from the Forword to Hymns of Light

Introduction: The Power and purpose of hymns

Music is a mystery.

Let me begin with a personal anecdote.  I recall chatting with a man about his church activity – raised in the church, he had not attended a meeting in decades, was now outside the church and firm in his resolve that he would remain so.  “But you know the one thing I miss, Mark?”  he said almost wistfully, “Singing the hymns”.  The music of his childhood still had a welcome place at the core of his soul, still had the power to comfort and inspire.

Hymns are at the core of our sacrament meetings, setting the tone, “inviting the Spirit”, as we say, and this is no mere cliché.  Hearing the music and participating in the singing can have a profound emotional and spiritual effect on us.  We feel peace; we feel unified as saints; we contemplate doctrine and receive the Holy Ghost in a powerful way; we worship our God and strengthen our faith.

And not only do hymns enrich our sacrament meetings: I have been in High Council meetings where the Stake President commented (and all agreed) that the opening hymn was so sweet, so uplifting, we could close right now and the meeting would have been profitable; one of my most successful priesthood lessons consisted of a close reading of How Firm A Foundation, digesting some of the profound gospel insights contained therein; I have counselled with the weeping sinner who could see no way forward and quoted: “Eyes that are wet now, ere long will be tearless.  Blessings await you in doing what’s right!  Do what is right; let the consequence follow … God will protect you; then do what is right!”; I have sacred memories of singing hymns and Primary songs to my little ones at bedtime, “So, little children, let’s you and I try to be like him: try, try, try”, and resolving in my heart to do so.

Mormon hymnody

Good hymns sound natural, effortless, simple. Yet there are significant technical challenges to be met in hymn writing: hymns must be singable by those without musical training; new hymns must feel familiar, yet contain something special and new; hymns must follow strict restrictions of vocal range and voice leading; hymns express the church’s unique culture.

What does a Mormon hymn sound like?  That’s difficult to define.  Mormon hymns are generally conservative in style and technically refined, tending to a 19th century idiom but also tending to the folk style as opposed to the formal (not surprising given the time, place and social class in which our church culture took shape).  Several of our hymns, including the iconic Come, Come Ye Saints and A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, came from the Sacred Harp and its American frontier folk-hymn tradition. Interestingly, speaking of the Sacred Harp, many of those hymns are in minor mode, but all but four of our current hymns are in major keys[1].   Many times I’ve heard people say they love those minor hymns and wish there were more.  Perhaps this is a preference that has changed.  I’ve written several new hymns in the minor mode for this collection.

There are other ineffable characteristics that can only be appreciated by someone immersed in Mormon culture for many years.  Being raised in the church, I have the feeling that I can tell a Mormon sounding hymn when I hear it.  I can only assume other Latter-day Saints will understand what I mean.  (That’s not to say that there aren’t hymns from other faiths that satisfy the LDS sensibility – but then again, we express that sensibility in the hymns we chose to adopt.)

[1] The four being Lord, We Come Before Thee Now, If You Could Hie to Kolob, That Easter Morn, and Ring Out, Wild Bells – and two of them substitute the major chord at the end of the last verse in what’s called a Tierce de Picardy, thus abandoning the somber minor final cadence.

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