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The 30th anniversary of the LDS hymnbook and a history of music in the church

SALT LAKE CITY — On Sept. 3, 1985, Latter-day Saints filled the Assembly Hall on Temple Square with songs of praise and joy as they celebrated their church's new official hymnbook.

Last Friday, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered in the same venue to continue the celebration, beginning the evening by singing “High on the Mountain Top.” As the joyful melody and harmonies permeated the room, the commemoration of the hymnbook’s 30th anniversary began.

The event, titled “Songs of the Heart: The LDS Hymnbook Turns 30,” was attended by several members of the General Music Committee responsible for selecting the hymns for the 1985 edition. They included Marvin Gardner, author of “Press Forward Saints”; Vanja Watkins, composer of “Press Forward Saints” and “Families Can Be Together Forever”; Bonnie Goodliffe, tabernacle organist and composer of “We Meet Again as Sisters”; Karen Lynn Davidson, composer of "Each Life That Touches Our's for Good"; Darwin Wolford, author of "Songs of the Righteous"; and Michael Moody, chairman of the General Music Committee from 1977-2005 and composer of numerous songs in the Children’s Songbook.

Three actors narrated the event, playing the roles of prominent musical figures during the early years of the church. Melanie Cartwright played Emma Smith, Garrett Hazen played W.W. Phelps and Lisa Zimmerman played Eliza R. Snow.

The predominant theme was the divine role of music.

“We sing to worship God but also to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the gospel," Hazen said, playing the role of Phelps.

The narrators recounted stories of how divine inspiration has been the essential source behind writing, composing and compiling hymns. During a video presentation on the hymnbook compilation process, Moody talked about how at times music professionalism had to be set aside in order to “select (the hymns) we felt would have the greatest need.”

Goodliffe echoed this sentiment, saying that committee members “were constantly looking for spiritual affirmation.”

The event was held on Sept. 11, the very date when, in 1835, Phelps wrote a letter to his wife stating that he was revising hymns for an official hymnbook, according to Shane Chism’s book "A Selection of Early Mormon Hymnbooks." Phelps was officially appointed to the work three days later. He assisted Emma Smith — who had been called to compile a hymnbook only months after the church’s organization — in the publication of a hymnbook in 1835.

Following is a look at some of the major editions of hymnbooks in the church.

"A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of the Latter Day Saints," 1835

This first hymnbook was a compilation of 90 hymns. Between 30 and 40 of these were written by LDS Church members and poets. Karen Lynn Davidson, a member of the 1985 General Music Committee, explains in her book "Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages" that the first hymnbooks generally only included the words to a song. Picking a melody was the music director’s responsibility, and it was not expected to sing the same tune every time with a particular text. Words were typically sung to borrowed tunes from other churches members had once attended. Of the 90 hymns in this edition, 26 remain in today’s hymnbook, including “The Spirit of God,” “How Firm a Foundation” and “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.”

"Manchester Hymnal," 1840, and "The Psalmody," 1889

Many other hymnbooks were compiled after the original 1835 edition, including one titled "Manchester Hymnal," which served as the official hymnbook for the Saints in Europe and lasted until 1927, according to Moody's article in the September 1985 edition of the Ensign, "Latter-day Saint Hymnbooks, Then and Now." During this time, "The Psalmody" was also compiled. This edition was the first to incorporate music, which meant that hymns would now be more fixed with the same tune being sung each time for a particular hymn. "The Psalmody," which went through six editions, was a musical supplement to the "Manchester Hymnal," according to Davidson's book.

"Songs of Zion," 1908

Although never an “official” hymnbook, "Songs of Zion" was widely popular. Moody writes in his article that the goal of this hymnal was to create simpler music as compared to the more complex arrangements in "The Psalmody." Compiled in 1908, "Songs of Zion" included a total of 100 hymns.

"Deseret Sunday School Songs," 1909

"Deseret Sunday School Songs" was intended for use in Primary, Sunday School, religion classes and social events and soon became the most popular hymnbook in the church, according to Moody's article.

"Latter-day Saint Hymns," 1927

The first General Music Committee for the church was formed in 1920 and given the responsibility of compiling a new hymnbook. The committee’s efforts combined the best of the "Manchester Hymnal," "Psalmody" and "Songs of Zion" into one, leading to a grand total of 419 hymns. Also known as “the green hymnbook,” this hymnal lasted until 1948, according to Moody's article.

"Hymns, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," 1948

This hymnbook contained 387 hymns and also marked the first time that there was a classification in songs, separating men’s voices from women’s. Almost half of the hymns in this edition were borrowed from non-LDS sources. A new edition of this hymnbook appeared in 1950, replacing some of the songs with hymns from earlier LDS hymnbooks, according to Moody's article.

"Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," 1985

Marking the 150th anniversary of Emma Smith’s original hymnal in 1835, this 1985 hymnbook is now in its 30th year. During the video presentation on Sept. 11, Moody explained that there were about 6,000 submissions and every hymn was carefully considered.

“We (reviewed) all this music as if the composer and author were in the room,” he said. The committee sought to maintain a balance of old and new hymns, as well as a balance of topics.

Containing a large range of topics from missionary work to the promptings of the Spirit, this hymnbook was to serve as what committee member Davidson called in her book “the musical and poetic declaration of a new generation of Latter-day Saints.”

Email: lpeterson@deseretnews.com