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|Book Review: Deseret Sunday School Songs, a hymnal|
Jun. 20th, 2007 at 2:09 pm
There is no date, though a bit of research reveals that this hymnal was published in 1909. In pencil, a shaky hand has written ‘Kirtland Ward Sunday School, 1944′ inside the front cover, but there is no copyright page. It may be missing, for this book is worn. The binding is cracked, and broken in three places. An old, old piece of tape marks hymn number 41, “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer,” and some long forgotten conductor has marked instructions for an arrangement of number 46, “Love at Home.” Several pages are torn out, the edges of the cloth cover are frayed, and someone has taken a blue crayon to “Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd.” A stamp on the back, however, indicates publication by the Deseret Sunday School Union, complete with a “Holiness to the Lord” logo and the image of a beehive atop a pyramid of the standard works. Interestingly, the largest of the four books, the foundation of the pyramid, is the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Mormon is the third smallest and second from the top, immediately beneath the Bible. Perhaps this means nothing.
There is a first line index, but several pages are gone, leaving the apparatus useless for locating any hymn located alphabetically after number 266, “Father of Life and Light.” However, the hymns seem to be arranged by topic, similar to our current hymnal. There are 295; slightly fewer than half are still in use. There are two perfect circles, drawn in pencil, on the frontispiece – though it may be incorrect to call it that, because the paper is blank. There is no title page, no First Presidency message or instructions for a chorister.
Turning the frontispiece takes us directly to hymn 1, “Stars of Morning, Shout for Joy,” by the Mormon Thomas Durham. It’s a very Old Testament hymn, echoing the cry of the cherubim in Isaiah with the chorus “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and the title’s reference to Job. This hymn (and the second, “Beautiful Home,” a sentimental paen to heaven by the Protestant HR Palmer) are an interesting juxtaposition to the opening of our current hymnal, with the rousing Restoration songs “The Shadows Flee” and, of course, “The Spirit of God” (titled here “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning” and buried at number 104). Indeed, the hymnal owes a debt to the popularity of evangelical Protestant gospel songs in this period – hymns such as James Nicholson’s “The Lord is my Light” (number 106 here) and Palmer’s “Master, the Tempest is Raging” (number 204) were being sung around the country by enthusiastic crowds of revival-goers, led by such evangelical songmasters as Ira Sankey.
This is not to say, however, that the cultural stamps we might expect from a book published in Salt Lake City within a stone’s throw of polygamy are missing. Joseph Smith, for example, is all over these pages. His life is chronicled from number 234, “One Hundred Years,” written by the prolific Evan Stephens to celebrate the centennial of Joseph’s birth (representative lyrics: “One hundred years since, here as a mortal/One of the chosen of heav’n had his birth”) to number 8, “The Unknown Grave,” by David Hyrum Smith, written, so a footnote explains, in “reference to that of the Prophet, who, after his martyrdom, was buried secretly at midnight by a few of his friends, as his enemies were anxious to steal his body.” Representative lyrics: “And there reposes the prophet just/the Lord was his guide and in Him was his trust/He restored the gospel, our souls to save/But now he lies low in an unknown grave.” “Praise to the Man” of course is here (as is “stain Illinois,” in its proper place in the second verse, I was delighted to note), but so are 260 “Joseph the Blest” and number 232, simply “Joseph Smith,” which spends the first verse praising Vermont, “the birthplace of patriots” from where “on Sharon’s verdant sod, there came to earth/In mortal birth, a Prophet of our God.”
The only uniquely Mormon thing possibly praised more than Joseph is Utah. It is both “Utah, the Star of the West” (number 202) and “Utah, the Queen of the West” (number 150). It is our “Beautiful Mountain Home,” (number 162) and “Our Mountain Home So Dear” (number 139, by Emmeline Wells). And further, we are “Proud? Yes, of Our Home in the Mountains” (number 200). Indeed, the hymns praising Utah outnumber those praising the United States, which gets “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America,” but not much else – perhaps a residue of bitterness and ethnic nationalism remained barely a generation removed from the polygamy persecutions. Utah was “where white-robed virtue e’er prevails,” (202) and even though “the world may despise, but dearly we prize/Our beautiful mountain home.” (162) We are instructed in number 126 that “Zion Stands With Hills Surrounded” – not, it seems, in our hearts.
And clearly, this is a hymnal of small town Utah, where the institutions of the Church were of paramount social and cultural importance, and leaders more familiar than they are to us today. Presumably most users of this hymnbook would have some memory of Dr. Karl G. Maeser, to whom number 142, “The Teacher’s Work is Done” is dedicated. And we would do well to remember which institution produced this hymnal. Hymns like number 36, “Welcome to Our Union Meeting” and 31, “A Sunday School Call,” urge the Saints to submit to “our teacher’s kind rule” and celebrate “our mission/To direct the youthful mind.” Number 112 bluntly instructs the Saints “Break Not the Sabbath Day,” number 23 to “Come, Rally in the Sunday School.” And number 42 describes this society perhaps the most colorfully, proclaiming “We Are the Bees of Deseret/the busy, busy cheerful bees . . .Trying to fill our little hives/With every good that we can gather round.” This sort of unmistakable frontier Mormonism feels charmingly anachronistic in a twenty-first century international church.
There are a few more theological or cultural quirks scattered through the book. Somewhat startlingly, in number 74 “When Jesus Shall Come in His Glory,” Joseph Townsend blithely combines somewhat esoteric Mormon theology with fundamentalism. When Jesus shall come, Townsend explains, “Then quickly I’ll be Translated” and join the saved, for “The saints will arise, to meet in the skies/And welcome their King to his throne.” This is rapture theology, something I can’t remember ever hearing taught in my Mormon experience. Relatedly, no fewer than three hymns – number 25, “O Lord, Accept our Jubilee,” number 96, “The World’s Jubilee” (by none other than Eliza Snow, slightly more represented in this hymnal than in our own), and number 125, “O Come the Jubilee,” use the term Jubilee in the traditional sense, to describe a time of special repentance, celebration, and forgiveness through God’s grace. This familiarity with the liturgical calendar is almost entirely absent today, and it’s slightly surprising to me that we’ve so thoroughly forgotten it. And, finally, my favorite anachronistic hymn, number 163, “Don’t Kill the Birds” clearly reflects Lorenzo Snow’s interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. It’s hard to imagine the Saints of Utah today, steeped as much in the modern culture of the American West as in their own religion, singing “Don’t shoot the little birds!/The Earth is God’s estate/And he provideth food for small as well as great.”
This is not quite the Mormonism I recognize. It’s the Mormonism of the Lion House and the This is the Place State Park in Utah, the Mormonism of Juanita Brooks and J. Golden Kimball, the Mormonism my great-grandparents’ generation – parochial and slightly isolationist, rural and steeped in a frontier ethic. I wonder how long it will linger.