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Hymnbooks through the years: A legacy of sacred music

By Sarah Hunt - | Mar 26, 2023
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A collection of modern and historic hymnbooks rest on a piano at Legacy Retirement Home on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
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A young woman plays a hymn on the piano from the Church's Spanish hymnbook.
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In June 2018, members around the world were invited to submit original musical numbers to be considered for the new Hymnbook and Children’s Songbook.
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A collection of modern and historic hymnbooks rest on a piano at Legacy Retirement Home on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

In June 2018, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a request for members around the world — to submit original sacred music for the new hymnbook.

As the new international hymnbook draws closer to completion, members of the church are fondly remembering previous editions.

Lois Waterman, a lifelong church member, remembers first learning to play the piano at 11 years old for her calling as a branch pianist. The role wasn’t her first choice — everyone who could play piano in her branch had moved away, and she had been selected for the job by her father, the branch president.

“I told him he knew I cried every time I tried to accompany them in Family Home Evening. I just couldn’t play while people sang. He told me they would set me apart and then with practice he knew I could do it,” Waterman recalled. “It worked just like he said! Every week I practiced like crazy an opening, closing and sacrament hymn.”

Every hymn she first learned came from the 1948 edition of the hymnbook. This version came encased in a brown or navy blue cover, with blue being the most remembered among members. Waterman also played for Primary using a small bluish-green song book titled “The Children Sing,” published in 1951.

“When I was 13, we got an organ (for the sacrament hall), and the man who installed it gave me 30 minutes of instruction on how to play it. I was the organist until I was 18,” she said.

When the green hymnbook was released in 1985, she noticed a few changes, including an updated bass clef sign and the addition of a few hymns, including of “How Great Thou Art” and “Our Savior’s Love.”

New music was also paired with lyrics from classic hymns like “Know This, That Every Soul Is Free” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob.”

The hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” was missing from this version. It was included in the 1841, 1845 and 1948 editions but was rarely known at the time, so it was omitted.

“Many don’t know that ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ (by far the most requested hymn for the current revision) is in the current hymnbook in 10 languages — just not in the English edition. … When Mack Wilberg created a beautiful new choral arrangement of the hymn in 1993, members of our church — and Christians around the world — fell in love with this hymn all over again,” said Steve Schank, music manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Arrangements specifically made for choirs were another feature that was left out of the green hymnbook.

“I really loved having choir music right in the (blue) book. Some of those hymns were incorporated for the congregation in the green hymnbook, but many were no longer used,” Waterman said.

Some of the popular hymns of Waterman’s youth are not as well known today, but that hasn’t affected her affinity for “Hail to the Brightness of Zion’s Glad Morning,” “Welcome Welcome Sabbath Morning” and “Thanks for the Sabbath School” to name a few. She is excited to see what the new hymnbook will offer.

“It will be interesting to see new hymns, and nice to have the same ones worldwide. I played for the Spanish ward on our mission. There is a hymn in the current Spanish hymnbook that I love that I hope they will translate and include. It’s on page 190, Hay Un Hogar Eterno,” Waterman said

Current foreign hymnbooks frequently contain hymns that incorporate traditions, culture, sayings and meanings that are unique to a specific language or region.

“It is common for all non-English language editions to include unique hymns and songs that are not in the English books. However, the revised collection will offer a unified list of titles and the same hymn numbering in all languages,” Schank said.

There have been eight major editions of the hymnbooks throughout church history beginning with “A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of the Latter Day Saints” by Emma Smith, which was released in 1835.

Some of these major versions were published church-wide while others were made for local use, including “A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Europe” (1840) nicknamed “the Manchester Hymnal” and “Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody” (1889). Mission presidents in the Northern States Mission in Chicago compiled and published “Songs of Zion” (1908).

There have also been six major children’s songbook editions: “Hymns and Songs: Selected from various authors, for the Primary Associations of the Children of Zion” by Eliza R. Snow (1880), “The Primary Songbook” (1905) which included songs that some older members still remember, “Little Stories in Song” (1940), “The Children Sing” (1951), “Sing With Me” (1969) and “Children’s Songbook” (1989).

“Hymns and the Children’s Songbook are being revised (and added to) to unify the music used for worship by members around the world … and better reflect the diverse needs of members worldwide. The new printed collections will … provide the same selection of hymns and children’s songs (with the same hymn numbering) in each language,” Schank said.

The church received over 20,000 hymn and primary song suggestions to be considered for inclusion in the new hymnbook by members around the world. Almost 200 member reviewers helped narrow down the suggestions and pick hymns that had the most promise for the new book.


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