who were able to express themselves in exquisite poetic language. The highest poetic quality is necessary, because a hymn will be sung hundreds of times, and we want to be inspired each time we sing it. In a word, hymns should be written by people of deep faith who are poetically oriented.

    Our hymn writers should have their minds filled with worthy models. They must erase from their memory, for this purpose, the style of popular, romantic ballads. Such light style may charm once or twice, but it will soon be unappealing to people of good taste. For hymn writers’ words to endure, they must impress our souls and our lives with their elevated, sublime, epic style. The subjects of our existence and of our faith are all epic and noble.

    Our poets and our hymn writers should take for their task the portrayal of Mormon values so that we can sing their words for ourselves and for the world. Such hymns should express deep testimony (without using this word). Our faithful people are endowed with deep conviction of divine mission.

    The purposes of hymns are to pray to our Heavenly Father, together with other faithful people and with melodic accompaniment; to beautify our thoughts and feelings concerning the gospel; to invite us to love, cherish, follow, and understand the principles of the gospel; to pray to Deity in beauty and holiness and in lofty, elevated strains; and to unite the congregation, in faith and faithfulness and in brotherly love. The melodies that will be added to these texts will fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, who said that in the days when the God of heaven shall comfort his people and joy and gladness shall be found among them, there shall be thanksgiving and the voice of melody. (See Isa. 51:3.)

    In one of the finest of hymns (one that we have borrowed from a non-LDS source), we sing the stirring phrase, “Increase in us the kindled fire.” Let us inspire all of our people, the weak, the strong, the poor, the rich, the young, the old, with the glory, beauty, power, divinity, and holiness of our writings expressed in hymns of praise.

    Courtesy of Providence Lithograph Company