The Song of the Heart: Using the Sacred Hymns
I have chosen to talk about something today I feel I am somewhat experienced in. By the introduction you may have realized it has to do with music. I am going to talk to you about something that you may or may not have known before: it has to do with a doctrine of the Church that isn’t talked about very often, a doctrine that may be new to you. Hopefully it will be exciting to you. At the conclusion of my remarks, I will invite you to accept a personal challenge to do something for yourself, for those around you, and for those in your wards and stakes. For many years to come it will bring great happiness and joy in your church service.
If I asked you if you believe there is a doctrine of music in the Church, I wonder what your answer would be. I suppose some of you may say, “Never heard of it,” and others may readily admit, “Yes, there is a doctrine of music in the Church.” Let me affirm that yes, there is a doctrine of music in the Church. It was given by revelation from the Lord Himself very early in the history of the Church, within three month after the Church was organized. If you read section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph to his wife, Emma, you will know that the Lord instructed Emma, among other things, to do something with music.
We have other scriptures in our standard works that deal with music and with the arts in general. For instance, section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants talks about dancing in a revelation given to Brigham Young. If you had any doubt in what the Church believes in regards to dancing, the revelation is there. But more recently and more importantly, we have many statements made by the brethren over the years in General Conference and other settings about the importance, the power, and the necessity of music in our lives. So let me start out with a portion of the 13th Article of Faith. The last sentence in that Article of Faith gives us the will of the Lord in regards to music and the other arts in general.
It says, “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” That is the guide we have, through revelation, on everything that has to do with the arts, which includes music. Now more specifically, when we talk about worshipful music or sacred music in worship settings, we have this statement in section 25 given to Emma Smith. It says in verses 11 and 12, in a commandment to Emma by the Lord, “…make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church. For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart, ye the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.”
Taking off on that particular revealing statement, one of our former first presidency members, J. Reuben Clark, Jr.—who about 50 years ago lived half a block up the street—said in the October 1936 General conference, “We can get nearer to the Lord through music then perhaps through any other thing except prayer.” Remember the Lord said that the song of the righteous is a prayer unto him. We are doing pretty well with praying, but do we believe and do we exercise our faith in the statement that proper use of music in the Church will also get us close to our Heavenly Father and allow us to be blessed.
Two other statements from past presidents of the Church also regard the importance of music. President Brigham said at one time, “We cannot preach the gospel without music.” A very simple statement, “We cannot preach the gospel without music.”
And then President Harold B. Lee made a statement in the 1973 General Conference that the most effective preaching of the Gospel occurs when it is accompanied by beautiful and appropriate music.
So there is our challenge: to accept that in our efforts as church members, or in our missionary work, or in whatever format we choose, if we include music, it will be more effective. Why? Because there’s great power in the message being transmitted. It becomes firmly settled in our souls because of the music associated with it. Music will cause the spoken word to settle into our hearts more lastingly than the spoken word alone. If we intend to do much good in the world, to preach the gospel to others by example and by precept, we will do well to include music.
Now I want to dwell a little bit more on these specifics of sacred music in the Church. If you would look into your hymn book—you don’t have one here I don’t think—but sometime in the near future take the time to find the sealed portion of the hymn book. What do you think that would be? Some people haven’t found it yet. It’s at the very beginning, before the contents section. It’s a two-page challenge by the First Presidency to you and I to use what is in the hymn book for greater good in our lives. If you would analyze the message of the First Presidency in that preface of the hymn book, you will find that the Lord is expecting us to do three things with music. I would like to share those three things, and give you a quote from the preface and also a quote from the General Authorities that will tie to that particular purpose of music.
Here’s the first purpose. We are supposed to sing the hymns frequently—not just once in a while, but frequently. The statement from the hymn book: “We hope to see an increase of hymn singing in our congregations. We encourage all members, whether musically inclined or not, to join with us in singing hymns….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.”
The associated statement is from President Thomas S. Monson. He said, “If you love the Lord, if you love His doctrine, you’ll love the hymns. And when you love them, then you sing them.”
Now let me give you a little background to that statement. It is a very beautiful statement from one of our leading brethren in the Church. It came about in a very interesting manner. President Monson made that statement in 1984, or1985. The previous year he had gone to Europe, to East Germany to organize the second stake in that country. The first stake had been organized two years before in Frieberg, which is where the temple stands. Now he was there to organize the second stake in Leipzig, and to do that properly he choose to have all of the brethren that would be called to positions in the stake come together at the same time. They were to just simply wait their turn in the adjoining room from the room where he was interviewing them for stake positions.
There were about 30 brethren involved, and these brethren were so glad to be with each other, having come from the far regions of East Germany, that they did something very interesting while they were waiting in that room before President Monson called them into the interview room one by one.
President Monson started the interviews and after the first, second, and third interview he noticed something interesting that he couldn’t explain. He heard the brethren singing in the room next to him. Pretty soon he asked Brother Rinker, who was with him interviewing, “Brother Rinker who are these people that are singing next door? Are they the ones that are going to sing tonight in our stake conference meeting in the choir?”
Brother Rinker said, “No, they are the ones you asked to be here to be interview.” “Well, how come they’re singing?”
And hear the classic answer from Brother Rinker. He said, “These brethren are so happy to be together...” (which they couldn’t do regularly in that particular country at that time)… “they’re just so happy to be together that they would rather sing together than talk about sports or anything else that we usually do when we are waiting for somebody.”
That triggered that great comment from President Monson that I just quoted a minute ago. Let me say it again, “If you love the Lord, if you love His doctrine, you’ll love the hymns. And when you love them, then you sing them.” That’s a beautiful comment.
The second purpose is to use the words of the hymns to support teaching gospel principles. The quote from the preface is, “We hope leaders, teachers, and members who are called upon to speak will turn often to the hymn book to find sermons presented powerfully and beautifully in verse.” I personally call the hymn book that we use my “green scriptures” or “the fifth standard works.” I call it that because it contains doctrine in it that in some cases doesn’t appear in the standard works; we will get to that in just a moment.
The statement associated with this particular purpose of using the hymns to support teaching Gospel principles comes from President Boyd K. Packer. He gave a great General Conference address in October 1991. I ask you to reread that address, entitled “Reverence Invites Revelation.” He said, “The Spirit does not ratify speech nor confirm music which lacks spiritual substance.” Here we’re getting into something that we should separate from any other music that entertains. In our worship services, music has to include a spiritual substance; otherwise it will be no good. It will not edify us, it will not inspire us. As a matter of fact, I know that President Packer is inspired in his talks by whatever he hears in the prelude music. If the prelude music is non-substantial, if it doesn’t have that spiritual substance to it, he is really at a loss as how to speak after that. He puts great emphasis in proper prelude music to edify him so he can speak about what he has chosen to speak. That holds true for many of us; it holds true for me.
Now the third purpose is to feel the power of hymns to motivate us to correct actions and behaviors. We don’t have time to go into detail, but I assure you that many miracles recorded in Church history were directly the influence of good, sacred music in a person’s life. Or something was triggered by good music within a person to change the life he or she was living.
The statement from the preface says, “Hymns can lift our spirits, give us courage, and move us to righteous action. They can fill our souls with heavenly thoughts and bring us a spirit of peace. Hymns can also help us withstand the temptations of the adversary.” The statement that goes with that First Presidency preface statement is one given by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve about 50 years ago, Adam S. Bennion. He was a member in the 1950’s and he made a very interesting statement. I would invite you to memorize it, then share with your bishop and your stake president as they conduct sacrament meetings. He said, “In the Church we need better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it.” Now why would an apostle make that kind of statement? He recognized there is far greater power in teaching the Gospel through music then just speaking about a doctrine. If you watch carefully what happens in General Conference, you will notice that the brethren use certain portions of hymn texts quite freely in preaching doctrine.
I want to go into more detail how we can use the hymns of the Church and the children songs. Hymns and sacred children songs more effectively teach the Gospel to others. About 20 years ago the Church used to have three types of hymn books: phase one, phase two, and phase three books. Now there are just two books—phase two and phase three. The phase one originally went into new countries that were beginning to bring new converts into the Church. There was a new language, a new country, and the Church had never been there before. Maybe there was only a handful of members that were baptized, but they were meeting together on Sundays. So what did they do as far as music goes? The Church had to get something to them rather quickly so that they could have an opening hymn and a sacramental hymn and a closing hymn. The brethren at that time adopted a philosophy that worked extremely well throughout the world. They gave them 12 standard hymns right at the very beginning. What kind of hymns do you think they chose? You would choose ones that give the maximum benefit of teaching the Gospel to new converts to the Church.
I hope you thought of, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” (Hymn 19). It would be a key hymn because it teaches the doctrine of a prophet, which no other church teaches. The hymns that we use in a mature setting of the Church and also in the children’s songs were considered to see if there are correlating hymns and songs that teach the same doctrine. Children’s songs are simpler in teaching the plan of salvation. The best hymn to teach that in adult hymns is, “Oh, My Father” (292). The best hymn in the children’s book is “I Am a Child of God” (301). Which one do you suppose went in? There was room for only 12 hymns. “O, My Father” didn’t go in; “I Am a Child of God” did. Why? “Oh, My Father” had four verses instead of three, it was on two pages instead of one, and it’s harder to sing. So that was the philosophy taken.
The Church has matured throughout the world to the point where that initial 12-package of hymns used to teach the Gospel has been replaced with a new phase one of 45 hymns. Those 45 hymns consist of 35 adult hymns and 10 children songs. The Gospel is being taught in about 100 countries that have a language that is not yet a major language of the Church. Once a first stake is established, they get a bigger hymn book that has about 200 hymns in it. The largest hymn book has 341 hymns in it. How many of those do we use? I think the next time an English-speaking hymn book comes out, it will be decreased to 200 hymns, eliminating the ones that we don’t use.
President Packer said again in that same conference address in October, 1991, that if we will listen, hymns teach the Gospel, for the hymns of the restoration are, in fact, a course in doctrine. What a powerful statement. In essence, that says the hymn book is a standard work, it’s a doctrinal volume that teaches doctrine.
Let me go through a little experiment with you. I am going to give you a just a selection of some one-liners or short phrases from the hymn book. As I read them, it should trigger the melody. I am not going to tell you what hymn they’re coming from, but in your mind you will probably recall the melody immediately. That should indicate to you the importance of music as it teaches our minds.
“Blessings await you in doing what’s right.” That’s right, it’s “Choose the Right.” “If we do what’s right we have no need to fear.” Yes, it’s “Let Us All Press On.”
“Money cannot buy your reward in Heaven.” What’s that from? “Count your many Blessings.” That phrase is actually hidden in the middle of two phrases.
“Home can be a heaven on earth where we are filled with love.” It’s the one that my wife wrote; I wrote the music, “Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth.”
“Teach with inspiration.” Just three words, but we are not supposed to teach any other way but by inspiration. Now maybe you didn’t catch all the music that goes with it, but it’s an interesting challenge.
Now here are two more that were expanded by one word by the General Authorities as they gave talks in General Conference. Here’s the way this one reads in the hymn book. It’s the fourth verse of “Praise to the Man”: “Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven…” Several General Authorities, over the years, have added a word after the word “sacrifice” so it reads “Sacrifice still brings forth the blessings of heaven.”
President Hinckley has done something interesting with the song, “Love at Home.” The first line of “Love at Home” is “There is beauty all around when there’s love at home.” He added a little word in between those two phrases: “There is beauty all around only when there’s love at home.” Can you see how important the hymn text can become? He said that in the1989 General Conference.
There’s one hymn that teaches a doctrine that isn’t even contained in any of our standard works. The third verse of this song says, “In the heavens are parents single, No the thought makes reason stare…” It’s “O, My Father.” That doctrine isn’t even in the standard works, but it’s a doctrine taught in the hymns.
Over the years the brethren have used hymn text phrases, or sentences, or even a whole verse, or sometimes all the verses as they talk about a doctrine in General Conference. As a matter of fact, a survey that I’m involved in and have been for many, many years is a 32-year survey started in1974 through last Conference. The brethren in those 64 General Conferences have quoted 488 times from the hymns.
President Hinckley is a key player. He uses a reference to a hymn almost every conference, sometimes more than once in a given conference. One of his favorite hymns to reference is “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” You usually find that at the end of his address. Another one that he often quotes from is one we don’t sing very often. We should repent and sing it a little bit more frequently. It’s “God of Our Fathers, Known of Old.” He has quoted that one four times in the last four to five years. It has some messages in there that pertain to our day. President Hinckley certainly sets the pace for quoting hymn text to support the importance of the doctrine.
Would it interest you to know the ten most frequently quoted hymns in General Conference? Up through last year the most frequently quoted hymn was “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” But this year, as of the October conference, another hymn has taken first position. Because of the references to Joseph Smith’s 200th birthday, “Praise to the Man,” is now ahead of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” It will probably change back again in the next two to three years.
“We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” is a marvelous hymn. President Hinckley used that hymn back in the 1973 General Conference to talk about the role of a prophet. It’s amazing to read that message in the October 1973 General Conference about President Hinckley speaking about the role of a Prophet, quoting freely from “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” as a junior member of the Quorum of the Twelve. He had no idea or thought he would ever fill the shoes of the prophet of whom he spoke in 1973. But if you compare the way he lives and teaches us today to what he said in 1973, there’s a perfect correlation, there is absolute harmony in what he taught then and what he is living today.
It’s a good way for us find out how that is done, how to use the hymns to talk in sacrament meeting or to teach lessons, so the effect of the message will be more forceful in the lives of those who listen.
The other eight hymns that are most frequently quoted are “I Am a Child of God” (Hymns 301); “How Firm a Foundation” (Hymns 85); “I Stand All Amazed” (Hymns 193); “The Morning Breaks” (Hymns 1); “True to the Faith” (Hymns 254); “O, My Father” (Hymns 292); “How Great the Wisdom and the Love” (Hymns 195); and “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go (Hymns 270). It is an interesting way of looking at how the brethren, in a subtle way, teach us how to use the hymns more effectively. The brethren have shown us over the years how to do it and we may feel a little hesitant or not quite know how to approach that idea. I would suggest you pick some of those General Conference address that use a hymn quite extensively to teach a gospel doctrine and see if you can imitate them. You can use the same approach that they used to get their message across. I’ll give you three examples of very good conference addresses you can use them as a model: President Howard W. Hunter in the April 1993 General Conference spoke about “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” He uses all verses of that hymn to teach the doctrine. President Monson, in the October 1991 General Conference, used the hymn “Called to Serve,” and uses the words of that song to preach about missionary work. The last one is by Elder Dallin H. Oakes in the October 2002 General Conference, called, “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go.”
Those are some examples you can use until you know what to do. In the mean time, when an opportunity comes your way to either speak in sacrament meeting or teach a class in Relief Society, or priesthood, or home evening, or wherever, pick from the index of the hymn book a hymn that seems to tie into whatever you are talking about. Go to that hymn and find the respective phrases or sentences, two or three one-liners, and use them. I’ll make you a promise that if you do that, it works beautifully. Include at least one reference to the hymns for any lesson or talk. Use a hymn text to go with your talk and people will remember your talk. And you will please the Lord because you will actually fulfill his command to Emma Smith in the very early days of the Church, July 1830, to use the hymns as a prayer of the righteous. You’re actually asking for blessings, as He says you should do in that very verse, and it will be a blessing upon your head. If you do this, you will actually experience a blessing come into your life because you have done what the Lord revealed to do in our Church activity.
One final comment. Next General Conference, in April, have a piece of paper handy as you listen to the various talks, and write down every time the speakers quote from a hymn. Then look for the average. Over the last 32 years, eight hymns on average are quoted by the brethren. You will likely find that President Hinckley is a key player in this. I think he used three to four hymns just last conference. President Monson quotes even more, and it’s effective, very effective. So do that, just write down what you hear next conference and then go back to the talk as it comes out in the Ensign magazine and read it, and see how those hymns are used, and see if you can imitate that in your own talks and lessons.
Bless you. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here and wish you well in your studies. And I wish you well in your new home.