Hymns of Light
The Hymns of Orson Scott Card
Set to Music by
Mark Mitchell   •   Janice Kapp Perry
Alma Ray Broadbent   •   Robert Stoddard
Twelve Essays on Writing Hymns
by Orson Scott Card

These essays first appeared as columns in Meridian Magazine; the first essay formed the basis of Card's preface to Hymns of Light.

#1: New Wine in Old Bottles

When we grow up in the Church, the hymns are almost part of the background. We learn to sing them, or at least pretend that we're singing (unless we're too cool to sing them -- yes, deacons, I mean you), but we rarely detach them from the music and actually read the words.

And why should we? The best hymns are meant to be sung. And the hymns that were written to be poems, not hymns, are often the least singable.

For one thing, poetry rarely works when it has too regular a rhythm -- it becomes sing-songy and faintly ridiculous. That's why so much poetry is written in blank verse, five accents to the line, because five beats don't resolve themselves into comfortable rhythms the way lines of three or four accents do:

    "But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?
    It is the east, and Juliet is the sun."

Five-accent lines like these really don't work when set to music.

Now here are some lines which absolutely work as a hymn. But they are too rhythmically repetitive to work well as poetry:

    The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
    The latter-day glory begins to come forth.
    The visions and blessings of old are returning,
    And angels are coming to visit the earth.

When you sing them, they roll out with majesty. When you say them, they make you want to tap your foot -- which is not the effect poetry should have.

So good poems rarely make good hymns, and a good hymn isn't necessarily a good poem. They're different arts.

Hymns Have Rules

I remember when I was in college and Professor Arthur Henry King took me aside to talk about my poetry. He was on the committee looking for hymns for the "new hymnbook" -- by which I mean the hymnbook we've been using for the past twenty years. (Yes, I'm that old.)

The first rule of good hymn writing was simple enough: "Hymns need to be spoken by the congregation as a whole," he said, "and addressed to God."

"Like 'I Stand All Amazed'?" I said -- ever the bratty undergraduate, since of course that hymn is one person speaking, not to God, but about the Savior.

I don't think he liked it that I came up with a counter-example immediately. "That's not really a good hymn," he said.

Well, I thought, if "I Stand All Amazed" isn't a good hymn by your standards, I'll stick with my own lower standards, thank you very much. My rule is, if your rules don't describe the hymns we love best, then your rules aren't worth much.

In the end, the new hymnbook included lots of hymns that didn't follow Prof. King's rule -- I suspect he abandoned it himself soon after telling me about it.

But that conversation stuck with me, and not long afterward, I started writing hymns.

At first, I assumed I should write both the words and music. But I had been collaborating for years on songwriting with my friend Robert Stoddard and others, and I had learned that my strength, if I had one, was with words; music would never be more than a hobby for me.

So I detached the words from the music and began to discover the real rules.

The most important was one Prof. King also taught me: Each stanza must exactly match all the others, accent for accent, syllable for syllable.

There are exceptions, of course. A few hymns change the tune or put two syllables on one note in one stanza, but not the others. Think of the Ralph Vaughn Williams hymn, "For All the Saints" -- and remember that while the hymn is wonderful, those variant stanzas make it tricky to sing.

So even though this rule can have exceptions, those exceptions should be vanishingly rare.

What This Weekly Column Is For

There are other rules, of course, and lots of good advice, and as this column proceeds from week to week, I hope to talk about various problems -- and, I hope, their solutions -- in hymn writing.

I have several goals for this column:

1. I want to make more LDS writers and composers aware of the challenges and possibilities of hymn creation.

2. I hope that they will then write more hymns so we have more good songs to sing, at first in solos and choir numbers, and eventually in an ever-growing hymnbook.

3. I hope composers will like my own hymns, of which I will include at least one each week, so that they will set some of them to music and send the results to me.

I also hope that some of my hymns, at least, will speak to the hearts of those who read this column. Because if a hymn can put into words things we want to say, either to the Lord or in his presence, then it is successful indeed.

Existing Hymn Music

Even if you absolutely intend a hymn to be identical, stanza for stanza, how do you know what pattern of accents will work?

Not everyone knows (or wants to know!) the names of the different metric patterns, like iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic. But the name is merely a convenience.

The simplest way to discover form is to look at existing hymns.

One of the standard patterns is the "ballad stanza," which has alternating lines of four accents and three accents. If that means nothing to you, don't worry, because example is the best teacher:

There is a green hill far away
Without a city wall.

The accented syllables are in boldface.

Except that isn't really true, is it? Because when we say "There is a green hill far away," we would normally accent it like this: "There is a green hill far away." No way is the word hill unstressed!

And that's a problem. The music solves it, because the problem syllables are given notes of equal length. Sing the words and you'll see what I mean.

But the music still has accents -- the first and third beats of the four-beat measure. And even though hill falls on an unaccented musical note, it still has enough length that we're not forced to sing it quickly.

Thus the words and music depend on each other, work with each other, in order to make a hymn feel right as we sing it.

Sometimes, of course, the accents are absolutely wrong, or the way the music and the words fit together is ridiculous. People as old as me will remember when we sang -- and repeated! -- the line "You who unto Jesus, you who unto Jesus, you who unto Jesus for refuge have fled."

It made us sound as if we were singing "Yoo-hoo" unto Jesus -- not at all the serious intent of the hymn. So to make the words and music fit together properly, the new hymnbook changed the words to: "Who unto the Savior, who unto the Savior, who unto the Savior for refuge have fled."

Much better.

So why was the old, faintly ridiculous version ever written? Because the words and music were not written together. The hymnist probably did not know that the composer would repeat the first two feet of the last line of each stanza.

The hymnist simply wrote "You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled," which is not a problem, because you don't repeat "yoo-hoo" three times.

Fit Your Words into Existing Tunes

For a beginning hymnist, a good starting place is to take an existing hymn and write new words to fit the melody. That may sound like putting new wine into old bottles -- but it's really a time-honored tradition.

In fact, many ancient hymnbooks had no musical notation -- not that we'd recognize, anyway! They would simply have the words of the hymn, and then the name of a familiar melody.

Let me give you a famous example. Most people already know that two popular hymns in our hymnbook can be sung to each other's melody: "The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning" can be sung to the tune of "Now Let Us Rejoice," and vice versa.

Both hymns are unusual because they depend on three-syllable feet throughout: "Now let us / rejoice in / the day of / salva-tion"; "The Spirit / of God like / a fire / is burning."

(Note that fire is one of those words that can be sung as either two syllables or one, like hour. That's a peculiarity of English -- our retroflex r sound can be experienced either as a syllable of its own, or as part of the preceding syllable, if the preceding syllable ends with a diphthong.)

The three-syllable foot, when read aloud, sounds rollicking and boisterous, a headlong rush through the language.

The tune to "Now Let Us Rejoice" emphasizes that forward-rushing feeling by keeping the music in threes. Until the end of each couplet, there are no notes that are held longer than any others.

But the music to "The Spirit of God" tries for a more stately effect, and turns the threes into fours -- the accented syllables are held for two beats, the unaccented syllables for one beat each, thus moving us a bit more slowly and with more dignity through the lines.

When you sing one song to the other's music, even though they are a perfect fit mechanically, it somehow feels vaguely wrong to sing "The Spirit of God" to the tune of "Now Let Us Rejoice," though the other way sounds fine. That's because the words to "The Spirit of God" are more solemn, and the rollicking feel of the tune to "Now Let Us Rejoice" seems undignified.

The words to "Now Let Us Rejoice," however, are not diminished by having the stately feel imparted by the tune of "The Spirit of God."

"The Children of God"

So here is my first hymn -- set to the same metrical pattern as both "The Spirit of God" and "Now Let Us Rejoice."

Of course you don't have to use this metrical pattern for your own trial run at hymn-writing. Pick any hymn tune that you really like. You'll quickly learn that some are easier to work with than others -- what matters is that you pick one that is comfortable for you.

The idea is not that your hymn will replace the existing words (though there are a couple of hymns in the book that could do with a word-lift, at least in some people's opinion). The reason for doing this exercise is to give you the chance to write a hymn that already has music so you can sing it immediately and realize some important things about hymnody -- some of which we'll discuss in future installments.

And if you should write a hymn that is completely successful, there's nothing to stop a composer from writing new music that will fit the metrical pattern you used. After all, identical as their metrics are, "The Spirit of God" and "Now Let Us Rejoice" coexist in the same hymnbook with tunes well-suited to their separate purposes.

(Numbers after hymn titles refer to their order in the collection Hymn Texts by Orson Scott Card, which follows these essays.)

The Children of God (1)

The children of God hear the music of heaven;
They live by the words of the Father today.
Their Lord is alive, and the gates of his kingdom
Are open to all who will walk in his way.
    Hosanna, the angels are singing, Hosanna!
    Hosanna, the saints in the temples reply.
    Hosanna, for Christ is alive in his kingdom
    And our alleluiah we sing to the sky.

The Lord tells his will to his servants the prophets;
In all who are faithful his Spirit will dwell.
He knows what we need and our eyes will be opened,
And line upon line all his truth he will tell.
    Hosanna . . .

O Father, we search, and our hearts fill with questions;
In mercy and wisdom you grant what is right.
Prepare us for all you will teach us tomorrow,
So we will be ready to live by its light.
    Hosanna . . .

Which of the two melodies do you think this new hymn is better suited for? Or is it appropriate for neither? You be the judge.

#2: Hymns for Modern Times

Some things in this world never change. For instance, as far as I know there are no new sins -- though each generation seems to think they invented their favorites.

Nor have the principles of righteousness changed, though we emphasize some more than others in different eras.

Much of our religion is changeless. Why, then, would we need new hymns?

Occasional Verse. One reason for a new hymn -- or a new song, or a new poem -- is to celebrate a particular event. Poets laureate usually have the job of coming up with verses to commemorate such thresholds.

Of course, such "occasional" verse (meaning verses for a particular occasion, not verses "from time to time") is usually quite awful.

Imagine what might have been done in inept hands to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the entry of the pioneers into Salt Lake Valley:

    A hundred fifty years have passed
    Since pioneers beheld the vale
    Where Zion was restored at last:
    The end of their historic trail.

    O Salt Lake City!
    Beside the salty sea,
    Where pioneers proved they were tough
    And Brigham's streets are wide enough
    For me to park my SUV.

All right, I gave up and got silly at the end.

The problem with occasional verse is that it's so ... occasional. The moment comes, the moment goes; who's going to sing it again?

That's the problem Newell Dayley faced when he was asked to write the music for a new hymn commemorating the trek of the pioneers.

He and the person who was asked to write the words agreed that it would be better if the tune came first. There are sound reasons for this. When the words come first, the strong tendency is to write them in standard patterns of accents: da-DAH-da-DAH-da-DAH-da-DAH. (That's a line of iambic tetrameter, for those who care.)

But the composer, unlimited by words, can break away from such patterns. There can be many notes between major accents, and then spots where several accented syllables come in a row.

Then the hymnist, searching for words that will fit, is forced to be resourceful, to find rhythmic patterns that depart from the norm. The results are often very good.

The problem is that the composer has to come up with music that will fit the tone and meaning of words that don't yet exist!

So in working on the music, Dayley came up with a set of "placeholder" lyrics. This is a common practice among composers, so they have words to sing as they work through the tune. Often the words are quite silly and inappropriate -- why shouldn't they be, since no one is intended to hear them?

But in this case, Dayley took his placeholder lyrics seriously. Indeed, the fact that he wrote not one but three verses suggests that he got caught up in what he was writing -- after all, for a placeholder you need only the verse and the chorus.

These were long lines -- each one was in heptameter, seven feet long; but not really. Because Dayley was really writing in ballad stanzas. The line

A marvelous work has begun to come forth among all the children of men.

is really two lines:

    A marvelous work has begun to come forth
    Among all the children of men.

The giveaway is the single pickup syllable on "among" to lead off the second line. In each line, the first foot is an iamb -- one unstressed syllable, then the stressed one -- while all the others are anapests -- two unstressed, one stressed.

But it hardly matters. I suspect that Dayley would have been uncomfortable with eight-line stanzas, while four-line stanzas -- even with double-length lines -- felt shorter and more manageable.

What matters is that his placeholder lyrics ended up doing exactly the job that the best occasional verses do.

Instead of tying it to the event of the sesquicentennial -- "A hundred fifty years have passed" -- he merely reminds us of the original event that we were commemorating.

Not only that, but he doesn't begin it with reference to the pioneers. He starts with a reference to the restoration of the gospel -- which, when you think about it, is absolutely right. Those Mormon pioneers had no intention of being pioneers. That role was forced on them because of the persecution that followed believers in the restored gospel.

The first stanza, thus, promises us a hymn of the Restoration. Then the second verse -- "Those marvelous Saints ..." refers to the early pioneers. But wait! At no point does the hymn specifically mention anything about pioneers. No wagons, no trek west, no crossing rivers. Merely the fact that they came from and shared the gospel in lands far and near, and then the fact that they sacrificed and stood as examples.

And the third verse is a call to action for present-day Saints, asking us to join in the same service as those early members of the Church.

Only the chorus, then, speaks of any kind of pioneer trek at all: "With faith in ev'ry footstep." And even then, where are we walking? "We follow Christ, the Lord." Nothing about going to Salt Lake City -- our faithful footsteps are in obedience to Jesus' call for us to "come follow me."

This is how it's done. When we performed this song during the sesquicentennial, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that we were singing about our pioneer forebears. We were moved by memory of them.

Yet now, years later, we can sing this hymn without any particular thought of the pioneers and it still works.

No wonder that the assigned lyricist, seeing what Dayley's placeholder lyrics achieved, insisted that there was no reason to replace them with a different text.

How was this magical trick pulled off? It followed one simply principle: Be vague.

Vague Is the Vogue

I know, vagueness is something we're often told to avoid in "good writing." But in the world of hymnody, good writing often requires vagueness. If you get too specific, it can easily stop sounding like a hymn.

The idea is that any specific details must sound metaphorical. "Abide With Me, 'Tis Eventide" refers to taking a walk, but it may not be a literal walk. One can take it to refer to any conversation with the Lord, such as a prayer -- or any experience that brings one closer to the Lord.

A poem about a walk might have included details -- a twig, a branch brushed aside, a bee among wildflowers. But in the hymn, such specificity would have been a distraction. And singing about such things would feel wrong to a congregation ... unhymnlike!

Hymns need to have a timeless feel to them, but that doesn't mean that we can't have at least a few hymns that reflect problems and attitudes we face in the world today.

No, I'm not calling for hymns that specifically condemn pornography or drugs. Bad enough that we still have the wince-inducing line "tea and coffee and tobacco they despise" in the song (not really a hymn) "In Our Lovely Deseret."

In a way, that overspecific song falls in the category of "songs that are awful because they were written for children."

Somehow people think that because they're writing a song for children or teenagers to sing, they can go ahead and write explicit, embarrassing lyrics.

    We are Mormon adolescents
    We don't let our pants hang down
    Or show off our body's essence
    When we wander through the town.

No, I think we're not going to get that one to be popular with our teenagers. Except, perhaps, as a joke.

Modern Experience

Still, when writing "Abide With Me, 'Tis Eventide," the hymnist was able to draw on taking a walk at evening for his metaphor. Why can't we also draw on airplane flight? Why can't our hymns refer to the discoveries of modern science, which can sometimes be used by those who wish to try our faith?

It was with that thought in mind that I wrote this hymn:

Seeking Wisdom (3)

When over clouds we speed and soar,
How wide to us our vision seems;
But thy swift Spirit moved before,
And saw much farther than our dreams.

When from the ancient soil we raise
A relic of the unknown past,
We guess but do not know thy ways,
Or where thy making leads at last.

When in the holy writ we look
Or on our knees we speak with thee,
Then truth can be an open book
And by thy light our eyes will see.

Notice that I still follow the principle of vagueness. No mention of jets or rockets or hot air balloons -- but it is within the realm of possibility for us to speed and soar over clouds, and even those who don't fly have experienced flight in movies or tv shows, or have seen aerial photos. The image will speak to almost everyone today -- but would have sounded absurd in the time of Wilford Woodruff.

(Note also the phrase "swift spirit." If the notes of the melody assigned to these words are fairly long, the phrase is singable. But if the notes are brief, then the words would need to be "quick spirit," which gets rid of the "ftsp" combination at the center of the original phrase.)

In the second stanza, I refer to things we dig up from the ground. It might be archaeological relics; it might be dinosaur bones; it might be the bones of species that are genetically close to modern humans. This hymn doesn't take any kind of stand for or against evolution, knowing that some Mormons believe that it didn't happen, while others have no problem with reconciling evolution with the Genesis and Moses and Abraham accounts of creation.

Notice, though, that in both stanzas the "we" refers, not to Latter-day Saints, but to "modern humans," because in fact Mormons do know, or at least have some idea, of "where thy making leads at last." But not a full idea, certainly.

It's the third verse that makes the real point: What we modern humans think or imagine or "know" based on our modern technology and the findings of modern science is, in fact, not superior to what we learn through scripture and revelation. The hymn affirms that it is through the Lord that we learn the ultimate why of things -- the purpose underlying and preceding all creation.

It's a hymn that I think we need. And yet I have been very careful to make the words vague enough that they won't be embarrassing to sing. In a poem I could very easily have said, "When Leakey found an ancient skull / and named it Lucy, called it kin," and there would have been nothing wrong with it.

But the mere thought of asking a congregation of Mormons to sing those words would be appalling.


If there's one experience that almost all Saints in the English-speaking Church have every day, it's driving a car. And we do it as Mormons -- driving to and from the church building several times a week, driving to and from seminary, to and from youth activities, to and from the temple.

Can we not then draw on that daily experience as Jesus drew upon the experience of shepherds, or of children asking for bread, or of servants left to do their work in their lord's absence?

Stripes along the Highway Guide Us (92)

Stripes along the highway guide us
As we travel through the night.
Headlights searching ever forward
Give us only narrow sight.

Dark and distance cannot hide us
For our lamps are far too bright.
All can see where we are going:
Red behind us; forward, white.

Others see us; we see little,
Trusting signs to guide aright.
Those who placed the signs were strangers
With compassion for our plight.

Led by signs and stripes, we follow,
As our Master said we might:
Lord, we follow thy directions,
For thy law is our delight.

We all know what it's like to drive in the darkness, nothing visible except what's revealed by the narrow beams of our headlights. The lights show us only a little of our path -- yet they also make us visible to others, for miles in every direction.

Not knowing or seeing the whole road, we depend on road signs for our directions. Yet how do we know that those who placed the signs can be trusted? Do they know the way? Have they told the truth?

We have no trouble believing in nameless highway department workers; may we not then trust in the signs and directions left for us by the Lord and his servants?

There is absolutely nothing wrong, doctrinally, with the message of this hymn. But it teeters on the brink of being dictionally wrong for a congregational hymn. A General Authority could read it out as a poem in General Conference -- but then, we had the text of "On a Clear Day" read for us at one such conference, and it wasn't added to the hymnbook.

Others will have to decide when, if ever, this hymn text becomes appropriate for sacrament meeting. At present -- though cars have been common for a century -- I suspect it would feel too modern, and therefore vaguely wrong for sacrament meeting.

A Prayer for Zion

Here's another modern hymn. This one deals with modern concerns that echo ancient ones. The scriptures call for us to be kind to the poor -- from Enoch's time onward. Genesis urged humankind to multiply -- and to "replenish the earth," long before there was an environmental movement.

We are looking to create a Zion society, a people who are ready for the Savior when he comes again. Brigham Young and, echoing him, Hugh Nibley have pointed out that part of our responsibility is to live consecrated lives and clean up what we can of the damage humans have done through sheer carelessness. If the earth is restored to its paradisaical glory, might it not be partly through our own efforts?

And yet ... if I used the specific language of the Environmentalist movement, it would feel creepy to sing it in church, especially since for many people Environmentalism has become a competing religion. So ... vagueness makes the point without making it feel too "on the nose" or "outside the faith."

A Prayer for Zion (2)

When Jesus comes to Earth again,
Let us be Zion for him then,
Pure of heart, at peace, at one,
To welcome home the Son:
    A people who are rich indeed,
    And yet are innocent of pride,
    For no one takes more than his need,
    And no one, needing, is denied.

When Jesus comes ... the Son:
    A people who together mend
    All harm to sky and sea and land,
    For Earth was given us to tend,
    And it will bloom beneath our hand.

When Jesus comes ... the Son:
    A people who are sanctified,
    Whose children grow untouched by sin,
    Whose temple doors are standing wide,
    For all are worthy to come in.

Note that there's an oddity to this hymn's structure: The chorus comes first. And it can't be moved to the end of each stanza, because the chorus ends with a colon, and the stanza consists of an explanation of how we can become Zion, in order to be ready for Christ's coming.

This may make the hymn too weird for us to sing in church. Or we may simply get used to it, like the one-of-a-kind fanfare at the beginning of "God of Our Fathers."

I believe we need new hymns that refer to our modern experiences and concerns. After all, our religion encompasses every aspect of life, and God measures us as a people by how we fulfil all our responsibilities. We can write modern hymns that still feel timeless. Whether any of these three of mine do the job properly is for others to decide.

#3: Hymns about Joseph Smith

We have an ambiguous situation regarding Joseph Smith. On the one hand, he is the founder of the modern Church, and his martyrdom sealed his testimony. We cannot forget him and cannot overvalue his contribution to our knowledge of God and God's will for us.

On the other hand, we are not comfortable singing hymns that praise anyone but members of the Godhead. We have no hymns about Moses or Abraham, and while Nephi rates a mention, we would not want anyone to get the impression, attending one of our meetings and hearing us sing a hymn, that we think of Joseph Smith or any other prophet on the same level as the Savior.

And yet, as we come up on the bicentennial of Joseph Smith's birth, we find only two hymns about Joseph Smith among those we regularly sing in church. "Oh How Lovely Was the Morning" retells the story of the Prophet's first vision; "Praise to the Man" is an emotional response to his death.

Neither hymn is fully satisfactory -- especially musically. "Oh How Lovely" is hard to sing: lots of words that are sung across several notes; wide jumps; a wide range that tests the abilities of many untrained singers.

Also, the details that are added to the story -- bees humming? sweet birds singing? -- must have felt poetic to the writer of the hymn, but it's wasted verbiage as far as the purposes of hymnody are concerned. If the day of the First Vision had been cloudy or if gnats had swarmed around his head as Joseph walked into the grove, would that have any bearing whatsoever on the events that happened there? Would we feel any need to sing about the grey day or the annoying insects?

"Praise to the Man" is musically problematic for other reasons. Its martial tone, the thinness of its harmonies, the relentless drive, make it "fun" to sing, but not musically fulfilling. It's no accident that this tune is the one used to help seminary students memorize the books of the Old and New Testaments. It is suited for doggerel.

And the words, while heartfelt ... are they really appropriate? Do we really think today that "Earth must atone for the blood of this man"? The anger now feels inappropriate to me, at least. It was sincere at the time of the writing of the hymn, but does this hymn really represent what we think and feel about Joseph Smith?

I'm not proposing the elimination of either hymn from our meetings -- each has a long tradition, and tradition trumps rules or theories when it comes to hymns.

Still, we could certainly use an alternative here or there -- a hymn about the contribution of Joseph Smith to our church, our religion, and our lives which falls somewhere between "bees were humming" and "Earth must atone."

Here's an attempt, at least, at a hymn that is specifically about Joseph Smith, while concentrating not on a particular vision (though it opens with obvious reference to the First Vision), but rather on the impact of Joseph Smith's revelations on the members of the church he founded.

Brother Joseph (35)

He read the promise of the Lord;
He knelt to ask what church was right;
Then Son and Father in his sight
Filled Joseph's heart with truth and light:
All things would be restored.

For Joseph burned with holy fire
To learn of things beyond our reach;
And when with fervor he'd beseech,
The Holy Spirit came to teach
And raise our vision higher.

For generations we have sought
To do as Joseph Smith enticed,
And willingly have sacrificed
To build the Church of Jesus Christ
And live the laws he taught.

Now, Lord, we join our praises with
All faithful saints of latter days:
For joy that lasts, for truth that stays,
For having learned eternal ways
From Brother Joseph Smith.

This hymn skirts the edge of being too specific -- after the bicentennial of his birth, it would be appropriate to sing such a hymn primarily on annual occasions tied to Joseph Smith's life, like his birthday or April 6th or the restoration of the priesthood.

But that's all right -- we need some occasional hymns. What would we do, for instance, without hymns that we sing only at Christmastime?

The real problems come in the third stanza, where the word enticed, while it is not completely inappropriate, still comes as a surprise, since we usually think of "enticement" as "leading to temptation."

It was a stretch, designed solely to find a rhyme for Christ and sacrificed. (Notice that in a sequence of rhymes in which one of the words is odd or forced, the rule is to put the uncomfortable word first. That way the common word resolves the tension; the other way around, the odd word sticks out, sounding desperate and obnoxious.)

Sacrificed, however, struck me as a word that should be in a hymn about Joseph Smith, even though the hymn deliberately does not mention Brother Joseph's martyrdom directly.

Still, the hymn works well without that third stanza, and I suspect that if this were ever to be included in a hymnbook, that stanza would be dropped.

Musically, this hymn is problematical because of the five-line stanzas. Twos and fours -- and, sometimes, threes -- feel complete, but fives don't.

The temptation would be to regularize it by repeating a line of each stanza so it comes out with an even number.

The obvious line to repeat would be the last in each stanza, but I would suggest that the fourth line would be the better choice.

It's all about closure. When you repeat the last line, it feels redundant, anti-climactic -- you have already said the words that close the stanza, and now you have to sing them again.

But when you repeat the penultimate line, you extend the tension that is building, so that when the last line comes, it is even more of a relief than it would ordinarily be. The sense of closure is much stronger, instead of being weakened.

There are other reasons, though, why I'm unhappy with this hymn. No matter what you do with it, it will feel like a long hymn -- the way "Oh How Lovely Was the Morning" does. Not that there's anything wrong with long hymns, but those that feel long make us just a little tired when we start to sing them, especially at the end of a meeting.

Is it possible to cut this hymn down to shorter, four-line stanzas that won't require repetition of any line?

Here's my attempt at a quicker version:

Brother Joseph (short-stanza version; 35)

He read the promise of the Lord
And asked, "What path is right?"
The Savior came and said that light
Through him would be restored,

For Joseph burned with holy fire
To learn what God would teach.
With every upward step he'd reach,
The Spirit led him higher.

For generations we have sought
To build the church of Christ,
And willingly have sacrificed
To live as Joseph taught;

Now, Lord, we join our praises with
All saints of latter days,
For we were taught thy righteous ways
By Brother Joseph Smith.

Stanza for stanza, this is the same hymn, offering the same ideas and themes. But it would be quicker to sing, less ponderous, and does not invite repetition of any line. In fact, because it follows the familiar "ballad stanza" pattern, it can be sung to existing tunes, like the melody of "There Is a Green Hill Far Away."

(Notice, though, the rhyme scheme. Instead of the usual ballad pattern of ABAB rhymes, where the long lines rhyme with each other and the short lines share a different rhyme, this hymn rhymes ABBA, so that a long line rhymes with a short line. This isn't a flaw, merely a difference; it would feel somewhat surprising but not uncomfortable when sung by a congregation.)

In many ways, the short version of the hymn is superior. But there are costs. Since it matters in our theology that both the Father and Son appeared in that First Vision, it might be irritating to some that the first stanza now only mentions that the Savior came.

However, I believe that since Mormons are all extremely familiar with the events of that vision, no one would take this as a denial of the presence of the Father, but merely as a recognition that it was the Savior who told young Joseph the role that he would play in the Restoration.

We expect a few compromises in hymn-writing in order to express concepts in words that fit within the prescribed number of syllables.

The third stanza isn't such a problem in the short version, you'll notice: that problematic word enticed is gone.

The shorter version is likely to be a better singing experience; but the longer version is more full. Especially the last lines of the last stanza. The short version is fine:

    For we were taught thy righteous ways
    By Brother Joseph Smith.

But the list of the Prophet's accomplishments is more satisfying when we get the building tension of:

    For joy that lasts, for truth that stays,
    For having learned eternal ways
    From Brother Joseph Smith.

The phrase "eternal ways" works when it follows the "joy" and "truth" of the previous line. But it would not work standing alone in the short version -- "righteous ways" is the one that contains the others. But not as effectively, I'm afraid, as singing all three terms -- joy, truth, and eternal.

The real question about both versions, of course, is whether it is simply too occasional to become a regular hymn of the Church, instead of a solo or choral number that would be performed for (rather than by) the congregation during the Joseph Smith bicentennial.

But let's leave that up to the composers. Of course, if no composer finds these texts interesting, the question is moot. But I would be interested to see how differently composers will treat these two versions of what is essentially the same text. I would be delighted if both versions resulted in effective hymns.

Now, though, let me offer a completely different approach. Just as Newell Dayley's hymn for the sesquicentennial of the pioneers' entry into Salt Lake Valley never actually insists on the specifics of that event, why not a hymn for the Joseph Smith bicentennial that does not actually refer to him specifically at all?

The Prophet's Voice (34)

The Prophet's voice cannot be quelled.
The righteous longings he has stirred
Cannot in silent hearts be held:
The world must hear the prophet's word.

O Saints! How lovingly we're led,
How tenderly he serves us all.
The Savior's feast is freely spread
For all who heed the prophet's call.

So many souls! The world is wide,
Yet every heart will have the choice:
For one man's words are magnified
When Saints become the prophet's voice.

By implication, this hymn would be very appropriate on occasions connected with Joseph Smith's life. The opening line -- "The Prophet's voice cannot be quelled" -- can certainly be taken to refer to the attempt of Joseph Smith's enemies to silence him by killing him.

Yet it could as easily refer to our current Church President speaking in Conference or the First Presidency making powerful statements to the world, like The Proclamation on the Family.

Because this hymn is not tied to one prophet in particular, it can lead the singers through the story, not of Joseph Smith's life, but rather of how the words of the Prophet are made effective, first by the way they change us, the members of the Church, and then by the way we take those words out into the wider world.

This hymn does much more, I think, of what hymns should do: Inspire us to change our behavior by giving musical voice to the aspirations of the faithful. With the right music, those last two lines -- "For one man's words are magnified / When Saints become the prophet's voice" -- may become quite stirring. That's this hymnist's hope, anyway.

And yet that hope didn't stop me from making another try at the concluding stanza. Here's a different version:

    Each heart must hear and make the choice.
    So many souls! The world is wide.
    Yet all will hear the prophet's voice
    When by the Saints it's magnified.

Why would this version be preferable? It's not as emotional; it doesn't clinch the way the first version did. Magnified is not as effective an end-word as the monosyllabic voice.

The reason I wrote this is because I recognize that some people might be uncomfortable with the phrase "one man's words." Even though the prophet is always a man, it nevertheless might feel, in this politically correct world, as if that phrase emphasizes the fact that women don't hold the priesthood.

That should not be a concern; but in choosing a hymn, one should think hard before choosing words that might well offend a noticeable portion of the congregations that will be expected to sing it. The fact that it is doctrinally correct doesn't necessarily trump the desire to make the song more universal.

Wiser souls would need to make that call. My personal preference, though -- solely because I think it's the more powerful phrasing -- is for the first version.

I think it's not a bad idea for us to remember that unless we, by our lives and words, extend the prophet's reach, he remains just one man.

And it's also a good thing for us to remember the humanity of the prophet. Being an instrument of the Lord does not raise him above the level of other humans. All Saints are called to do exactly the same work as the prophet: to carry the words of God into the world.

#4: Intricacy and Cleverness

One of the temptations, in writing hymn texts, is to try too hard to be clever.

It's easy to forget that the congregation is not singing the hymn in order to admire the skill of the hymnist; they are singing in order to worship the Lord, to remind themselves of important truths, and -- for those who love music -- for the sheer joy of raising their voices together.

Only rarely are the words of a hymn so exceptional, in one way or another, that we even care that the text had an author or a composer. Hymns aren't supposed to feel to us like someone else's words -- they're supposed to feel to us, as we sing them, like the words of our own hearts.

So when the words become too clever or intricate in their patterns, the text gradually shifts from being a hymn to being something more appropriate for a choir to sing -- more to be listened to by the congregation than to be sung.

This doesn't mean that the text is a failure -- quite the contrary! But it does mean that if you wish to write words for a congregation to sing, you need to remember that simplicity is more desirable than dazzling originality.

Besides, originality that dazzles the writer is prone to be less than dazzling to others -- even those who do value cleverness and intricacy!

Teaching Lessons in Hymns

Here is a hymn of mine in which I made some decisions that may have made the text unusable:

The Word of Truth (4)

Who is wise?
The one who sees the world through Jesus' eyes,
Who loves the sinner but rejects the lies,
Who knows desire fades, the body dies,
Yet faith and love will live when we arise.
    The word of truth is sweet and clear.
    It guides the humble servant's hand.
    And when the truth is hard to hear
    The open heart will understand.

Who is right?
The one who loves the Lord with all his might,
With all his mind and strength, and in whose sight
All folk are neighbors, whom he will invite
To shed their sins and dwell within the light.
    The word of truth is sweet and clear.
    It guides the humble servant's hand.
    And when the truth is hard to hear
    The open heart will understand.

The purpose of "The Word of Truth" was to remember that knowing the truth does not mean we should lose compassion for those who don't yet have the same understanding. In a way, of course, the very writing of this hymn is the opposite of what the hymn purports to be about: I, the hymnist, am very sure that my understanding of tolerance is exactly how you should understand it. The danger in such cases of circularity is, of course, smugness.

Then, to compound the potential for failure, I decided to use a single rhyme for each of the two stanzas. This arose by accident. The key choice was to begin each stanza with a simple line consisting of three accented syllables.

This is not a bad device. It invites the composer to create music that is surprising and unique.

But those short first lines give unusual emphasis to their end-words. Wise and right have tremendous weight in their stanzas. And so, as I wrote the lines that followed, I found myself searching for rhymes that would continue to echo those strong openings.

The result isn't awful, but there are moments of awkwardness. The word lies, for instance, is not an easy fit with the line "Who loves the sinner but rejects the lies." What lies? Who is telling them? Is lying the only sin being spoken of here? Or are all sinners assumed to be liars?

I know what I meant -- that we should love the sinner, but reject the lie that the sin is not a sin; in other words, to be tolerant does not mean that we have to pretend that there's nothing wrong with sin. But the verse doesn't say that! It's too compressed; in pursuit of rhyme, I left a misinterpretable line.

That isn't to say that the hymn can't be used as is. If, for instance, you heard a choir sing this, the word lies would pass quickly, and the ambiguity wouldn't matter. It's when you are expected to sing the same words yourself, again and again, year after year, that it's essential that the hymn be clear.

Perhaps the lesson is that it's very, very hard to "teach a lesson" to the congregation in a hymn, and perhaps hymnwrights should devote their efforts to creating hymns that the whole congregation will immediately recognize as the thoughts of their own hearts.

Or perhaps the lesson is that when you decide to use a gimmick -- five identical rhymes in a row, for instance -- you have to be very careful not to lose the plain meaning of the hymn.

At least I had the sense to use easily-rhymed syllables like "ize" and "ite," so the rhymes didn't feel labored.

Hymns with a Plan

The next hymn isn't trying to teach a lesson, and the "cleverness" is not so obvious. But I still began it with a plan. Each verse would be about a different holy place: The meetinghouse, the temple, and our home.

Holy Places (5)

In this meetinghouse we sing,
Voices raised to praise our King.
Here we bow our heads to pray,
Help each other find the way.
    Make this house a holy place:
    Let us spend our Sabbath day
    In the Master's sweet embrace.

In God's holy house we kneel
Joined with his eternal seal.
Reaching out beyond the grave,
Let us share the gifts he gave,
    Serving in this holy place
    So our labors help to save
    Those who will accept His grace.

In the houses where we live,
Shelter, strength, and joy we give.
At our door let conflict end
As each other's needs we tend.
    Make our home a holy place
    Where each sweet familiar friend
    Gives a glimpse of Jesus' face.

The original plan works well enough: Paralleling our homes, the temple, and the meetinghouse is a good idea with some strong emotional content. In the process, though, I got caught up in a "clever" rhyme scheme.

The verse seems simple enough: two rhyming couplets of exactly equal length. But the simplicity disappears in the refrain. The first and third lines of all three refrains rhyme with "place." This isn't an inherently bad thing -- after all, the idea of a "holy place" is what the hymn is about. Besides, since all the refrains are different, it is the "place" rhymes that tie them together and separate them from the verse.

It doesn't hurt a thing that the middle line of the refrain also happens to rhyme with the second couplet of the verse ... does it?

Not at all. The harm comes from the fact that the refrain has only three lines, and none of them is easily repeatable to make it come out as a four. That's because the first line of the refrain is the clincher -- the last two lines are merely an elaboration.

If you repeat either of the last two lines, it gives it undue weight and leads to awkwardness -- they don't stand alone, and repeated lines need to make sense by themselves.

And if you repeat the first line of the refrain, then the word place starts to feel pounded. It's such an abstract, neutral word, that to repeat it three times in the hymn is already pushing it; to make it six times would approach ugliness.

It's possible that a very clever composer could find a way to make a seven-line hymn work musically without repeating any lines.

But the simplest solution is simply to remove all the refrains. To see what I mean, go back and read the three four-line stanzas, but skip right over the three-line refrains.

It works, doesn't it? The hymn is immediately made simple, plain, and rather sweet.

Yet all my cleverness is wiped out in a stroke. The hymn now follows one of the most common rhythm patterns in the hymnbook. DA da DA da DA da DAH. The rhyming is in couplets.

What do we miss, by deleting the refrains? Ultimately, not a thing. The concept is clear without the refrain; indeed, the repetition of the phrase "holy place" in the refrains makes the hymn less, not more, effective.

Yes, the refrain really needs to go. With it, the hymn is more difficult and intricate and obvious. Without it, the hymn is simple, plain, and ... subtle.

It's as if the refrain were the place where the hymnwright walked up to the front of the chapel and interrupted the hymn to say, "Hey, folks, did you get it? Did you get my meaning?"

(By the way, the original fourth line of the first stanza was "Teach each other to obey." But I changed it because it wasn't doctrinally correct. At church meetings, we teach each other about God's desires for us, but it is the Holy Spirit and life itself -- the choices that we make -- that teach us obedience.)

Intricacy to the Point of Messiness

In poetry, it's often good to separate rhymes more widely than in hymns.

I love heroic couplets, where the rhyming is AABBCCDD and so on. Alexander Pope is one of my favorite poets, especially his "Essay on Man," which includes, for instance, the famous couplet: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan. / The proper study of mankind is Man."

It's no easy feat to write at great length with every pair of lines in perfect rhyme. I know -- I have a long poem called "Out of the Cage of Mirrors" that tries to use the same form, and it's hard.

Because the pattern is so plain, it doesn't feel clever. It can become quite relentless. So in poetry it can be quite effective to separate rhymes more widely. But can it work in a hymn?

The Prophets Often Sweetly Speak (6)

The prophets often sweetly speak
Of hope, of broken hearts reborn;
Sometimes of futures far more bleak,
If prideful hearts do not repent.
    In grief our dying Savior's head was bent;
    In joy he rose on resurrection morn.
    If we desire to see his loving face,
    Then brokenhearted first we seek his grace.

The world, pretending to be wise,
Denies the consequence of sin,
And those who profit from those lies
Call prophets cruel and pitiless.
    How did our Savior's suffering begin?
    He took the guilt of those he meant to bless.
    If we desire to see his loving face,
    Then brokenhearted first we seek his grace.

Not till we know that sin is death
Can we receive the Spirit's light;
Compassionate with every breath,
Our prophets call our sins by name.
    For us he plunged into the endless night
    To rescue every soul he could reclaim.
    If we desire to see his loving face,
    Then brokenhearted first we seek his grace.

When we arise, our bodies new,
And Jesus greets us as his own,
We'll know the prophets' words were true
And led us to our Father's throne.
    Within that holy place where searching ends,
    We'll meet our guides again and call them friends.
    With broken hearts now healed by Jesus' grace,
    And hand-in-hand with friends, we'll see his face.

The first three lines of each stanza seem to follow a familiar form. The first two lines don't rhyme, but the third line rhymes with the first line. So ... we naturally expect that the fourth line will rhyme with the second, in the standard ABAB rhyme scheme.

Instead, the fourth line doesn't rhyme with any of the lines that went before. It feels wrong; it leaves the reader hanging, waiting for the other shoe (or rhyme) to drop.

Then we enter the refrain, and there we get a rhyme again -- but it's a rhyme with the last word of the verse. It resolves that "wrong" word, but still leaves us dangling, waiting for a word that will rhyme with the second line of the verse.

Which finally comes in the second line of the refrain. So the rhyme scheme is the unfamiliar ABACCB.

But the "cleverness" is compounded by a rhythmic game: The refrain, instead of being in the simple tetrameter of the verse, is suddenly in pentameter, the nonmusical five-foot line that is so brilliant in Shakespeare, but so awful for composers to work with.

Musically, then, the refrain will have to be markedly different from the stanzas, so even as the first two lines of each refrain resolve the rhymes, they create a new tension with the extra foot in each line.

Then the final couplet of the refrain, which is the same each time, drags the whole hymn down to failure. Repetition of an excellent couplet might have felt exhilarating to sing, but "If we desire to see his loving face / Then brokenhearted first we seek his grace" is didactic, not emotional. It does not move us, it merely reminds us, with an obvious rhyme and an overlong line, of what we already know.

Can this hymn be saved?

Yes -- by jettisoning most, but not all, of the "cleverness."

First, the refrain must be kept in a tetrameter line. Get rid of that extra foot!

Second, eliminate the last couplet of the refrain completely. It adds nothing to the hymn; the congregation would be sick of singing it long before they got through the whole song.

Third, get rid of the second verse entirely. It's negative, criticizing the world at large, and it includes awkward words that don't feel right to sing, like pitiless and lies.

The Prophets Often Sweetly Speak (simplified version; 6)

The prophets often sweetly speak
Of hope, of broken hearts reborn;
Sometimes of futures far more bleak,
If prideful hearts do not repent.
In grief our Savior's head was bent;
In joy he rose to greet the morn.

Not till we know that sin is death
Can we receive the Spirit's light;
Compassionate with every breath,
Our prophets call our sins by name.
For us they journey through the night
To find the souls they can reclaim.

When we arise, our bodies new,
And Jesus greets us as his own,
We'll know the prophets' words were true
And led us to our Father's throne:
That holy place where searching ends,
And prophets greet us all as friends.

Now we don't have a refrain at all, do we? Instead, we have three six-line stanzas. They keep that intricate ABACCB rhyme scheme, but now each stanza ends with the resolution of that long-withheld B rhyme, providing a much stronger closure than the empty couplet ever did.

Notice, though, that the last stanza does not (and never did) retain the intricate rhyme scheme. Instead of ABACCB, it's a simple ABABCC. That, too, provides closure, and ends the hymn on a simpler note.

It may not yet be perfect, but by eliminating most of the "cleverness," it is obviously much improved.

Working Out the Plan

You have no idea how embarrassing this is -- showing you hymns that I once was very proud of, but which now I realize don't work. It would be so much more pleasant to try to give you the illusion that I only write good hymns. But you learn more from other writers' errors than from their successes.

With all that I've already said, I imagine you'll have no trouble at all figuring out why this one is a mess:

The Plan (7)

Our Father gave us, by his grace,
This earth to be our dwelling place.
He set our hand
To till and tend,
And gave us hearing, speech, and sight
For lives of music, truth, and light.
How we rejoiced when he told us his plan
To give us our agency, woman and man!
If we live as he taught, with joy we will meet face to face.

Our children give us, as they grow,
A taste of God's work here below.
When, being free,
They disobey,
We grieve for all the grief they earn
And comfort them when they return.
How we rejoiced when he told us his plan
To give us our agency, woman and man!
If we live as he taught, what joy every family will know!

Our Savior, having paid the cost,
Brings home the ones who once were lost.
The soul contrite,
The broken heart
Will hear of sweet forgiveness: "Nor
Do I condemn -- go, sin no more."
How we rejoiced when he told us his plan
To give us our agency, woman and man!
If we live as he taught, what joy when he gives us his trust!

Once again, there's nothing wrong with the overall movement of the hymn. It begins with the Lord giving us our mortal bodies and the chance to live on earth.  The second stanza is about the main work of our mortal lives, to rear children and learn to use our free agency wisely. The final stanza is about the final gift of God, the sacrifice of the Savior so that we can be redeemed from the consequence of sins we repent of.

Why, then, is this hymn so long and unwieldy?

By now you already know. First the refrain has got to go. The repeating couplet isn't bad, with the rhyme of "plan" and "man." It's that shifting last line, which rhymes with the first couplet in each stanza, that wrecks it. It's too long, and it's too "on the nose," a little homily to make sure nobody could possibly miss the point of the hymn. Read through the hymn just deleting those final lines and you'll see how much improved it already is!

There is still some needless intricacy in the stanzas: That middle couplet with the slant rhyme should be cast as a single line that seems not to rhyme with anything. The internal slant rhyme will still be there, however, so the line won't feel as if it comes out of nowhere.

Finally, we need to work on the last couplet in the last verse. The enjambment can't be helped and shouldn't be: Nor is the rhyme with more, so it has to be left dangling at the end of the penultimate line. What needs fixing is the dash, followed by go, followed by a comma. It puts too heavy a burden on the composer to come up with a melody that doesn't clash with the phrasing of the words.

The Plan (improved version; 7)

Our Father gave us, by his grace,
This earth to be our dwelling place.
He set our hand to till and tend,
And gave us hearing, speech, and sight
For lives of music, truth, and light.

Our children give us, as they grow,
A taste of God's work here below.
When, being free, they disobey,
We grieve for all the grief they earn
And comfort them when they return.

Our Savior, having paid the cost,
Brings home the ones who once were lost.
The soul contrite, the broken heart
Will hear of sweet forgiveness: "Nor
Do I condemn thee. Sin no more."

Not all the intricacy is gone -- it still has five-line stanzas, and because of the third stanza's final couplet, the last line cannot be repeated. So this hymn might end up with the strangeness that would come from being ten measures long. But then, perhaps that would be a welcome change!

There is no rule that says intricacy and cleverness are bad. But they're dangerous; they impose extra burdens on the singers and on the composer. A little intricacy goes a long way, and cleverness should never call attention to itself.

#5: Humor and Irony

I believe that I can safely say that there will never be an intentionally funny hymn in our hymnbook.

But that doesn't mean that hymns don't lend themselves to humor.

I remember as a child being delighted when I picked up a hymnal that some intrepid soul had turned into a scavenger hunt. At the top of one hymn there was a pencil scrawl: "Go to 111." When I got to that page, another message sent me to another hymn. My reward, at last, was to be led to a hymn where the graffitero had left behind some lame joke or unkind remark about another kid.

It kept me sane during many a high council Sunday.

Of course, being a righteous child, I never defaced a hymnbook in such a disrespectful manner myself.

As a seminary student in Mesa, Arizona, it was hard to find a hymn booklet that hadn't been joked up.

"Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded": In pencil, right after the title: "Trapped!"

"There is hope smiling brightly before us / and we know that deliverance is nigh" -- "9-1/2 months along!"

"Beautiful Zion, Built Above" -- no, I don't have to tell you how the adolescent male mind would interpret that one.

Lighter, Brighter Hymns

Of course these misuses of the hymnbooks -- and the hymns! -- were more than a little subversive. But the fact is that our hymnbooks include many different kinds of songs.

The fervent confession of "I Stand All Amazed" and the quiet reflection of "Abide with Me" are answered by the good cheer of "There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today" and the stirring anthem "For All the Saints."

We have perky homilies like "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel" and "Ere You Left Your Room This Morning" and "Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words to Each Other."

Hymns don't all have to have the same weight, the same pace, the same mood -- except, of course, the sacrament hymns, which must remind us of the Savior's sacrifice. Yet even those are not all the same, or we would weary of singing them, no matter how earnestly we believe in the message they convey.

What can be more thrilling than hearing a chapel full of men and boys in priesthood meeting boldly singing "Ye Elders of Israel" or "Israel, Israel, God Is Calling"?

And the brightly rising melody of "Sweet Is the Work" is every bit as entitled to be called a hymn as "The Lord Is My Shepherd" or "I Know That My Redeemer Lives."

In the old hymnbook, "O My Father" had two musical settings. There was the traditional one, which is lovely ... but drags. The other one, while not as popular, had the virtue of taking us through the same words at a much faster pace and with a brighter mood.

It's no accident, then, that it is the traditional melody that we sing at funerals -- it's that somber. But I miss the other melody. I thought it was a good one. And I appreciated the chance to sing those words of Eliza R. Snow's without having to be depressed.


What all the hymns in the hymnbook have in common is earnestness. No matter what mood they convey, they mean what they say.

Irony need not apply.

But I can't help it -- ironic hymns do occur to me. I know they could never be sung in church. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be written or shared.

For instance, just for the sheer joy of it, on a day when I was nearly knocked down by a couple of nine-year-old boys charging down the corridor just as the meetings let out, I wrote a hymn that you will never hear during a Primary program in sacrament meeting:

Hymn of the Primary Boys (39)
[sung to the tune of "There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today"]

We're at church, and so we must be good.
No more running in the hall.
Listen to the teachers like we should.
No spitwads on the wall.
    For the bishop, bishop is watching
    Like an angel with a fiery sword.
    If he sees us being nasty little kids
    There'll be yelling in the ward.

If a gospel lesson is the goal
And the classroom is a dud,
Rolls of toilet paper down the hole
Will teach of Noah's flood.
    For the bishop, etc.

We can whisper, but we cannot shout;
Raise our hands before we speak;
Act like angels till they let us out,
Then devils through the week.
    For the bishop, etc.

When I emailed this hymn to a friend a few months ago, she wrote back and said, "Don't you ever, ever dare to publish this hymn! The last thing I need is for you to give my boys ideas!"

But don't you wish, just the tiniest little bit, that you could line up all the boys in Primary and have them boom out this ditty on Father's Day?

Satire -- A Call for Correction

Some people believe that satirical humor is making fun of sacred things -- and it certainly can do that. I remember a book that was published some years back consisting of hymn texts designed to scorn or ridicule a large number of Saints -- mostly those who weren't as enlightened as the intellectuals who wrote the book. It was mean-spirited and hurtful.

But that doesn't mean all satire has a dark or selfish purpose. On the one hand, Christ told us not to judge, lest we be judged. On the other hand, he certainly had no qualms about calling for correction of other people's sins, and sometimes in an ironic way: "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone."

The best satirists in literary history were those who had a clear moral purpose in mind. They were not mocking for the sake of appearing smart; they saw something wrong, and wrote in such a way as to ridicule the error and call for correction.

The fact that it was humorous merely sweetened the taste of the medicine.

For instance, think of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." While on the surface it seems outrageous -- imagine calling for cannibalism as the solution for the "Irish Question"! -- near the end, Swift has a passage that urges people not to do the things that in fact he wants them to do.

The result is that by taking the mistreatment of the Irish to an extreme, Swift actually calls for the English to treat the Irish better.

Then again, "A Modest Proposal" was not intended to be read aloud from the pulpit. Just as this satirical hymn is not meant to be sung in church:

Bless Even the Noisy Children (8)

Bless even the noisy children,
Home teachers we never see,
The lofty ones talking down,
The gossips who hear bad news with glee:
The weakest of all is me.

We thank thee for endless lessons,
Ward dinners we cannot eat,
For people who said they'd help,
For bushels of weevils mixed with wheat:
What's done in thy name is sweet.

O Savior, thy sure forgiveness
Was born in thy pain and grief:
O Harvester of the righteous,
Forgive us our stubborn unbelief
And gather us in thy sheaf.

I hope this is at least amusing to read; and many of the things I point out are unfortunate or ironic aspects of Mormon life. I am, indeed, calling for correction. But at no point is the hymnist standing outside the Church, mocking those within. The speaker of these words numbers himself among the foolish ones; he honors even what is badly done, as long as it is well meant. ("What's done in thy name is sweet.")

And in the final verse, the satire is set aside, and the hymnist asks the Lord to forgive us all. In a way, this is a doubling of the irony: the audience has been led to expect a wryly mocking tone, and suddenly the words are forthright and passionate. Though the ironic tone is not fully set aside, in the call for forgiveness of "our stubborn unbelief."

Wayne C. Booth, in his indispensable book The Rhetoric of Irony, explains that irony only works when the reader can tell where the writer wants him to stand. The meaning of ironic writing comes, not from the things that are ridiculed, but rather from the things which are not -- from the things that the ironist believes in.

In "Bless Even the Noisy Children," the ironist may find gossip, untended children, pride, and unreliability in service to be deserving of mockery -- but what he does not mock is sincere intent, or the need we all have for God's forgiveness.

Hymns like these are meant to be passed from hand to hand, rather like the graffiti in those hymnbooks I pored through as a child trapped in a dull meeting.

But that doesn't mean they don't serve a worthy purpose. Even the righteous are entitled to smile from time to time -- and laugh, as long as they don't do it too loudly, or at the wrong time.

#6: Topical Hymns

You'd think that with a few hundred hymns in the hymnbook, every aspect of the gospel would have at least one hymn about it.

But if you thought that, you'd be wrong.

There's plenty of variety in the book, mind you. It's just that some gospel subjects are hard to write a convincing hymn about.

(To those who learned their grammar rules from misinformed teachers: It's perfectly acceptable in the English language to end a sentence with a preposition that functions as part of the verb. Please don't write to me about it.)

(And to those of you who still want to write to me about it: Please do some actual research, find out that I'm right, and stop correcting people who aren't wrong.)

For instance, it's a core doctrine of the Church that we came to earth to get a physical body and to be tested. But how, exactly, do you write that into a hymn? One practical problem is that few useful hymn-words rhyme with body. Shoddy? Bawdy? Toddy? Or do you give up and try words with t, like naughty, haughty, or spotty? How could you make these rhymes have anything to do with the gospel? (Well, besides naughty.)

No, you have to give up on ending any line with body and be a little more oblique about it:

Oh joyful day! O wondrous plan
That gave this mortal flesh to man!
Despite the way it makes us sin,
It's great for being mortal in.

How versatile our birthday suit,
That makes men manly, ladies cute.
Though frail or healthy, thin or fat,
A mortal body's where it's at.

Quite apart from the fact that I couldn't resist ending both stanzas with prepositions, I think we can all agree that these verses don't have much of a future in the LDS hymnbook.

But even if I had tried to be serious, what exactly do you say about most LDS doctrines that is remotely singable?

Imagine that you're bringing your dearest non-member friends to sacrament meeting for the first time, and when the opening hymn begins, the words are: "Genealogy! We are doing it!"

There's a reason why that song is sung only by children: Children don't have free agency about the choice of Primary songs, and most of the time they have no idea what they're singing about anyway. (Ironically, in most cases the children who sing "Genealogy! We are doing it!" are being forced to fib, since as a group they are highly unlikely to be doing any original research, genealogical or otherwise.)


There are topics that cry out for hymn-singing that are almost completely ignored. Where is the song condemning gossip?

We who would obey the Lord
And love our neighbor (as he taught)
Know well that it is deeply wrong
To pass a hurtful tale along,

When a single whisper's done
The tale is heard by everyone.
Like poison spreading through a ward
It sickens all. O gossip not!

There is so much wrong with this "hymn" that it's almost not worth listing the errors, but part of the problem is the use of unhymnlike words. Gossip and ward, though they are polite words whose meaning, within the Church, at least, is clear, are too specific to feel right in a hymn.

But even if the diction in my example had been right, we just don't sing hymns that condemn specific sins.

For instance, the one hymn that is explicitly about gossip -- "Nay, Speak No Ill" -- is almost never sung. (I would have said never, but then thirty people would have written to me that in their ward it was sung just last week.)

Do you even recognize these lines? "Full oft a better seed is sown / By choosing thus the kinder plan, / For, if but little good is known, / Still let us speak the best we can."

We don't sing this hymn very often precisely because it's too direct, too "on the nose." Besides which, it goes too far. It's one thing to condemn gossip; quite another to urge people never to be the first to point out someone's fault. After all, we have church courts precisely because some sins cannot be ignored.

(Besides which, it's hard to enjoy singing archaic words like "fain" and "efface," not to mention "nay"; the tone is too arch to inspire us.)

Other anti-gossip hymns are less direct, and if they're too preachy to be effective, they are also relentlessly positive. "Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words" encourages kind speech rather than condemning harshness or criticism.

"Truth Reflects Upon Our Senses," which repeats the Savior's parable of the mote and the beam, comes as close as any hymn to condemning criticism. But how awkwardly it does it: It's so convoluted that by the end, half the congregation has no idea what they just sang.

It may be that an effective hymn about gossip simply can't be written.

Still, there are some commandments so important that they ought to have hymns.


Right, that's what we need -- a hymn that tells us:

Now, before thy money's spent,
Set aside that ten percent.
On gross increase be it set;
Base it not upon the net.

The secret to writing a good hymn about tithing is to avoid a flat-out statement of the specific commandment, but instead focus on the intent or the result of the law. With tithing, what are the intent and the result?

As a writing teacher, I long ago learned that if I use a rigorous screening process, admitting only the most talented applicants to my class, I usually end up with a miserable bunch of students. Why? Because they aren't joining the class to learn, they're joining the class because it's the prize they get for "winning" the competition to get in. All they want is validation.

If I give no talent test at all, but merely charge a ridiculously high price, I invariably end up with a class that is hardworking, willing to learn and change, so it's worth taking the time to teach them. Why? Because they are making a sacrifice to get into the class, and now they're going to work hard and learn and change, because if they don't, they wasted their money and time.

Likewise, if all it took to be a Latter-day Saint was to say you believe and then show outward signs of piety, it would be much easier to be a member -- but being a member wouldn't mean as much, and we would accomplish far less as a people.

Instead, we are required to make a serious financial commitment in order to be a member in good enough standing that we can go to the temple.

So the doctrine of tithing results in sacrifice, is about commitment, and is based on the debt we owe the Lord and on the principle of consecration.

How Generous the Lord (41)

How generous the Lord:
The fullness of Earth
Is enough and to spare.
Take heed of his word:
Discover its worth
By returning a share.

The Earth is the Lord's,
Created for us
To replenish and tend:
Make plows out of swords,
Turn gold into trust,
Turn a foe to a friend.

The treasures and towers
We own while we live
Will be lost in a breath,
For nothing is ours
Except what we give
Out of love, out of faith.

This hymn is definitely about tithes and offerings, as a part of how we repay our great debt to our Father in heaven. But instead of referring to money or wealth, the hymn refers to "treasures and towers / we own while we live," and even those are mentioned only to affirm that we can't take them with us when we die.

Tithing, thus, is cast, not as a check we make out to the Church and hand to the bishop, but as a "share" that we return to the Lord, or something we "give / out of love, out of faith."

The middle stanza, in fact, is not about tithing at all. Instead, it speaks of the righteous use of the gifts we are given by God in our mortality. The Earth belongs to the Lord; we must replenish and tend it. To serve God, we beat swords into ploughshares and try to "turn a foe to a friend."

The only tithing reference in the second stanza is very oblique, when we sing of turning gold into trust -- changing our covetousness toward our own money into a commitment to the Church that is so firm that the Lord -- and his servants -- can trust us to make the sacrifices that church callings and responsibilities require.

My only misgiving about the meaning of the hymn is that these three stanzas end with a reference to how we lose all our possessions at death -- which is true, but not a cheery way to end a hymn that means to be positive. So as I was writing this column, I composed an additional verse:

His gifts are a trust:
The goods we have earned
Are not ours to hold.
These treasures that rust,
When shared, can be turned
Into heavenly gold.

This is a much more upbeat ending. The trouble is that I duplicate a rhyme-word from the second stanza -- trust. This is a weakness. So if I were to include this fourth stanza, I would probably need to revise the second one to avoid the repetition of that rhyme word.

However it ends, this is a tithing hymn that never overtly mentions tithing. It's stronger and more effective precisely because of it.

As a hymn text, it offers a few challenges to the composer. For one thing, the six lines of each stanza are rhymed in threes: ABCABC. This forces the composer to work without the safety net of a structure based on fours.

Another difficulty the composer will face is that the final metrical foot of the first line in each stanza is a single syllable -- Lord, Lord's -- until we get to the third verse, when suddenly it has two syllables -- towers.

This is fine if the composer has given "Lord" and "Lord's" two notes each, like the first syllable, "gen" in "Gently raise the sacred strain." With two notes for "Lord," there would be two notes available for "towers." But if there's only one note, there's little choice but to say the word as "tow'rs" instead of towers.

As with "heaven", "tower" is a word that can be sung on one note or two. But we don't like singing "heav'n." That's not the real word and we know it.

That extra fourth stanza's third line, "Are not ours to hold," would naturally be accented with the stress on ours: "Are not ours to hold." But to fit with the pattern of the other stanzas, the musical stress would have to be: "Are not ours to hold."

This does not change the meaning; the real problem is that if quick notes have been used for the unstressed syllables, the words "ours to" may be too difficult to say, because the retroflex r in ours can function as a third vowel in the diphthong. That's a lot of sound to pack into a brief note. If this stanza is used, the composer will need to make sure there's time enough on those notes to make all those sounds.


Singing about picking cherries or weeding sweet potatoes on the welfare farm might be fun, but the resulting song is highly unlikely to be appreciated in sacrament meeting.

Instead, the hymn should be about the reasons or results. It is our responsibility to take care of each other's material needs -- to share.

Let No Hands Be Idle Here (43)

Let no hands be idle here.
Let no heart be filled with fear.
Let no child uncared-for be.
Where the need is, O let me!

Leave no broken heart alone.
Leave no lonely soul unknown.
Lead all wanderers to Thee.
Where the need is, O let me!

Set the world's desires aside.
Set all sail against the tide.
Set the weeping captive free.
Where the need is, O let me!

Give the beggar what he asks.
Give the willing worker tasks.
Give to all unstintingly.
Where the need is, O let me!

We are part of Lehi's dream.
Hold the rod beside the stream.
Taste the fruit upon the tree:
Love of God, so sweet to me!

Note that the work-for-food principle -- a cornerstone of the Church's welfare program -- is included by the line "Let no hands be idle here." The principle of self-reliance is even included in the recurring line, "O let me!" The idea is that, if we can, we provide for each other whatever is needed -- a helping hand, a meal, money to a beggar, freedom for a captive -- but to the willing worker, we give tasks.

So the broadest principles of welfare are included in this hymn -- even in the anomalous final stanza, which not only breaks the "O let me" pattern, but seems to have changed the subject entirely. How did we suddenly get from the generalities of the first four stanzas to a specific mention of a prophet and his particular vision?

In this case, the congregation is metaphorically being included in a familiar vision. If they hold to the rod (the word of God) they can in time taste the sweet fruit of the love of God, which, in the vision, really does grow on trees.

Ultimately, the poem is about our individual responsibility to help others in need; it is only obliquely about the welfare program, rather the way Newell Dayley's words to "Faith in Every Footstep" were only obliquely about the early plains-crossing pioneers.

Five stanzas, though, are too many for the hymnbook. If published there, this hymn would ordinarily have one or even two stanzas dropped entirely or included as words alone, after the music. (Elder McConkie's eight-stanza "I Believe in Christ" got around this by repeating the melody twice, virtually unchanged, so that each "stanza" is really two stanzas.)

Which of these stanzas should be dropped? I would propose that the third stanza is the least essential. The metaphor of sailing against the tide is undeveloped; the "weeping captive" is not really part of the Church's welfare program. I believe it belongs in the hymn, ideally; but in practical terms, it's the one that would be least missed.

The more obvious choice would be to delete that final stanza. But that would be a mistake, because the differences between it and all the other stanzas actually serve to provide a stronger closure for the hymn.


It's time for me to accept the challenge I set out at the beginning, when I pointed out how inappropriate "Genealogy! We are doing it!" would be in sacrament meeting, sung by adults.

The key, once again, is to focus on the reason for doing genealogy, and the result. Genealogy is not an end in itself; its purpose is to offer saving ordinances to those who have died before us. It is an act of love toward ancestors we may never have met. Pedigree charts and family group sheets have no place in a hymn, but our feelings toward our forebears can be sung about:

Honor Them (44)

Those who taught us as we grew,
Beloved ones no longer here,
Brought us farther than they knew,
So heaven's light is bright and clear.

Honor them: They did their part.
So great their gifts! So few their claims!
Hold them dear in home and heart;
In temples, let us bless their names.

Like the links that form a chain,
Each generation lifts the rest.
Which was first these gifts to gain?
Before and after, all are blessed.

Those who lived before our day
Still shape our lives in all we do.
Here is how we can repay:
We'll raise our children strong and true.

What makes this hymn work (if it does) is that it takes in a wider set of tasks than merely doing genealogy. It calls for us to honor our forebears not only by finding the "links that form a chain," but also by speaking about them in our homes and by raising our children to continue in the path of righteousness.

Many people, however, have ancestors -- or closer relatives -- who were not good people, deserving of honor. How would an abused child feel, singing this hymn?

I kept this in mind while I was writing the text. First, though, let's remember the principle once articulated by Elder Boyd K. Packer, when he was responding to critics who thought the Brethren should not stress commandments in a way that would hurt the feelings of those who had broken them.

Elder Packer answered that in the Church, we must teach the general rules so that everyone knows that this is what we aspire to; and then, individually, we must be compassionate to those who have not yet found a way to achieve those aspirations.

This came home to me recently when some parents complained about a program that taught young children to aspire to a temple marriage. The complaint came from parents in part-member families or parents who had not gone to the temple. "You're teaching our children to consider our own marriage as less than perfect."

The uncharitable response to that is, of course, "Duh." Of course the Church is teaching children to aspire to marry in the temple -- especially those who come from a family that did not do so. Instead of complaining that the teaching of temple marriage should be abolished, just to avoid hurting their feelings, those parents should be embracing the program and affirming to their children, "Yes, we did not follow that pattern when we married, and we still have a good and happy family. But raising your children in righteousness will be easier if you have made those temple covenants before you bring them into the world."

Sometimes, in other words, you just have to swallow hard and accept the fact that the whole Church cannot be expected to give up teaching core commandments just because you did not follow them and it causes you discomfort to be reminded of the fact.

Still, I can imagine that a hymn that relentlessly praised our forebears could be unpleasant for someone whose heritage includes an abusive relative. And, ultimately, it would be perceived by everyone as false -- nobody's genealogy includes only ancestors who lived worthy of celestial glory.

So in writing the hymn, I made sure that the hymn is not all-inclusive -- that is, there is room to interpret the hymn as referring to righteous ancestors, the ones who taught us as we grew (instead of harming us); the ones who are beloved in memory, not the ones who were feared and resented in life.

The final verse is deliberately ambiguous: Those who lived before our day still shape our lives, even if they do so negatively. So if you read that stanza as an abused child, you can still sing it: We repay a wicked parent by raising our own children in love and righteousness.

Reading the Scriptures

There are already hymns urging us to read the scriptures, like, for instance, "Thy Holy Word," hymn 279. This is a good hymn text, with each stanza treating a different reason for or result of reading the scriptures: Hearing the word of God taught to us; reading and pondering it ourselves; preaching it as missionaries; and finally a prayer for the Lord to help us live by his word.

But just because there's already one hymn about reading scriptures doesn't mean there isn't room for another.

Thy Word (31)

When in the dark of night
I lose my way,
Thy word, O Lord, is light
And night is day.

When in the icy storm
My heart is cold,
Thy word, O Lord, is warm,
Thine arms enfold.

When hope is driven out
By worldly lies,
O save me, Lord, from doubt:
Thy word is wise.

When I must hide my face
In guilt and shame,
Thy word, O Lord, is grace,
And peace thy name.

And when to those who seek
My steps are led,
O give me words to speak
And they'll be fed.

Again, this is a five-stanza hymn; the expendable one is, once again, the middle stanza. Why? Because this is the one with the unredeemably awkward phrase "worldly lies." While it's true that the world is full of lies, and the antidote is the word of God, the tone of this verse is somewhat accusatory and negative. It is also a little too "on the nose" -- better to stick with the vagueness of metaphors like "the dark of night," "the icy storm," and hiding one's face in shame.

I've shown three examples of "topical hymns," but of course there are many doctrines and commandments that still lack good hymns. The Word of Wisdom, for instance, consisting as it does of highly specific prohibitions, is very hard to hymn about.

And how can you write a hymn encouraging church attendance, especially since the people who most need the message are, by definition, not there to sing it?

Above all, we still have that crying need for hymns that encourage us not to gossip -- because that remains one of the cruelest, most damaging forces that disrupt our religious lives in the tiny villages where we, as Latter-day Saints, spend so much of our lives: our wards and branches.

Many helpful hymns remain to be written. Which is actually encouraging to those of us who spend serious amounts of time writing hymns. The hymnal is never a finished book.

#7: Hymns of Thanksgiving

There are thanksgiving hymns, and then there are Thanksgiving hymns. The former are general expressions of gratitude to the Lord; the latter would be occasional hymns designed to be sung the Sunday before or after the American or Canadian Thanksgiving holiday.

The hymn that we use most for that particular holiday is Henry Alford's "Come, Ye Thankful People" (93 in the hymnbook). "Raise the song of harvest home," says the first stanza. "All is safely gathered in /Ere the winter storms begin."

The link between harvest and Thanksgiving is an appropriate one; it's the reason why the holiday was placed in the autumn in the first place. Even though we are no longer an agricultural society, it's good to remember that the Lord's bounty, which makes our whole civilization possible, is founded on the natural cycle of the growing season, and all that we have is built on a foundation of plentiful harvests.

Another hymn often used at Thanksgiving is also appropriate throughout the year. "Now Thank We All Our God" (95), written by Martin Rinkhart and translated by Catherine Winkworth (which makes her the actual author of the words we sing), could be a prototype of the hymn of thanks. It begins with gratitude for specific blessings that everybody has received, and ends with a prayer: "Oh, may our bounteous God / Through all our life be near us." The anthem-like music gives it strength and fervor.

The only hymn that has the word "Thanksgiving" in its title is, however, not really a hymn of thanksgiving. "Prayer of Thanksgiving" (93) begins "We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing." In other words, it is not a hymn of thanks, but a prayer for a very specific blessing. And the blessing prayed for is victory in conflict.

Written in the Netherlands and translated by Theodore Baker, the hymn clearly dates from an era of persecution. "The wicked oppressing / now cease from distressing" is the wish of the singers of this hymn; when the hymn does thank the Lord, it thanks him specifically for triumph over their powerful enemies.

So despite its title, this hymn is not really appropriate for the Thanksgiving holiday, except in times and places where the Saints are persecuted and praying for relief. Most of the time, we should thank the Lord that we don't need to sing this hymn.

Praise As Thanks

Our supply of hymns of thanksgiving increases greatly if we realize that hymns of praise are, by implication, also thanksgiving hymns. Take, for instance, "Praise Ye the Lord" (74), by the greatest of all hymnists, Isaac Watts.

While he begins by talking about praise itself, and how he is determined to spend his life doing it, when he gets to the actual business of praising God, he comes up with a list as full as any thanksgiving hymn: "His truth forever stands secure. / He saves th' oppressed; he feeds the poor; / He sends the troubled conscience peace / And grants the captive sweet release. / The Lord gives eyesight to the blind; / The Lord supports the sinking mind. / He helps the stranger in distress, / The widow, and the fatherless."

To thank someone is to praise him, and vice versa; the difference lies in the tone and the audience. When you speak to someone about his good works, you thank him; when you speak about his good works to others, you praise him.

So when our voices ring out in James Allen's "Glory to God on High" (67), we are praising God because we are singing about him; if we were singing to him, this would be explicitly a song of thanks. When we're looking for thanksgiving hymns, or even for Thanksgiving hymns, we should not overlook the hymns of praise.

This means we have a lot of hymns of thanks in our hymnal; do we need more?

In Search of Universality

Obviously I think we do, or I would not have been writing them. The reason there is room for more such hymns is that each one provides its own list of things a congregation can be grateful for. I add my hymns to the mix because I felt a need to give thanks for gifts that are not mentioned in the present hymns.

Hymn of Thanks (15)

O Father, for this mortal life,
This tabernacle made of flesh,
For father, mother, husband, wife,
For children we protect and teach,
For truth to learn, lost sheep to save,
For love that yearns beyond the grave,
We thank thee, Lord of Light.

O Father, for the sacrifice
Of thy Beloved in the flesh,
His blood that paid our mortal price,
His pain that grants the sinner's wish,
The blind who see, the lame who walk,
The church on revelation's rock,
We thank thee, Lord of Truth.

O Father, for our fellow saints
Who labor with us in the flesh,
Who share with us to meet our wants,
Whom we can also serve and bless,
Whose free forgiveness lifts us up,
Whose lips receive the bread, the cup,
We thank thee, God of Love.

This hymn does something that few if any other hymns attempt: In it the singer thanks the Lord for the other members of the Church who are singing with him, including thanking the Lord for the fact that those other Saints forgive him for his flaws. Obliquely, then, in this hymn we give thanks to the Lord for the Church itself, which allows us -- or requires us -- to associate with brothers and sisters who are as flawed as we are, but who, like us, come to the Lord for forgiveness when we take the sacrament.

The problem with this hymn is the first stanza, which gives thanks for family. While everyone has ancestors -- "For love that yearns beyond the grave" -- not everyone has a husband or a wife. Could an unmarried or widowed or divorced Saint sing this stanza?

I would like to think that with generosity of heart, such members of the Church could join in giving thanks even though they currently lack a spouse. After all, the doctrine is that all who are worthy of celestial glory will enter that state married; so can we not all give thanks, if not for a present spouse, then for a future one?

For me, the second stanza also strikes an equally dissonant note: While Jesus certainly healed the lame and the blind during his mortal ministry, and miracles are still possible today, my wife and I spent many years of our lives yearning to see our handicapped son Charlie rise up and walk. That blessing was never granted during his mortal life; but because we believe in the resurrection, we know that now he does walk in the spirit and will someday walk in the flesh.

During his mortal life, that stanza would have caused us a pang, of course; that's why "Teach Me to Walk in the Light" was hard for us to sing or even hear (despite the fact that it had always been one of my favorite hymns) precisely because walking was something our own dear son could not do. Yet we never resented the fact that others could sing that great song without pain -- even then, we knew that in the Lord's own time, Charlie would receive all the blessings that are in the Lord's gift.

So even though a hymn of thanksgiving -- all hymns, in fact -- should strive for universality, it is probably impossible to write a hymn that will not cause someone in the congregation to feel pain or at least irony while singing it. Once, when I was a victim of vicious gossip in the ward I then lived in, we sang "Nay, Speak No Ill"; the words stuck in my throat. But it was precisely because of experiences like mine that the hymn needed to be sung!

Universality is the goal; but it is unreachable, and good hymns should not be banished from the hymnal because of it, as long as they can be sung wholeheartedly by the overwhelming majority of the members of a congregation.

Autumn Holiday

Universality should even be striven for in a hymn deliberately tied to the November holiday (or October, ye Canadians!).

For the Harvest (38)

For the harvest of this year,
For all the work of every hand,
For the loved ones gathered here,
For all the joy our days have spanned

Father, wilt thou hear our prayer
Of thanks we have not words to say?
Here is how we will repay:
All gifts we have, we gladly share.

For the lessons we have learned,
Forgiveness of the wrong we've done,
Hope that was so dearly earned,
The gift of thy beloved Son

Father, wilt thou hear our prayer
Of thanks we have not words to say?
Here is how we will repay:
All gifts we have, we gladly share.

The hymn begins by referring to the harvest, but then goes on to include "the work of every hand." Thus those who do not labor at farming are still included in our thanksgiving.

The next line, about "loved ones gathered here," refers to the holiday again, but more directly: It's a time when many families reassemble. But even those who do not have family members coming home for Thanksgiving, they can still sing this line, giving thanks for their beloved friends in that congregation or for their own family members still at home.

The second stanza is even more universal. No longer tied to the harvest of the farm, now the "harvest of this year" is stretched to include "the lessons we have learned" and then to the universal gift of the Savior's atonement for our sins.

And the chorus, repeated after each verse, ends with a covenant of consecration: Because we can't repay the Lord directly for his gifts, we will share them with others.

The promise changes meaning with the two stanzas, though. With the first stanza, it refers to sharing the gifts of the harvest and of the love and joy that come from being part of a community. But because the second stanza refers to forgiveness and the atonement, a promise to share these gifts is a promise to teach the gospel and to forgive others.

For the composer, this hymn poses the challenge that both verses are incomplete sentences: They must be completed by the refrain to even make sense, since it is the chorus that contains both the subject and verb of the sentence!

Thus the music for the verse should not close, but should flow on smoothly into the chorus, so that there is no closure until "we gladly share."


Sometimes, a hymn can simply be a rhapsody: A bursting forth of feeling.

Beautiful Day (40)

What a beautiful day
The Lord has made,
To give us hope and light,
To bring relief.
    So our belief
    In Christ dispels the night.
    Be not afraid!
    His plans are laid:
    He is the way.

What a glorious life!
A daily gift
Of freedom, work, and dreams,
To learn of love.
    And from above
    The Lord's compassion streams,
    A current swift
    To lightly lift
    The weight of grief.

Sons and daughters of God!
We all can show
The image of his face,
Our father's eyes.
    For he is wise,
    And has prepared this place
    Where we could grow
    Until we know:
    Ah! Life is good!

But a hymn that is nothing but rhapsody will usually feel insufficient. The first two stanzas here are rhapsodic. But the third stanza changes, reminding one's fellow children of God that besides our gratitude to God for his great gifts, we have a responsibility to be part of those gifts in the lives of others. Our lives should be emblems of his goodness.

The very last line may be too rhapsodic, however, especially because "Life is good!" is a sentence people often use for the petty triumphs and gratifications of mortal life. A hot cup of cocoa after coming in from the snow can prompt us to say "Ah, life is good"; such quotidian uses of those words might weaken their effectiveness at the end of a hymn of thanksgiving and praise to God.

Or -- and this is my hope -- their very familiarity might well extend the meaning of this hymn to include all those moments of joy, large and small, which come to us because of God's great gifts to us.

Another slight problem comes in the third stanza. Some people might be troubled by the idea that "we all can show / the image of his face, / our father's eyes." While there is no doubt that we are created in the image of God, this stanza implies that by righteousness, we bring others to see God in us. While I stand by this idea, as metaphor at least, I can foresee problems with getting it past the Correlation Committee; their job is to guard against even the implication of false doctrine, and they might well balk at the idea of suggesting that God is somehow "in us," with its Nicene or pantheistic implications.

So that line could easily be changed to the slightly less effective but also less misleading line "Our lives can show / the image of his face." Now it is clearly a metaphor, and it is our actions, not our actual bodies, that show God's presence to others.

Thanks without Thanking

It is not necessary for a hymn ever to say anything about thanking the Lord to be a hymn of thanksgiving.

All That the Earth Can Yield (46)

All that the earth can yield,
All that seeds can hold,
Sheep within the fold;
    Fruit of a heavy field
    Or fallen from tree and vine:
    They are already thine.

All that I think I own,
All within my hand,
House and plot of land;
    All that I've reaped and sown
    And all that the world calls mine:
    They are already thine.

All of the dreams of youth,
Memories of age,
Life at every stage;
    All that I know of truth
    And all that is sweet and fine:
    It is already thine.

All of the trust I've earned,
All the tears I've shed,
Hungry souls I've fed;
    All of the love I've learned,
    Lord: what is truly mine,
    It is already thine.

This hymn is a list of things that I -- and everyone -- can certainly be thankful for. But instead of saying so, what the hymn asserts in every stanza is that everything I have belongs to God; it came from him, and returns to him.

The progression, however, follows the harvest-hymn progression. It begins with the literal harvest of farm, herd, orchard, or even what is gathered or gleaned.

The second stanza remains tied to the physical possessions of life, but with the third stanza we move to "possessions" that are held only in memory and imagination: Our hopes, our experiences, our learning, our joy.

And the final stanza makes this even more explicit, including griefs, good works, and love. And here we (the singers) assert that these things -- trust, memory, good works, love -- do truly belong to us; but even at the moment of asserting that these are the possessions we can take with us into eternity, we offer them up to the Lord, asserting that even what is "truly mine, it is already thine."

This was one of the earliest hymns I wrote, and one of the few I have treated as a poem -- it was published in The Ensign in 1981, and appeared in my collection of poetry, An Open Book. This is because, while remaining more or less universal, it is very specific in its language; and also because it may well be the best hymn I ever wrote, or will ever write. I wasn't yet thirty years old when I wrote it, and had no idea what my "memories of age" would be, or what tears I would shed in my life; but it feels truer now to me than it did when I wrote it.

Yet it is no surprise that in all these years that this text has been available to the public, no one has set it to music. It offers real challenges to the composer. The rhyme scheme is a complicated ABBACC; each line has only three beats; each stanza has six lines. These don't form a recipe for ease of hymn-writing.

But the biggest problem is probably the fact that this hymn is so relentlessly first-person. It feels private, not public. It should be spoken on one's knees, not in a congregation. Another first-person hymn, "I Stand All Amazed," is intensely personal -- but it is addressed, not to God, but to other people, telling about the mercy of Jesus.

Still, I have hopes that the right composer will find a way to set my best and most poetic hymn to music that will allow it to be sung by a congregation.

#8: Hymns of Comfort

One of the purposes of our hymns is to comfort those who are caught up in grief or suffering.

When we gather together for a funeral or memorial service, we need hymns to sing that will comfort those who feel the grief of death most poignantly.

Eliza R. Snow's "O My Father" long ago became a funeral hymn, primarily because of the final stanza: "When I leave this frail existence, / When I lay this mortal by, / Father, Mother, may I meet you In your royal courts on high?"

Another hymn that is often used at funerals is "Each Life That Touches Ours For Good," by Karen Lynn Davidson. Mostly it is a hymn celebrating good people who have served as God's instruments in blessing our lives -- this alone would make it a favorite hymn.

But the third stanza speaks of death quite clearly: "When such a friend from us departs, / We hold forever in our hearts / A sweet and hallowed memory." At funerals it allows all who attend to sing to the family about how much their lost loved one meant to everyone.

There is comfort in such sharing of grief, and Davidson achieved something sweet and fine with this masterful hymn.

In a way, though, it's a shame that two such important hymns have become so associated with funerals that not only do we sing them more rarely in normal congregational settings, but also we sing them at such a slow, dirgelike tempo that some of the joy inherent in them is lost.

Funerals are not the only occasions that cry out for comfort, however. When we gather to take the sacrament, we never know who among us might be coming before the Lord to beg forgiveness for sin and relief for the suffering of guilt.

There is no life untouched by grief or loss of one kind or another. And the gospel offers comfort for all.

So it is no surprise that the hymnbook contains hymns like "Be Still My Soul" and "Though Deepening Trials." The latter hymn is another by Eliza R. Snow, and who could know more about the many ways the Saints could suffer than one who had lost her first husband to an assassin's bullet, who bore no children despite her longing, and who witnessed and took part in the suffering, grief and loss of the generation of Saints who were driven out and forced to seek refuge again and again?

Yet there is surely room for more. Words and music that touch one heart might not reach another; and when we have only a few hymns that carry such themes, perhaps, to avoid repeating them too much, we don't sing hymns of comfort often enough.

Father, in My Sorrow (28)

Father, in my sorrow
I have felt thy hand
Lift me up to stand
Ready for tomorrow.

Father, in the evening
Thou hast brought me light;
Promised in the night,
Dawn will end my grieving.

Flood with living water
Deserts of despair;
Bread enough to share
Give me through the winter.

All thy goodness shows me
Suffering is brief.
Quickly comes relief,
For my Father knows me.

This hymn is a first-person prayer, spoken by one who grieves. It follows the vagueness rule well enough that it could be sung at a funeral, but also could be sung in an ordinary sacrament meeting.

My hope is that even people who are not at the moment feeling grief will remember such feelings in the past; and those whose grief comes from their souls being harrowed up by memory of their own sins will sing this and feel affirmed in the desire to repent and accept the comfort of the Father.

Metrically, the hymn is a bit unusual in its short, three-foot lines, rhymed ABBA, with the A rhyme being a trochee (ending on an unstressed syllable) and the B rhyme an iamb (ending on a stressed syllable).

It's a deliberate choice to have each stanza end with the softening effect of a trochee. Musically, it demands a soothing melodic line, a gentle touch. You can't easily bring off a bold or heroic ending on an unstressed syllable; instead the stanzas beg for a melody that fades away.

Asking Why

One of the responses we can feel during a time of trial is to ask the question, Why would this happen?

"Be Still My Soul," by Jane Borthwick in English (translated from Katrina von Schlegel's German original), recognizes the question and insists on stillness and patience.

I thought there was room for a hymn that did not immediately silence the question, but rather gave it its full expression, while still answering with (I hope) some comfort.

O Child of God (29)

O child of God, you wonder why
You came to earth to live, to die;
Remember you are not alone,
And when the seed of love has grown,
One day, with joy, you're going home.

O child of God, you wonder why
Things break, and Father does not mend,
And even those you love must die.
Why can't we see beyond the bend
What road will take us home?

O child of light, you wonder why
In darkness every day you stride
And many who would lead you lie
And true directions are denied.
Keep on, you're heading home.

O child of peace, you wonder why
Such hatred tears the world apart
As parents grieve and orphans cry
And trust is lost in every heart
And hope can find no home.

Be comforted, O child of woe:
Your Father knows your pain and fear.
There is no place that you can go
Where God is not already there.
Reach out, and you are home.

My thought in writing this was that by ending each stanza with a reference to going home, the hymn would evoke the feeling of comfort we get from the thought of returning to a familiar place where we are surrounded by those who love us most.

I tried to strengthen this by making the person spoken to a "child" in the first line of each stanza. By implication, then, this hymn is spoken, not by mortals to God, but by a loving Father to his children. (Literally, this is not necessarily so -- the singer refers to the Father in the third person; the singer is, thus, a surrogate for the Father.)

The weakness is the plainness of speech. In the second stanza, there is no euphemism for death in "Even those you love must die." Yet the point of the hymn is to name our griefs.

A greater problem in the second stanza is "Things break." This is not the kind of thing one normally sings about in a hymn. I meant it to evoke the experience of children, but also intended that it be taken metaphorically as a reference to adult things that break -- like marriages, hearts, covenants, friendships, and expectations.

The third verse is just as plainspoken, referring to those who, offering to lead us, "lie" and deny us the true directions that we need. This is a common source of much grief for Latter-day Saints, as we are led astray by false teachers. It is unusually specific for a hymn, and this is the stanza that I would remove in order to make this fit the four-stanza norm.

My hope is that despite the problems, the hymn might, with the right musical setting, express enough of the feelings of the Saints that it would be a welcome part of our meetings from time to time. The word "die" might make the song unbearable at funerals ... but then, I once wrote a whole novel about facing the truth about life and death at funerals, and maybe I'm not the only one who does not need obliqueness in order to speak of death.

As If We Were Already Comforted

Sometimes a hymn can give comfort by speaking as if we were already comforted.

The Light of the Lord (42)

The light of the Lord
Does not despair
Does not depart.
How bright is the word
Of love and care
Within our heart.

In darkening days
Of plague and war
Of famine's blight
Bright charity says
What life is for,
What path is right.

The whisper of love
Can lift us up
So we can see
The sacrifice of
The bitter cup
That set us free.

We dwelt in the dust
Where blind men grope
And long for sight.
Now, true to his trust,
We rise in hope
And live in light.

This hymn is meant to be specific to the troubled times of latter days, so I don't think the references to "plague and war" and "famine's blight" are out of place. Note that the answer to these woes is "bright charity," suggesting that we have a responsibility to help alleviate those problems, not merely expecting the Lord to ease them.

Musically, this is a complicated hymn. With an ABCABC rhyme scheme in a stanza of six short two-stress lines, let us just say that it won't fit any of the existing hymn tunes in the hymnal -- especially because the A-rhyme lines end with a three-syllable anapest, and all the others with an iamb.

The short lines could easily be combined into standard four-stress lines -- but there'd be only three of them per stanza, which is musically uncomfortable.

The solution, musically, is to repeat two lines in each stanza. I didn't plan it this way, but after the hymn was complete I realized that the first and last lines of each stanza are repeatable.

If one set of voices sang the first line, and another group immediately repeated it, and did likewise with the last line, we'd have a much more satisfying four-line, four-beat stanza:

The light of the Lord (the light of the Lord)
Does not despair, does not depart.
How bright is the word of love and care
Within our heart (within our heart).

Notice that now the A and B rhymes are hidden inside the lines. We still feel and respond to them, but they function more subtly.

The drawback is that congregations find it complicated to divide; and I resent it, just a little bit, when there's a line of a hymn that only the women get to sing, so that the men sing an incomplete hymn. In this case, however, everybody would sing all the words, just not all at the same time.

(For those who are troubled by the grammar of saying "our heart" instead of "our hearts," this is a situation in which either choice would be correct. In the average congregation, there are indeed exactly as many hearts as there are members; but then, each person has but one heart; so either choice is grammatical. And the singular rhymes with "depart," so I used it.)

Comforting the Sinner

One of the greatest functions of the gospel and the Church is to provide a proper setting for confession of sin as part of the process of repentance and receiving the blessing of Christ's atonement.

But confession of sin is generally a private matter. Gone are the days when testimony meetings were punctuated with specific confessions and pleas for forgiveness. Our sense of decorum now demands that such things be taken care of between sinner and sinned-against, or between sinner and bishop.

Yet which of us does not take the sacrament with a keen awareness of how we fall short of the Savior's plea that we be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect?

Charles Gabriel's "I Stand All Amazed" is the most powerful statement of our sinfulness before the Lord. Another hymn of his that is not in our hymnal is even more specific:

My Evening Prayer
By Charles H. Gabriel (1856_1932)

If I have wounded any soul today,
If I have caused one foot to go astray,
If I have walked in my own wilful way --
Good Lord, forgive!

If I have uttered idle words or vain,
If I have turned aside from want or pain,
Lest I myself should suffer through the strain --
Good Lord, forgive!

If I have craved for joys that are not mine,
If I have let my wayward heart repine,
Dwelling on things of earth, not things divine --
Good Lord, forgive!

If I have been perverse, or hard, or cold,
If I have longed for shelter in Thy fold,
When Thou hast given me some part to hold --
Good Lord, forgive.

Forgive the sins I have confessed to Thee,
Forgive the secret sins I do not see,
That which I know not, Father, teach Thou me --
Help me to live.

See? I'm not the only one who writes five stanzas when nobody wants to sing more than four. (Note that the removable stanza in this hymn is the fourth one, partly because the word "perverse" is out of general use in the sense he means, but mostly because it's very hard to parse what in the world he's talking about with "When thou has given me some part to hold.")

The weakness of this hymn, compared to Gabriel's "I Stand All Amazed," is that in being so specific about the sins being repented of, he includes only the sins of those who haven't committed any major ones. Someone repenting of a grave sin would find no comfort in this hymn, since it's designed to be sung by people keenly aware of not having any really serious sins.

In writing the following hymn, I tried to leave room for all sins, both great and small.

He Sees (13)

He sees into my soul,
The scarlet of my sin:
His grace will make me whole.
The doors of life he opens wide.
Eternal joy is found inside.
He says to me, "Come in."

He sees into my heart.
He knows my deep desire.
He teaches me the art
Of comforting the ones who mourn,
Preparing them to be reborn
Ablaze with holy fire.

Oh, Sister, join with me.
Rise up, dear Brother, rise!
Let Zion come to be.
Where Jesus dwells there is no wall.
His gift to one is shared with all:
The love that never dies.

Now will he set us free,
Now will he make us wise,
For he will let us see
All things that will be, were, and are.
The tender child, the farthest star
We'll view through Jesus' eyes.

The comfort here comes not only from the atonement, but from taking part in Jesus' great work, as the Saints invite each other to join in sharing the Savior's gift with others, "Preparing them to be reborn / Ablaze with holy fire."

I would like to think that others would feel, as I did in writing it, that we are not alone in repenting of our sins; and that by candidly confessing "the scarlet of my sin," each of us can become participants with the work of bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

But "He Sees" speaks from the heart of the sinner already determined to repent. This next one is an attempt at a hymn that tracks the whole process of repentance, beginning with the hopelessness of those who have only recently become keenly aware of the gravity of their sins:

The Way (27)

Where is the hope for those like me
Who waver and who stray,
For those who search but cannot see,
For we have lost the way?

The Savior in Gethsemane
Knelt all alone to pray:
Thy will, O Father: let it be,
If there's no other way.

To justice, with its stern decree,
The Savior now can say:
I paid for all their sins; now free
The ones who seek my way.

In darkest night, now suddenly
His coming brings the day.
We hear his voice: Come unto me,
My friends. I am the way.

Using only two rhymes in the entire hymn may feel oppressive; I suppose the test is, if you noticed it, then it was probably excessive; if not, then it worked fine.

Rhythmically, this hymn fits the melody of "There Is a Green Hill Far Away," though you'll immediately recognize that it is all wrong for that reflective tune.

This is mainly because the tune to "Green Hill" fades toward the end, instead of building to a strong closure. Another reason is that this hymn cries out for the strong initial accent to be, not on the first stressed syllable ("Where IS the hope for those like me") but rather on the second: "Where is the HOPE for those like me."

Thus the first three syllables are all pickup notes. This works on lines three and four, as well, though line two needs to have only a single pickup note. The pattern, then, would be:

Where is the hope for those like me
Who waver and who stray,
For those who search but cannot see,
For we have lost the way?

This works for me, at least, even in the second stanza, where we would end up emphasizing the word "in" in the first line, and the third stanza, where the first line would be emphasized on "with." But composers will doubtless have their own preferences.


Not every reference to the atonement and resurrection has to be in the context of either grief or taking the sacrament. Yet I can imagine the following hymn being sung at a funeral.

He Woke, and All These Children Will Awake (36)

He woke,
And all these children will awake,
And rise
To take up flesh and bone again.
He spoke,
And made his foolish children wise.
His pain
Was holy, suffered for their sake.
    Hosanna! for the Son of God alive.
    Hosanna! God is love.

He went
To prison to redeem the dead.
He did
What sacrifice alone could do.
Repent --
Rejoice in doing as he bid.
Be true
And follow Jesus where he led.
    Hosanna! for the Son of God alive.
    Hosanna! God is love.

His word
Will lead us on the path of right,
To save
Our souls by grace we cannot earn.
O Lord
Who rose and raises from the grave
And fill our lives with love and light.
    Hosanna! for the Son of God alive.
    Hosanna! God is love.

This is obviously an oddly patterned hymn. The two-syllable, one-beat lines are integral to it -- the music must emphasize them, not disguise them. In other words, it should not be treated as iambic pentameter, but as alternating lines of monometer and tetrameter. The rhymes insist on this, since some monometer lines rhyme, not with each other, but with tetrameter lines.

The hosanna refrain is not essential -- a good hymn could be composed that contained only the verses. But I felt the need for a brief concluding couplet of celebration responding to the story laid out in the verse.

To me, this hymn is a complete, though brief, expression of the promise of Christ's resurrection and atonement. Though I wrote it after the loss of a child, the "children" referred to are children of God, regardless of the age at which they die.

Mormon funerals are notorious -- or celebrated -- for being astonishingly cheerful. Yes, there are tears, and no one criticizes people for grieving for their loved ones. But the attitude of the mourners gives way readily to humor or cheerfulness; we grieve, but it is not the end of the world to us.

So I don't believe it would be impossible for a funeral to have a hymn like "Be Still My Soul" and the more celebratory hymn I wrote.

At the same time, I could also imagine the hymn being sung, with the same musical setting, in an ordinary sacrament meeting, where we would praise the Savior for his gifts to us.

#9: Hymns for Special Groups

Most of the hymns in the hymnbook are meant for everyone to sing together in sacrament meeting, but we do have times when smaller groups need songs that speak especially for them.

For instance, the Relief Society has "As Sisters in Zion" and "We Meet Again As Sisters" -- neither of which I have ever heard sung, but then I wouldn't, would I?

For priesthood meeting we have "Rise Up, O Men of God," "The Priesthood of Our Lord," "Come All Ye Sons of God," and "See the Mighty Priesthood Gathered." Of these, the only one I have actually heard sung in a priesthood meeting is "Come All Ye Sons of God," and even that felt like quite an innovation.

But that's partly because priesthood meetings are more likely to fall back on the missionary hymns that gained currency back in the days when almost all the missionaries were men. So we're likely to sing missionary hymns like "Ye Elders of Israel," "We Are All Enlisted," and "Israel, Israel, God Is Calling."

Missionaries, as a group, have quite a few hymns: "Go Forth With Faith," "Go, Ye Messengers of Glory," and "Go, Ye Messengers of Heaven" -- the last two with words by John Taylor.

Add to those "Hark, All Ye Nations," "I Saw a Mighty Angel Fly," "Like Ten Thousand Legions Marching," "See, the Mighty Angel Flying," "The Voice of God Again Is Heard," and "Ye Who Are Called to Labor," and you have quite a list. Missionaries should be able to go through quite a few zone meetings without repeating themselves.

Why We Don't Learn New Hymns

Except that we don't sing these songs very often (speaking of the manly ones; what the sisters sing I don't know). Part of that is because congregational song practice has been abolished in most wards -- how can we learn a new hymn?

Or, I should say, how can we men learn new hymns -- because women do practice hymns in Relief Society, at least in our stake.

But outside the sheltered walls of Relief Society (and, of course, Primary, where new songs are constantly taught), music gets short shrift.

In many priesthood meetings (dare I say most?) the opening hymn -- if any -- is chosen at the last moment by a conductor who only knows the melody of a handful of hymns, or by an accompanist who can only play a few hymns with any degree of confidence.

The problem of repeating some hymns to death and completely ignoring many others is really a symptom of the deeper problem -- the fact that hardly anybody is teaching their children to play the piano or to sing notated music (as opposed to singing along with the radio or cds).

This is crippling the music program in many wards. There is a hierarchy in most wards -- the accompanists are ranked according to their ability to sit down and play at a moment's notice. First choice accompanists are the ones who can sight read anything; as we work down the list, we get the accompanists who can play only the hymns they know, and then farther down the list are those who know only a few hymns, and finally we reach those who can barely hack through anything.

That last one is the place I proudly occupy on the list of accompanists in the ward. The trouble is, in priesthood meeting that makes me the second best -- at least of those willing to try. And I'm bad enough that the men generally prefer singing a capella.

My worst limitation is that I can only play smoothly in the keys of E-flat or A-flat, so I have to transpose everything on the fly. That's fine when I'm transposing down, but when I transpose up, it makes many a hymn considerably harder to sing. Better just to find the note on the piano and let somebody wave his arm.

Part of the reason kids don't learn to play piano is they see no immediate reward for it. Back when my parents were young, radios were not portable and record players were scratchy and tinny and not very loud. To have good music at a party, somebody pulled out the sheet music and started to play, and then others would gather around the piano and sing. That provided the entertainment even for the non-singers.

So of course young men learned to play -- who didn't want to be the guy who had girls leaning over his shoulder at the piano to see the words of the song? And ditto for young women -- it was an easy way to get lots of attention. Provided, of course, that you were any good at it.

America was a singing culture then. My generation profited from that because our parents still thought of piano playing as a worthwhile and socially useful skill to acquire. So a lot of people my age were forced given the opportunity to take piano lessons or study some other instrument long enough to learn musical notation and be able to pick out a melody from a sheet of music.

Our children, though, were raised by a generation that got brainwashed with the idea that it's somehow evil to make kids do things they don't like. Let's not even begin discussing how that has poisoned that generation as they now raise their own kids in the same lax expect-nothing-get-less environment. This social change affects church music because when my generation dies out -- and we're getting older by the minute -- few wards will have much of a hierarchy of accompanists to choose from, and almost none of them will be male.

Instead they'll be whipping out boom boxes and playing accompaniment cds in sacrament meeting. Or singing a capella. The way accompanist-deprived priesthood meetings already do.

Room for More Hymns

Without wishing to sound too critical, however, I suggest that there's another reason we don't sing a lot of the hymns designed for priesthood meeting or missionary gatherings: The songs are all so martial.

Martial metaphors are fine -- I love to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" as much as anybody. But stirring anthems aren't the only kind of music that's appropriate for men (or missionaries of either sex) to sing.

I felt the need some years ago for a priesthood meeting hymn that was not martial or enthusiastic at all, but rather reflected the deeper feelings of a man serving in the kingdom of God. Most of the time we're not charging out into the world like cavalrymen; most of the time we're doing our jobs, serving in our callings, and, above all, gathering our family around us and serving them and leading them as best we can.

We need a priesthood hymn that reflects the ordinary but all-important life of an LDS priesthood holder, and this hymn is my attempt at meeting that need:

We Shall Become Thy Sons (12)

We are building Father's kingdom,
Founded on his holy word.
Let the task be great or humble
He has called, and we have heard.

In thy name, as we serve others,
Father, help us to be brothers:
Trust us with thy little ones;
Thus we shall become thy sons.

Is there one whose soul is hungry?
Let thy Spirit lead us there.
Food of body and of spirit
We have plenty; we will share.

In thy name ...
As we bless the needy ones,
Thus we shall become thy sons.

All the sins we have committed
Weigh upon our broken hearts.
By the Lamb they are remitted
When our will to sin departs.

In thy name ...
We can all be worthy ones;
Thus we shall become thy sons.

Father, by thy gentle daughters
Come the greatest gifts of all:
Help and comfort in our labors,
Homes we build as worlds in small.

In thy name ...
Sealed to these beloved ones,
Thus we shall become thy sons.

The verses progress from callings in the Church --"We are building Father's kingdom" -- to service to others, both spiritual and physical -- "We have plenty, we will share." Then the hymn becomes personal -- to be a good priesthood holder, we must repent of our own sins, but first of all admit to each other that we have them!

And finally, we give thanks for the women in our lives, who as mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters in the gospel give meaning and help to everything we do. For me, that is the single most important thing this hymn does -- it recognizes that "neither is the man without the woman."

It happens that when this hymn text was first published in Meridian, Mark Mitchell had already composed music for it, which is now in our published collection.

If you have the sheet music in front of you, you'll see how deftly Mark Mitchell kept the melody line simple and within a single octave. It's a challenge to create harmonies for a one-gender hymn, because all four voices take place within the same narrow range.

If you listen to the .MP3, you'll notice that the music goes on way longer than the words. That's because Mitchell chose to repeat the last two lines of the refrain. This makes the hymn longer, of course, but provides a good closure and gives greater emphasis to the end of the prayer: expressing to the Father that we wish to be truly worthy of being his heirs.

Then the music goes on just a little bit longer. That's because Mitchell added a tag in the accompaniment that is sweet indeed.

The refrain is also slower than the verse. I would never have thought of doing that, but now that I look back at my own text, he was exactly right. The first three stanzas are sung by priesthood holders to each other, but the refrain is sung to the Lord. And even though the last stanza is addressed to "Father," the difference in tone between stanza and refrain still applies.

As for how the melody fits the words: If I've done my job right, in each stanza the words match up perfectly -- not just syllable by syllable or even accent by accent, but in meaning as well. That is, the climactic word will fall in the same place in each line, the climactic line in the same place in each stanza.

But of course it is rarely possible to achieve perfection on that -- the language is not infinitely malleable -- and so the composer has to be sensitive to the fact that the same melody must serve four stanzas, not just one. Mitchell has done a superb job of compensating for the fact that in the first line, for instance, the first and third stanzas have a bit of an emphasis on the second accent -- "building" and "sins." The second stanza has the more neutral "one," however, and the last stanza, has the very unimportant word "by" in that position.

The gentle rise and fall of that opening melody allow us to sing the first and third verses with the appropriate emphasis; yet it is not so strong a swell that "one" and "by" feel out of place -- we are still being led on to stronger melodies later on.

I especially like the way the melody of the opening line of the refrain is kept so level and simple in the melody, starting in unison as the harmonies then divide from it, becoming quite full and then coalescing again on a D at the end of "brothers," with only the melody on the F. That simplicity is then topped by the complexity of the last two lines.

Hymns for Missionaries

I was actually surprised as I went through the hymnbook to find out how many specifically missionary-oriented hymns there are. What need is there of the missionary hymns I wrote?

But I read over my texts and think they might still have something to offer, both to composers who might enjoy the challenge of these nontraditional lines, and to missionary singers who might feel that these hymns express feelings that are not otherwise addressed. And there is nothing male about these hymns. They could be sung as easily by women as men, which is not the case with some of our missionary hymns.

However, some may be bothered by the hymn's opening: "We are so few who preach the gospel two by two." After all, aren't we proud of how many fulltime missionaries are now in the field?

But I remember attending (as an Ensign staffer) a meeting of newly called mission presidents, in which one of the Twelve pointed out that while our convert baptisms and our fulltime missionary numbers were both rising very steeply, world population was rising much faster.

In other words, we are falling behind despite our best efforts! By that view, it is perfectly valid for missionaries to lament, "We are so few."

We Are So Few (22)

We are so few
Who preach the gospel two by two,
Who face the stranger at his door.
How can we do more?

Spirit of God,
Burn in our hearts!
All that we need
The Spirit imparts.
Of all good fruits
This is the seed,
The Spirit of God.

We are so weak.
How can we turn the other cheek
To bear the calculated wrong?
How can we be strong?

Spirit ...

We are so young,
From childhood oh so freshly sprung
That ours are undiscerning eyes.
How can we be wise?

Spirit ...

We have such hope
Who struggle up this rugged slope;
If you, along with us, ascend
We will reach the end.

Spirit ...

This is not an anthem, not a song of soldiers marching triumphantly. Instead it attempts to deal with the day-to-day struggle of facing strangers, dealing with rejection, and coping with the missionaries' own youth and ignorance. In other words, this hymn is for missionaries who are feeling a little humbler than usual and plead with the Lord for help and inspiration.

The first three stanzas pose a problem, which is answered in each case by the refrain, which is a plea for the Holy Ghost to come into our hearts and then an expression of gratitude for the gifts the Spirit brings. The fourth stanza is still a recognition of the difficulty of missionary work, but expresses to the Lord the fact that we do not despair, but rather continue on in hope.

The only problem I see is with that word "calculated" in the second stanza. As a poetic line it is exactly right; as a song lyric it would be adequate. But as a hymn text, it just doesn't belong there, partly because it's too ironic and implies a degree of bitterness or anger. (Which missionaries certainly feel sometimes, but must try to suppress.)

More importantly, the "calculated wrong" is not really the hardest to bear. The person who rejects us with malice actually encourages us sometimes, as missionaries -- we feel like we're bearing their hostility for the Lord's sake, and such a tiny does of martyrdom isn't hard to bear.

What really hurts are the people who dismiss us as being unworthy of a backward glance. No hurt intended -- we just aren't worth paying attention to.

So I toyed with a few changes. For instance:

We are so weak.
How can we turn the other cheek
To bear the cold, dismissive wrong?
How can we be strong?

But now the word "wrong" is wrong in the phrase. So I tried again:

We are so weak.
How can we turn the other cheek
To bear the closing of the door?
How can we do more?

Now it's the last line that is inadequate. Using this version of the stanza, I tried a couple of alternate closers:

Why won't they hear more?
Let us offer more!

I even tried the much more specific:

We are so weak.
How can we turn the other cheek
When those we offer and implore
Turn and close the door?

Or perhaps: "Coldly close the door." But "coldly" is a very hard word to sing, because of the "ldl" combination.

And instead of "those we offer and implore," might it be better as "strangers that we came here for"? That avoids the rarely used and arch-feeling word "implore." But it adds a limitation to the song -- now it fits only missionaries serving in a place that is not their home.

But I can live with that. Let's say the last stanza now reads:

We are so weak.
How can we turn the other cheek
When strangers that we came here for
Turn and close the door?

This last approach loses the parallel of each stanza's last line beginning with "How can," but since we lose that in the fourth stanza anyway, maybe it's not such a great loss.

Notice how tentative all this is -- and how flexible. I know what I want to say, but the first approach that comes to mind is not always the best. And even it if is, sometimes you have to try a lot of different ways of saying it before you're sure the first one you came up with is better than the others.

If you're trying to find ways to salvage a good line that lacks a decent rhyme, don't overlook the necessity of a rhyming dictionary. A free one online is by WriteExpress, at http://www.rhymer.com. You don't use it to find weird unusual rhymes -- it's just a reminder of perfectly ordinary words that simply haven't come to mind and might suggest alternate approaches.

Remember, too, that the rhyming dictionary is mechanical. It does not have a human ear. There will be words in the list that do not truly rhyme, just as there are words that pop up in a thesaurus that are not really synonyms -- not even close! You have to trust your own knowledge of the language before the mechanical help of a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary.

Sometimes the rhyming dictionary helps you by showing that there is no adequate rhyme, so you'll know you have to revise your initial line. Of course, I usually start with the second line and then try to find a good rhyme to go with it for the first line.

Thus the original version of the second stanza began with the word "strong" and I searched for a rhyme for that. "Song" was out; "wrong" seemed possible. When I changed the rhyme, though, I began with "door," but made the mistake (perhaps) of putting it in the first position, causing me to end the stanza with the weak word "more." I think it improved greatly when it became "door" at the end of the stanza -- a stronger word, with more of a sense of clinching the stanza rather than petering out, the way "more" made it seem.

Musically, this hymn is challenging primarily because of the short first line and the short lines of the refrain. Yet in the hands of the right composer, those are precisely the features that will make this song memorable and, I hope, uniquely effective.

The greatest danger point for the composer is the fifth line of the refrain, where "Of all good fruits" is iambic, though all the other lines begin with an accented syllable (except those beginning with "the"). An oblivious composer would go ahead and stress the word "of," which would sound awful. A careful one will allow that to be a softer line, with "of" as a pickup to the three equally stressed words "all good fruits," and then return to the first-syllable stress of the line "This is the seed."

Spirit of God,
Burn in our hearts!
All that we need
The Spirit imparts.
Of all good fruits
This is the seed,
The Spirit of God.

Missionaries Plus

Some of the best missionary hymns are nevertheless vague enough (remember, that's a virtue!) that they can be sung by a general congregation. For instance, "Israel, Israel, God is Calling" is spoken entirely to those whom the singers are encouraging to come to Zion. So the singers never identify themselves; there is nothing to say that they have to be fulltime missionaries.

The following hymn achieves a similar generality in a different way. It can be sung by any group of Saints, and while it can be taken to refer to missionary work (references to "harvest" and "servants in the vineyard" can usually be read that way), it can also refer to all the work of the Church.

The Laborer is Worthy (21)

The laborer is worthy of the wages he is paid.
The harvest time is coming and it cannot be delayed.
The servants in the vineyard then will glean the ones who strayed.

Your calling may be humble but your faith is strong and true.
Your speech at times may stammer but the Spirit dwells in you.
O teach me, brother, sister, what the Lord would have me do!

The world confers its honors but those honors fail the test:
The one who would be greatest must be servant to the rest.
It's by the work of all the saints that all the saints are blessed.

The first stanza definitely sounds like a missionary hymn. But the second stanza is a plea to be taught! In truth, it could be taken as the answer that new converts give to the missionaries -- but it is also the attitude that all Saints should always have toward each other, regardless of where we might stand in the church hierarchy.

The third stanza clinches this idea -- that we are all equal in the kingdom of God, and reminds us of the Savior's insistence on humility when he rebuked those who sought high office. Finally, it ends with the finest line I have ever written for a hymn: "It's by the work of all the saints that all the saints are blessed." If I wrote no other line than that in all my hymn writing, I'd be content.

Well, obviously not, since I keep writing them. I guess I'm hoping to hit on a perfect line like that again.

And if it turns out that I unconsciously plagiarized someone else's line, please don't tell me. Let me die with the illusion that I thought of it first.

Musically, a heptameter line works quite easily; it can be set to music in ballad stanzas, with alternating lines of 4 and 3 accents. But because they are written as through lines, the music needs to reflect the sense of a headlong rush to the end of each seven-foot line. Each line, you see, is a complete sentence that stands alone.

In a choir setting, I believe each stanza should modulate, preferably with the modulation beginning with the last syllable of the stanza before. But for the congregational version, of course you would remain in the same key throughout.

A Man Writing for Women?

One of the great myths in our contemporary society is that it's harder for a male writer to write for or about women. I can't understand how such a sexist notion could persist -- after all, women have been writing for and about men for centuries and nobody bats an eye. "Oooh, how remarkable! Jane Austen shows such sensitivity to the male psyche in her creation of the character of Darcy!" Puh-leeeeze.

Still, we live in the world we live in, and it feels like chutzpah for a man to think he could write a song for Relief Society. But I've spent my life observing women -- how they form relationships with each other, and what makes sisterhood work (when it works). So I take the risk of being criticized for "not getting it" and offer this hymn that I hope will serve. After all, "We Meet Again As Sisters" was written by Paul L. Anderson, so I'm not the first to go down this dangerous road.

To the Broken-hearted Home (23)

To the broken-hearted home
Many hands of kindness come.
Loving listeners will hear,
Comfort give for every tear.

See how we are restored,
Made one by faith and love,
All sisters of the Savior,
All daughters of the Lord.

Eagerly we come to learn
Truth that in our hearts will burn,
Light to guide our works and ways,
Through us blessing others' days.

See how ...

Any part we play in life --
Daughter, sister, mother, wife --
These dear friends see how we've grown.
Never need we be alone.

See how ...

Father, all good things we build,
Saints we've served and hearts we've filled,
Children loved and strangers fed:
Have we walked where Jesus led?

See how ...

In writing this I tried to capture what Relief Society means in the lives of the women I've known who have served with their whole hearts. Never is the Relief Society so powerful as when the sisters come to a house of grief, bringing food and kindness and the comfort that comes from their sheer presence. So I began there, in the house of grief, where sisters surround a family with a sense of protection and love.

Only in the second stanza do we come to the Relief Society meeting itself. The women of the Church take the responsibility to teach each other very seriously. They prepare carefully, offer visual aids; to put it bluntly, they make a big deal out of it -- whereas in priesthood meeting, the opposite attitude is usually taken. Men would feel it somehow pretentious if they brought a lot of visual aids, and special decorations would make us feel faintly ridiculous.

Where men pretend that they haven't prepared all that much, so don't expect anything, now here goes nothing, women work hard and let the work show, so that the sisters know they're being taught by someone who has taken great care to offer them her best. I think that should be reflected in the hymn.

(However, I have no intention of writing a hymn for men that says:

If my lesson's dull and numbing
That's because I didn't care.
If next week the Lord were coming,
You can bet I would prepare.)

With the third stanza, I specifically address different roles that women play, and the fact that they are all part of the same community of women in the Church regardless of age or whether they have children or whether they're married at the moment. What matters is that among your sisters, you are known; they see you progress from role to role in life and encourage you all along the way.

And in the fourth verse, I specifically wanted to address the fact that even though Jesus is a man and lived his mortal life in a man's place in society, women are not in any way disfavored in following his admonition to "Come follow me." But you'll notice it is placed there as a question, a self-expectation. The sisters ask the Lord if they are following in Jesus' footsteps.

Notice also that "Children loved" clearly does not have to refer to one's own children. This hymn can be sung with equal aptness by all Relief Society sisters.

Now the sisters reading this -- or perhaps someday singing it -- will have to tell me whether or not I got it right.

A Hymn for Adults to Sing about Children

In the "new" hymnbook we actually got some traditional Primary songs to sing as a whole congregation, including the beautiful and moving "I Am a Child of God" and "Teach Me to Walk in the Light." I wish they'd add another: "My Light Is but a Little One" -- but we can't all have our whole list of favorites. And personally, I vote against including "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree," no matter how fun it is to do the hand motions.

To sing these songs, adults take upon them the memory of their own childhoods, and also express the feelings we have toward the children we are raising or teaching as adults.

But we don't have any hymns that allow us to sing, as adults, what children mean in our lives.

Even though we actually have a church meeting that excludes children, but includes both men and women, we don't have any separate hymns for that situation, I suppose because we normally don't sing at the beginning of gospel doctrine class.

In reality, though, most of the singing done in sacrament meeting is by adults, and the few children who do sing would not be harmed at all by singing a hymn that took the adult part, just as adults are not harmed by singing "I Am a Child of God."

These Little Ones (45)

These little ones are sent to Earth
For us to care for from their birth.
They learn from all we do and say:
To speak, to walk, to love, to pray.

However blessed, however flawed,
These children come to us from God.
Be like a little child, He said,
As home to Father all are led.

These sons are learning to be men:
They run and fall, yet rise again
To serve the Lord in many lands,
With loving hearts and priestly hands.

However blessed ...

These loving daughters, filled with light,
Are lamps, are stars to bless the night --
The stars that children wish upon;
The hand to hold till light of dawn.

However blessed ...

I meant this song to be an answer to a Primary program. All those children jostling their way to the front of the chapel; some boldly singing out, some shyly hanging back, some pretending to be bored because they're now too old to really be part of a kiddie show. Having lived in the same city for three decades, and the same ward for twenty-two years, I know almost every child I see in those programs and in the halls at church, at least by sight, and usually know what family they belong to.

I know which ones are behavior problems in Primary or who can't keep still in sacrament meeting. I know which ones run in the halls and which ones sass their parents. I know these kids aren't "perfect."

But I also know that I love them all, and my eyes fill with tears during those Primary programs, not because I think they're perfect -- good heavens, anybody with a sense of pitch knows they're not! -- but because raising them is the business of life, and in the Church we do nothing more important than helping each other raise our children up to be worthy sons and daughters of God.

So I'm not backing down from the first line of the refrain: "However blessed, however flawed."

Besides, there's another meaning of "flawed" -- for many children come to us flawed in their bodies. I grew up knowing and loving my mentally retarded Aunt Donna, and my wife and I still miss our beloved son Charlie Ben, who spent his seventeen years of mortal life severely limited by cerebral palsy. They came into this world from God, and when I think of their deep and abiding goodness and the gifts they gave the many people who helped them and cared for them and learned from them, I think it's good to have a hymn that specifically includes them.

The second and third stanzas, by speaking separately of boys and girls (and it truly doesn't matter which of the verses is second and which is last), run the risk of being a "frogs and snails and puppy dog tails" vs. "sugar and spice and everything nice" kind of cliche.

And some might take my mention of serving the Lord "in many lands" as an implication that girls can't do that. But in our Church it is expected that all young men will become and remain worthy, and then go on a mission; for young women it's an option, not an expectation. What I tried to write about was each group fulfilling the best expectations of the Church and of the Lord.

Besides, I also don't mention girls falling, though we know that boys aren't the only ones who do that. Not every stanza can say everything.

The girls' stanza alludes to the parable of the virgins by mentioning lamps. But then I run into trouble. I actually love the lines "The stars that children wish upon / The hand to hold till light of dawn," but I'm not sure the superstition of wishing on stars is an appropriate topic for sacrament meeting, even though it works very well as a poetic couplet.

So I have an alternate version of that third verse:

These loving daughters, filled with light,
Are lamps, are stars to bless the night --
The lamp with oil to burn till dawn,
The star you can rely upon.

Here the last two lines elaborate the examples in the second line. Lamps and stars, yes, but which ones? The lamp carried by a wise virgin; the star that sailors can steer by. This is nowhere near as emotional as the original version, but it is doctrinally far more appropriate for sacrament meeting.

And when we sing the last two lines of the refrain, we are reminded that no matter how "adult" we become, Jesus taught us that we should become more like the little children that we see among us during sacrament meeting.

So at the end, the hymn becomes a reminder that we are all children in the eyes of God, and differ only in how far we've traveled on the same road.

Be like a little child, He said,
As home to Father all are led.

#10: Hymns of Atonement

The hymns we sing most often are the sacrament hymns, because taking the sacrament is at the heart of our worship almost every Sunday in the year.

And because each sacrament hymn is designed to prepare us for a holy ritual, the music and the words are designed to quiet our mood and bring us to contemplate the sacrifice of Christ.

Yet, because we're LDS, we aren't looking for hymns that make us sad. The atonement is a joyful event, and Christ's suffering led to the possibility of our salvation. So the music is not somber, and the words are full of hope.

Ultimately, the goal is for the hymn to be sweet, in the best sense of the word. The way the fruit of the tree of life in Lehi's dream was sweet.

Because we sing sacrament hymns so often, there are 29 of them in the hymnbook, starting with "As Now We Take the Sacrament" (169) and ending with "O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown (197). With an average of 48 sacrament meetings a year, that means we could go six months at a time without repeating.

Of course, some of the hymns are more beloved than others. I have never actually heard or sung"O Thou, Before the World Began" (189). I have sung "Again We Meet Around the Board" (186) but it's a jumpy melody that's hard to follow while also reading unfamiliar words. And it cuts out the male voices for fully a quarter of the hymn, which I always resent.

Similar problems with melody make "In Remembrance of Thy Suffering" (183) hard to learn, while "O Lord of Hosts" (178) has the men-don't-need-to-sing-these-words problem.

Personally, I think it should be a rule that no sacrament hymn should cut out half the congregation, ever. We all need to say all the words.

I don't know why I've never heard or sung "Again, Our Dear Redeeming Lord" (179).

In my experience, at least, our sacramental rites begin with the same 23 hymns -- and 21 hymn texts:

"As Now We Take the Sacrament" (169)
"God, Our Father, Hear Us Pray" (170)
"With Humble Heart" (171; rarely sung)
"In Humility, Our Savior" (172)
Two settings of "While of These Emblems We Partake" (173-4)
"O God, the Eternal Father" (175)
Two settings of "'Tis Sweet to Sing the Matchless Love" (176-7)
"Father in Heaven, We Do Believe" (180)
"Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and King" (181)
"We'll Sing All Hail to Jesus' Name" (182)
"Upon the Cross of Calvary" (184)
"Reverently and Meekly Now" (185)
"God Loved Us, So He Sent His Son" (187)
"In Memory of the Crucified" (190)
"Behold the Great Redeemer Die" (191)
"He Died! The Great Redeemer Died" (192; rarely sung)
"I Stand All Amazed" (193)
"There Is a Green Hill Far Away" (194)
"How Great the Wisdom and the Love" (195)
"Jesus, Once of Humble Birth" (196)
"O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown" (197)

If you doubt me, think of how many of these titles (which are invariably the first line of the song) brought a melody to your mind. Most Latter-day Saints probably don't immediately remember the melody of more than fifteen or sixteen of them; no doubt readers of this essay are more likely to be musicians, who are aware of more of them.

This is not a problem to be solved. The very familiarity that comes from repetition of a small set of hymns is part of the comfort and peace that should be in our hearts as we partake of the sacrament.

If we're struggling to follow a jumpy melody, or have to watch closely to notice when we're supposed to stop singing, we're not preparing for the sacrament, are we?

Some of the sacrament hymns are musically very interesting without being difficult; and composers and arrangers of the music include such luminaries as Bach, Mendelssohn, and Meyerbeer, such stalwart hymnodists as Careless, Beesley, and Gabriel, and LDS greats like Alexander Schreiner, Leroy Robertson, and Robert Manookin.

Some of the hymns mention taking the bread and water; some don't. Some are in third person, some in second person, and some in first person. "I Stand All Amazed" is downright passionate; "There Is a Green Hill Far Away" ends with a call to action. The hymns can be quite different from each other, and still be part of the sacrament service.

The only rule that is consistent among all the hymns is that they are about the sacrifice of Christ and what the atonement means to us who sing the hymn. And the only constant among the popular sacrament hymns is that they are easily singable on first hearing.

Is there any room for more sacrament hymns? Of course. While most of these hymns are rather old, some were written in the last fifty years -- which for a hymn is downright modern.

At the same time, there is also room for more hymns that touch on the core theme of Christ's atonement, but then go in a direction that does not lead specifically to taking the sacrament.

Bread of Life and Living Water (19)

Bread of life and living water,
Passing now from hand to hand,
Will unite each son and daughter
In the path their Father planned.

As we take the sacred token
Of the Shepherd who was slain,
All our hearts are newly broken
For our part in Jesus' pain.

All our sins can be forgiven
By the giver of the gift,
Master of all earth and heaven:
He will span that hopeless rift.

Look with love at one another:
None are strangers in this place.
Every sister, every brother
Has come home through Jesus' grace.

This hymn starts with the sacrament, as if the trays were being passed while we sing. Of course this is not the pattern that we follow, but I doubt the congregation will be troubled by such an obvious anticipation. The idea is that this hymn shows the pattern of what we should think about during the sacrament itself.

What the hymn asks the congregation to think of while taking the sacrament is, first, that they are sons and daughters of God, brought together according to his plan. Then they should have a keen awareness of their own sins, for which Christ suffered. Third comes the realization that the seemingly hopeless rift between sinners and their Father in heaven can be bridged by Christ.

Finally, the hymn asks the singers to look at their neighbors in the congregation and remember that in partaking of the sacrament we can't be strangers to each other; we are all prodigals returning home to a forgiving Father.

It is that last turn of thought that this hymn exists for. I don't think any other in the hymnbook has such a clear reminder that we do not take the sacrament alone, and that all of us are equal before the Lord. To me, this idea is very important -- just like the fact that in the temple, all of us participating in the ceremony are dressed in identical clothing, so that there is no rich or poor in the temple congregation.

(This is why I wish we could do away with having the presiding officer at the meeting always receive the sacrament first; it troubles me that the custom has arisen for any individual, no matter how lofty his office, to have primacy in the symbolic reenactment of the atonement of Christ, the one time in our church lives when we should surely be completely equal.)

The next hymn starts with the same idea -- our fellowship as Saints -- and moves backward through the same storyline, always seeing the atonement through that lens.

The hymn presents a few challenges to the composer. If the first two syllables of the last line of each stanza are pickup notes, with the downbeat of the next measure on the third syllable, then they scan perfectly.

But if the downbeat of a measure falls on the first syllable, we have a problem, because in the last stanza ("Has come home through Jesus' grace"), to have the word "has" be accented actually changes the meaning and tone of the line -- as if someone had just said that he has not come home.

One solution is not to put a downbeat on the first syllable. Another is to revise the line:

Every sister, every brother
Welcomes you to Jesus' grace.


Every sister, every brother
Knows the joy of Jesus' grace.

I prefer the original version, of course. But if a hymn's musical setting demands a change (remember "Yoo-hoo unto Jesus"!), then you make the change.

Here's another hymn that might be suitable for the sacrament:

We Gather Here As Loving Friends (14)

We gather here as loving friends.
For harm we caused, we make amends.
All wrongs we suffered, we forgive.
Our Savior showed us how to live.

As strangers once we walked alone,
Till He said, Come and follow me.
The wanderers he made his own
Are sisters, brothers now to me.

Together in the Savior's name
We drink this water, eat this bread;
Before the Lord we are the same:
All ransomed by the blood he shed.

O Lord, we want to be thy saints,
To help each other learn and grow,
To share the burdens life presents,
To witness of the truth we know.

This may well have moved beyond the purpose of a sacrament hymn and might serve better as the opening song for sacrament meeting. Just because it mentions the bread and water does not mean that it can only be sung directly before the sacrament is blessed and passed.

Everything depends on the music. If it has that sweet quality I referred to, then it could be a sacrament hymn. But it would not be inappropriate for it to be more cheerful and sprightly, in which case it could begin or end the meeting.

The composer would need to make sure there was a clear stop after the first line. This is vital, because if the first two lines of the first stanza are sung without a clear division between them, the meaning is absurdly changed: "We gather here as loving friends for harm we caused." We need to feel the period after the word "friends"!

The next hymn is about Christ and includes the atonement, and could be a sacrament hymn. But it is not about taking the sacrament (neither are "I Stand All Amazed" and "Upon the Cross of Calvary").

Morning Hymn (9)

Will this morning show the way
That leads us from this dreary scene
To him who knows our hidden worth,
Whose blood can make us clean?

Will this evening when we pray
Be joyful at the good we've done
For love of him whose mortal birth
And death have made us one?

Will tomorrow be the day
When in a glorious burst of light
The Savior comes again to Earth
To end the reign of night?

Even though we would sing this hymn in church meetings, it really represents things we might pray when we first get up in the morning on any day, not just Sunday.

And the third stanza takes us from morning and evening of this particular day to the longing for the day of the coming of the Lord ... which could come at any time ("as a thief in the night").

Grammarians will whimper at having "evening" be the subject of the verb phrase "be joyful" in the second stanza. But a person of good will should have no trouble instantly grasping the meaning: We are asking if the evening will be a joyful occasion because of the good we've done. (There must be a few allowances for the exigencies of form.)

The last of my atonement hymns would only work as a sacrament hymn if it was given exactly the right setting. Why? Because it is cast as a dialogue between a sinner (the ordinary Church member) and the Savior. In the first half of each stanza, the sinner asks a question; in the second half, the Savior answers.

Sinner's Hymn (18)

Of thy glories, my Redeemer,
What is sweetest in thy sight?
Is it your place by Father's throne?
The kingdoms he has made your own?
    These are sweet, says my Redeemer.
    Sweeter still shall yet be shown
    When sorrow brings your sins to light:
    Repent, my friend; I shall atone.

Of thy suffering, O Savior,
What was heaviest to bear?
The splintered cross? The piercing thorn?
The savage nail? The bitter scorn?
    None of these, replies my Savior.
    Sharpest of the pains I've borne
    Is how you sin and do not care,
    With all your covenants forsworn.

See my sins, beloved Brother,
All the misery I've spread,
The cruel, lying words I've said --
I can't repay, my hope is dead.
    All these sins, replies my Brother,
    I have named with tears I've shed.
    I've paid the price to set you free.
    My name is yours now: Come to me.

Because this hymn is essentially dramatic (i.e., it is dialogue, not narrative or monologue), it would be one of the most unusual hymns in the hymnbook. I almost put it in the category of "church music that can't be hymns."

What turned the tide for me was hearing what composer Mark Mitchell did with these words. In an email, he said of the text: "It reminds me of a French carol, with the question-response form."

Since my idea of a French carol is "The First Noel" or "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," I have no idea what he's talking about. But I don't have to -- he's the composer, not me. The Question portion of the hymn he set in a minor key, saying, "I think we could use a few more hymns in minor, and this one seemed a good candidate."

For the Response, the obvious move would be to return to a major key; instead, he goes to a different mode entirely, neither major or minor, "to give it a different flavor from the question section -- a little mysterious.

You might look at the sheet music in the printed book, or listen to the MP3.

In Mitchell's version, he changed the last line of the hymn from "My name is yours now: Come to me" to "My name's now yours: Come unto me." Why?

"The original doesn't seem to fit with this melody quite right," he says, "which sometimes happens and is impossible to foresee without the tune being written before the words."

That is the kind of thing that composer and lyricist always have to negotiate back and forth. For me, as a singer, I can't tell what he thinks wasn't "quite right" with the words as they originally were; I think they fit the music perfectly well. And the revision negates a choice I deliberately made, which was not to use the phrase "Come unto me."

The voice of the Savior in this hymn is not "biblical" (though I do use the word "forsworn," which has a 17th-century feeling to it). The fact that I used the contraction "I've" reflects the decision to let the Savior speak in contemporary English. Mitchell's revision adds another contraction -- "name's" for "name is" -- but it's a nonce contraction, not a standard one like "I've," and it feels contrived to me.

And I really think it's a mistake to put the strong word "come" on a couple of pickup eighth notes and the first syllable of the mere preposition "unto" on the strong accented downbeat of the third ending.

I'm hoping that in negotiations between the two of us about that last line, his slight feeling of discomfort with the original line will be trumped by my very strong aversion to the awkwardness of the revised one.

At the same time, I was embarrassed to see what he had to do with the beginning of the third line of the Question -- the difference between the first stanza, where "Is it your place" has the first syllable on the downbeat, and the other stanzas, where the first syllable is a pickup note with the second syllable accented.

Despite my having known that the lines had to follow exactly the same pattern of accents from stanza to stanza, somehow this one slipped past me.

Here is a place where I definitely want to rewrite the offending line to make it scan properly and avoid the need for having the stanzas' music be different. The new line could be, for instance, "Your place beside our Father's throne?" The Question in the first stanza would thus be:

Of thy glories, my Redeemer,
What is sweetest in thy sight?
Your place beside our Father's throne?
The kingdoms he has made your own?

This actually increases the contemporary feeling by removing the verb from a fragmentary continuation of a question (perfectly acceptable even in formal spoken English). So no harm is done to the text, while the music remains uncompromised -- all the notes are sung every time.

I think that Mitchell's music is quite successful in transforming an iffy text into an unusual but compelling hymn. I believe congregations might very well come to value this hymn because of its mystery.

Could this be a sacrament hymn? The music certainly achieves the necessary "sweetness." It is absolutely about the atonement. And when you consider that in the sacrament prayer, the priest speaks of the communicants' purpose "that they do always remember him, that they may have his spirit to be with them," this hymn's dialogue between communicant and Christ suggests what it might feel like to "have his [Christ's] spirit" be with us.

There is no need for any kind of revolution in sacrament hymns! But there is also no need for hymns that cover exactly the same ground as the sacrament hymns we already have. Not every attempt to find something new to offer to the sacrament service will be acceptable. But I think the attempt is worth making.

Back to an Old Theme

That's really the end of my treatment of this essay's topic. But in Essay 6: Topical Hymns, I broached the subject of hymns about gossip. After pointing out the inadequacy of all the current hymnbook's attempts at dealing with this important topic, I set out to deal with other topics, but treated gossip only with a joke.

I realized in church a couple of weeks ago that I had given myself a challenge and I would be a slacker if I didn't make a serious attempt at a hymn about gossip. But in writing it, I tried to follow my own advice about how to do it properly:

There Is No Secret (48)

There is no secret from the Lord,
No place where sin can hide.
The Lord will see us perfectly.
The door is open wide.

In vain did Cain deny his deed;
And why did Jonah flee?
Whom God has bound is quickly found,
Though buried in the sea.

Nor does he need our lips to tell
When others break his law.
God does not bless those who confess
Their neighbor's secret flaw.

His love is pure, his vision sure:
Our hidden heart is known.
Oh let him in, forsake thy sin,
And be no more alone.

There is humor in this hymn, or at least a lightness of tone. It is created by the content (the reminder of Jonah's story), the tone (the irony of "God does not bless those who confess their neighbor's secret flaw), and even the form: The internal rhyme in the third line of each stanza actually suggests the limerick. There are also nonce rhymes in odd places: vain/Cain, pure/sure.

Notice, though, that this is a "gossip" hymn only by indirection. The main thrust of the hymn is that we are all utterly known by God. We have no secrets from him, and if we welcome and affirm his vision of our hearts by repentance and confession, we can have his companionship -- "be no more alone."

But in the third stanza comes the reminder that since God already knows our neighbors' sins, it is redundant for us to point them out. The only hint of punishment is "God does not bless" gossipers.

Still, the message is there, and it's offered with humor, so it might actually be received by the people who most need to hear it.

Composing music for this hymn would be a challenge. Certainly it can't have any of the solemnity of a sacrament hymn; but it's not a rousing, enthusiastic hymn like "There Is Sunshine," either. The music can't in any way hint that there's something menacing in the phrase "There is no secret from the Lord." It needs to feel simple and declarative.

Since the rhyme and rhythm exactly fit the music to "There Is a Green Hill Far Away," you can try singing it to that music and see how it feels. If you sing it quickly enough -- which changes the tone of the music! -- it's not a bad fit until the last line, where the music is too "down" -- too contemplative -- for the words.

I wrote this hymn so recently that I have had no chance to reflect on it and decide whether I even like it myself. But I'm afflicted with the habit of taking up my own challenges. Whenever I tell writing students that some particular choice is a mistake or a flaw or "doesn't work," I then feel compelled to write something that will prove that I was wrong, or at least that exceptions are possible.

(This is why I once wrote a story in first-person present tense, narrated by someone who had just committed suicide, thus violating three "rules" I had strongly told to a class at Elon College only the day before.)

So if this hymn is a bad one, please remember that I never set myself up as someone who knows how to write good hymns -- just as someone who wants to, and is trying to figure out what a good hymn is made of.

Let me close this essay with a first-person hymn as quirky and private-seeming as "I Stand All Amazed," though it would serve far better to open or close a testimony meeting than as a sacrament hymn. Notice that it includes the idea of sin and repentance without specifying the sin. And within it are references to the vital doctrine of "first estate" and "second estate" from Abraham 3:26, and to rituals that endowed members will particularly recognize, but which still have meaning to everyone.

I Will Wait (94)

I lose my way, in darkness grope.
I fear I will arrive too late.
Then in my heart, the voice of hope:
"If you are coming, I will wait."

One time I chose the Holy One
And so received a rich estate.
Now weary, journey nearly done
I trust that promise: "I will wait."

Once somehow I forgot my vow;
I turned, although the road was straight.
Where is the path? Where am I now?
"Come back," he whispers. "I will wait."

Whose hand is this, that takes my hand?
Who draws me through the narrow gate?
Who speaks my name, and makes me new?
The one who promised, "I will wait."

#11: Christmas Hymns

There are many kinds of Christmas songs, because there are many aspects to Christmas. What we can sing in sacrament meeting is only a small part of the music of the Christmas season.

There are those who deplore the secularization of the public celebration of the holidays (just as there are those outside the Church who resent the fact that Christian elements remain within it!). I believe that it's a wonderful thing when a Christian holiday is so deeply embedded in the surrounding culture that it drives retail sales for the whole year and calls forth all kinds of positive feelings and attitudes and ideas.

Secular Christmas Songs

Of course "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" is a celebration devoid of any thought of Christ. That hardly makes it sinful -- merely incomplete.

And the Santa-centered children's songs -- "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Up on the Housetop," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" -- wouldn't it be silly for someone to try to ban these because they're not about the baby Jesus?

I mean, if you want to be a real stickler about it, you'd adopt the position of the old Puritans who thought Christmas was a ridiculous holiday even from a religious point of view. What did Jesus' birth have to do with anything? Only the atonement and resurrection mattered; Easter is the legitimate holiday, Christmas a pagan festival with the birthday of Jesus pasted over it in order to allow it to continue within a Christian society.

I'm not worried about historical arguments, and I have little patience with purists who insist that we can do only one good thing at a time.

Christmas Nostalgia

It's partly the emphasis on Santa Claus that makes Christmas a holiday centered around children; and it's because of that that most people (in cultures closely tied to England, anyway) grow up with a deeply nostalgic attitude toward Christmas.

As a result, we have all kinds of nostalgia songs that evoke idealized Christmas rituals that few people ever really experience, not in their entirety, anyway. "White Christmas" -- I haven't had a white Christmas since 1981 in South Bend, Indiana. And when I first learned that song, I lived in Santa Clara, California, where the only way your lawn looks white is if you really let the dandelions go.

But then, the whole point of "White Christmas" is that you have to dream about it -- you don't actually have it. Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song" -- you know, the one that begins "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" -- is likewise designed to make us think of things few of us have done. Have you ever roasted chestnuts on an open fire? Me neither.

On my mission in Brazil, I was serving as mission printer (an office few missions bother with, but we did a lot of handouts) during the months leading up to Christmas. It was a lonely calling; through most of my working days I sat at a typewriter and wrote copy for mission publications while playing Christmas music.

That's where I first learned to love Handel's Messiah, through a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's performance of the choruses. (Though I struggled not to laugh at "We like sheep"; the phrase "All we, like sheep, have gone astray" didn't come through as clearly as I think they intended.)

But let's face it, I longed for my family. Christmas was the center of the year for us, and I sang my way into and out of tears with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Home for the Holidays" and, of course, that heartbreaking clincher from World War II: "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

Not Christmas at All

Then there are the songs that are only considered Christmas tunes by custom. What in the world does "Frosty the Snowman" have to do with any aspect of Christmas? And let's not even get started on "Jingle Bells."

Songs like "Winter Wonderland," "Blue Christmas," and "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" are seasonal adaptations of the year-round musical theme of love, love, love. Which isn't anti-Christmas, but doesn't exactly bring one's thoughts to spiritual matters.

Still, the sheer variety of music associated with the Christmas season speaks of its importance in American life -- which grew out of its importance in English life.

After all, Christmas had been so important in England, even before Charles Dickens made Scrooge its secular emblem, that the Puritans made it one of their prime targets, abolishing the appalling celebration of Christmas with its feasts and wassails and gift-giving that had nothing to do with Christ, who was most certainly born at some other time of year and whose greatness had nothing to do with his birth, which after all happens to everybody in the world.

While the Puritans ruled in England under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, Christmas was definitely suppressed; and, when the monarchy was restored, so was the Christmas holiday. It's hard to know which of the two restorations thrilled the English people more. One might be persuaded that they could do without their king more easily than their Christmas.

And in America, we made it stick.

Sacred Music for a Holy Day

The existence of the secular and romantic and nostalgic and comic and childish sides of Christmas has not stifled or replaced the holiness of the celebration, however. In Christian churches throughout the world, the Savior's life is celebrated with a holiday marking its beginning. Who cares if the actual date is wrong? We've picked a day, all of Christendom, when we remember the hopeful beginning.

As the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ showed, it can be dismal indeed to think about the last hours of Christ's life. In a way, we remember the ultimate impact of his mission on earth more faithfully in a Christmas celebration: A birth presaging a new birth for all of us. Of course we keep Easter, and remember the sacrifice; but it is not inappropriate to remember the rejoicing of angels (and of parents!) as the Savior came into the world as that most hopeful of figures: an infant.

As a child I wondered why we had only a handful of Easter hymns -- the most popular being "He Is Risen" (199) and "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" (200) -- while Christmas is celebrated in our sacrament meetings with fifteen hymns.

My father told me at the time I first asked that this was because every sacrament song was, in fact, an Easter hymn -- and that's true. But they aren't uniquely Easter hymns; after all, sacrament songs also, by implication, could be said to commemorate the true meaning of Christmas, as well.

Easter is a solemn occasion (which is why, in our house, the fun of Easter baskets is confined to Saturday, and on the Sabbath there are no imaginary bunnies scampering across our floor. [That's right, I'm open-minded and tolerant about Christmas, and a real prig about Easter. So sue me]).

We want the Christmas season to last as long in our church meetings as it does in our shopping malls -- not a bad idea! And that requires that we have enough hymns to avoid repeating ourselves.

Which suggests that there's room for more.

Now, for choirs there is no shortage of Christmas music. The Messiah is beyond the reach of most ward choirs (though in the choir where I learned serious singing, Margaret Brown's marvelous choir in the old Orem 31st Ward, we did Handel proud). There are also Christmas cantatas of varying quality produced by LDS composers. Most usually have one or two good songs, and the rest are at best filler, but that's almost inevitable.

Unfortunately, cantatas don't go through the rigorous procedure that musical comedies do, where out-of-town tryouts show which songs are stinkers so the showmakers can jettison them, replacing them with different songs that serve a different purpose. Instead, the filler stays with the cantata to the bitter end.

There are composers who, with or without sacred intent, have greatly added to the repertoire of music available for church performance, though not always for sacrament meeting. The Alfred Burt carols and John Rutter's bright and ethereal Christmas songs come to mind.

Those written by non-Mormons, however, inevitably reflect doctrinal ideas that don't sit well with an LDS congregation. There are words in choir versions of "O Come All Ye Faithful" that were omitted from our hymnbook for good reason. ("Lo, he abhorred not the Virgin's womb" doesn't come easily to Mormon lips.)

That's why W.W. Phelps gets credit for altering Isaac Watts's text to "Joy to the World" for the version we have in our hymnbook. And the only Latin we stick with is "Gloria in excelsis Deo," which, though it means "Glory to God in the highest," strikes most Mormons as nonsense syllables, like "Fa-la-la-la-la, la la la la."

What's interesting is the great variety of intent within the songs we have. We associate them all with Christmas, but "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" actually has the Second Coming as its climax. Yes, the glorious old song was sung by the angels on Christmas Eve, but that was just prelude to "when the new heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace their King."

And "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is actually a very personal, reflective bit of verse, where the writer (Phillips Brooks) pointed out that the streets of Bethlehem don't ring with rejoicing because Christ was born there; and that the real miracle now is how Christ reenters the world "where meek souls will receive him."

Doctrinally, we put up with many elements that we view as metaphor or tradition. In "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," nobody supposes that Christ has wings, though we sing "ris'n with healing in his wings."

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" has a storylike movement: The speaker is someone who can't rejoice on Christmas because war is raging and the words "peace on earth" seem to be a mockery. It is only the promise of a positive outcome that makes the present state of the world bearable to him. Personally, I've never had that particular feeling, so the song doesn't really speak to me. But when I remember that it arose out of the strained era of the American Civil War, I can understand the hymn and appreciate its inclusion in the hymnbook. (And the more recent musical setting by Casting Crowns is much more powerful than the hymnbook version.)

Fourteen Christmas songs in our hymnbook, and a scattering of additional choir songs that are growing in familiarity. Is there room for more?

Of course. The question is, have we anything more to say? No need, I think, for another hymn that treads on the territory that existing hymns cover well. We have "O Little Town of Bethlehem"; does that mean we need a hymn about Nazareth, too, since that's where he spend his boyhood? Do we need a really good Wise Men hymn (since "We Three Kings" has never caught on as a sacrament meeting text)?

A New Hymn for Christmas

Naturally, I wouldn't be writing an essay about Christmas songs if I didn't have my own attempt to show you. But I must confess that I wasn't drawn to writing Christmas songs until I was actually writing this column.

That's because for many years -- since college, actually -- my dear friend and longtime collaborator, Robert Stoddard, has had a tradition of writing a new Christmas song each year to share with family and friends. A few years ago he collected them in an album called December Tales, with full orchestration, and with John Huntington, another college friend and a well-known singer and voice teacher in southern California, doing the vocals.

Robert's album covers the whole range of Christmas possibilities -- the romantic song (between husband and wife), a sprightly song about ornaments, a song for children called "The Tiniest Star," a song sung to a parent's own infant, "I Cradle You Close," and a song in which the manger is taken metaphorically as a symbol of where all Saints come together to become one.

These songs are musically wonderful and lyrically moving and memorable. They are also so very good that I felt no need to write songs of my own. My one early attempt ("This Is the Night") seemed feeble even to me, compared to Robert's work. So when, a few years ago, I thought of a Christmas lyric, instead of writing the song myself I sent it on to Robert, offering it to him in case he wanted to use it. The result was the title track of his album; and I was through with any need to write Christmas songs.

But none of Robert's songs was actually a hymn designed for sacrament meeting. So in preparing for this column, I searched for a theme to develop so I could show a Christmas hymn text -- good or bad -- in this essay. Here is the result:

Christmas Hymn (49)

He could have come like lightning,
Justice bright with ire,
Wonderful and fright'ning --
All would see him and admire.
    Instead he chose a stable.
    Starlight was his fire.
    Cattle shared his table.
    Only shepherds heard the choir.

His gentle mother bore him,
Nursed him when he cried,
Ever watched out for him,
Was his comfort and his guide.
    That seemed to be his story:
    Neither wealth nor pride.
    Who beheld his glory
    As the Son was sanctified?

He opened up the prison,
Broke the gates of hell.
Jesus had arisen!
All creation had to tell!
    Now set aside your mourning:
    Sing your glad noel!
    This is Christmas morning!
    Rise and ring the Christmas bell!

It's a simple enough concept -- I wanted a hymn that absolutely tied Christmas and Easter into a single song. The final stanza does that. We're to sing noel and ring the Christmas bell precisely because Christ rose from the dead and broke the gates of hell. That is ultimately the Christmas message -- that is the good news.

When I showed an early version of this text to Mark Mitchell, he came back with a simple but effective tune -- and suggestions.

For instance, where the first stanza now has the word wonderful, I originally had written dazzling -- because I wanted to have a word that was less vague than wonderful and that included the idea of light from the original simile of lightning.

The trouble, as Mark pointed out, was that when sung to music that would work for the other two stanzas, the word dazzling had to be broken into three syllables.

Well, why not? That's how most of us pronounce it. That is, we don't really say "daz-ling"; we turn the letter L into a syllable of its own: "daz-ul-ling." But it's awkward to divide it under the notes -- "daz-zl-ing" is correct but unattractive -- and in fact a schwa is hard to sing convincingly.

So I changed "justice hot with ire" in the second line to "bright with ire," so I still had a word reminding us of the light of lightning, and then put the more singable wonderful in pace of dazzling.

The third stanza caused more problems. Mark didn't like the repetition of Christmas in the last two lines of the song; to him it felt as if I had run out of words. Why should both the morning and the bells be modified by the same adjective? And I was unhappy with using homophones for the rhyme words: mourning and morning. (Some people claim to pronounce them differently, but it's as subtle as the real but barely perceptible differences in the pronunciations of Mary, merry, and marry.)

At first I resolved to stick with the third stanza as I had it. But then, just the night before writing this essay, a phrase came into my mind: Where I had "this is Christmas morning" I should instead say, "Born is Life Eternal, Rise and ring the Christmas bell!" The alliteration of born and bell would give me the repetition I wanted, and I loved the idea of using Life Eternal as a name for Christ.

It would also get rid of that morning/mourning rhyme.

The trouble was, the list of rhymes with eternal is very short and doesn't lend itself to ebullient lyrics. So I had to resort to the lyricists bag of tricks to make it work.

    Today we join the angel,
    Sing that glad noel:
    Born is Life Eternal!
    Rise and ring the Christmas bell!

As anyone can see, angel and eternal don't rhyme -- not properly, not on the accented syllables. But angel does contain the nasal of the N in eternal, and because they're separated by a line, it is, as they say, good enough. (But maybe I only think that because I listen to so much country music, where slant rhymes and false-consonant rhymes abound.)

I'm content with either ending -- neither is perfect, but both deliver the message I wanted.

In addition, Mark pointed out a real problem with the song that made it a challenge for a composer. It's the problem posed by any song -- for instance, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" -- in which the stanzas move us through a series of different emotions. Just as in "Bells," there are stanzas where the same musical moment is sometimes depressed and sometimes rejoicing, my original had posed some challenges.

In the draft I first showed him, the second stanza ended quite darkly:

    Who beheld his glory
    On the dreadful day he died?

There was simply no rational way for a composer to write a melody and harmony that would express that sentiment and then work well for the words "This is Christmas morning, rise and ring the Christmas bell" in the next stanza! As with "I Heard the Bells," he had no choice but to write for the happy climax and let the darker words fend for themselves.

But that's when it's the lyricist's job to adapt. In writing my original, I was still thinking like a poet, flowing with the idea I wanted to convey and without regard, beyond syllable count, for the music. Now that I had Mark's melody, I could recast the line about Jesus' death and replace it with the much brighter "Who beheld his glory as the Son was sanctified?"

I didn't lose anything by changing the words to meet the needs of the music -- I gained. I still referred to Jesus' sacrifice, but did it in a positive way; and I was able to name him as "the Son" and gain the alliteration of Son/sanctified. And Mark didn't have to deal with the word "died" in the same position that would hold the word "bell" in the next stanza.

Going All the Way to Easter

It also occurred to me that in bringing Christmas and Easter together in one Christmas hymn, couldn't I also bring them together in an Easter hymn?

Of course nobody would feel good about ending an Easter hymn with an injunction to ring a Christmas bell! So I need a new final stanza:

He opened up the prison,
Broke the gates of hell.
Jesus has arisen!
With the Father all can dwell!
    So set aside your grieving:
    Christ will raise this shell,
    All our sins reprieving,
    Pardoned by Emmanuel.

The first three lines are almost the same (though had becomes has); but "All creation had to tell" was jettisoned in order to stress, not the "breaking news" aspect of the story, but the practical result, that we might live with our Father in Heaven. (I also had some notion of needing the word tell as a rhyme word in the new version of the second half of the stanza; false alarm, but I liked "all can dwell" well enough that I left that change in place.

The real challenge was assembling an Easter message out of the last two lines, where I had rhymed "noel" and "bell." Because each stanza used a single rhyme for all the even-numbered lines -- requiring four rhyme words instead of the usual two -- I was already stretching the limits of the English language.

And now, between the two versions of the last stanza, I would end up with seven words on the same rhyme! (Hell, tell, noel, and bell in the Christmas version; hell again, then dwell, and -- after much striving -- shell and Emmanuel in the Easter version.)

The word that strains here is shell. It's a good poetic metaphor for the human body temporarily discarded in death, but raised in the resurrection; but I had no room to explain it. I therefore required that the audience grasp the metaphor. But I think everyone will, and on first hearing, too. Instead of a difficulty, it may be one of the more pleasant ideas in the song.

So imagine this hymn coming right between "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today" and "Joy to the World" in the hymnbook. While it shows the Christmas verses, all in a row, the Easter stanza is offered with a notation that it is to be sung in place of the third stanza when the hymn is sung outside of the Christmas season.

Of course, during the same week I also came up with what I think is a dynamite country song for the Christmas season. But since there's no way that a song that uses the image of toy trains around the Christmas tree will ever end up being sung in sacrament meeting, I'll spare you that lyric.

#12: Practical Hymns

Mabel Jones Gabbott was one of the great poets and hymnists in the LDS Church. It is unfortunate that among the ordinary membership of the Church her name is relatively unknown, but because she was not one of the heroic pioneers of the Restoration like Eliza R. Snow and William Clayton, and no grand stories attach to any of her hymns, she is more easily overlooked.

But we do know and love her hymns -- and some of us well remember her poems.

When I was young, my mother saw how my position in the family sometimes frustrated me. I was four years younger than my older brother, and so I saw him and my older sister get privileges I wanted but was not, in my parents' judgment, ready for. At the same time, my younger siblings got special consideration because their needs were greater. Like most middle children, I saw only the advantages that others had, not the fact that to the older ones, I was one of the coddled youngsters, and at the same time the younger ones were as envious of my privileges as I was of those before me.

My mother found a poem and typed it up and framed it for me. It was by Mabel Jones Gabbott, and quoting as best I can from memory, it said:

The way will not be always silk and song
For you, my second son, the one in the middle.
Ahead the first ones freely stride along,
And those behind are sheltered, being little.

But in the middle of the world are those
Whose stride is tempered, those who cannot walk
Apart, because the needs of others close
Upon them, to measure both their step and talk.

... the way,
And being limited, will learn to grow,
And in the middle of the night to pray
Perhaps, and only you will come to know

The deep harmonious tuning of life's strings
That being in the middle always brings.

I'm sorry that the one line has utterly dropped from memory; that I cannot at this moment lay hands on the framed poem (though I know where I thought I had put it, and it is certainly somewhere in this overstuffed house). No doubt there are errors in the parts I do remember.

[The online archive of The Relief Society Magazine has the full text. The third stanza begins: "So they, like you, will learn to give and sway,/ And being flexible will learn to grow --"]

This is one of the few poems I have memorized even to this faulty degree. (The words "tlot- tlot, tlot-tlot" from "The Highwayman" don't really add up to much.) And the poem stuck with me so well for three reasons:

First, it came to me as a gift from my mother, recognizing some of the frustrations of my place in the family.

Second, it showed me that a poet had actually thought of me -- or someone like me -- and had taken the time to create a poem to comfort and inspire me.

Third, the poem itself was well constructed, and as I came to know the sonnet form and how difficult it is to compress any sort of complicated thought into so few metered lines and apt words and phrases, I realized that these seemingly simple and direct sentences were marvelously constructed, far more powerful because of the semi-hidden rhythms and rhymes.

There was once a lively culture of LDS poetry, especially among women, who had The Relief Society Magazine as a means of sharing their best poems. My grandmother, Clara Horne Park, was published there from time to time, and I remember my mother's pride in her mother's talents -- though my grandmother herself never spoke of this or any other talent that she had. It would have seemed vain to her, I suppose.

It was an era in LDS poetry that ignored the trends in the world outside -- to the benefit of our poetry, I must say, since directness of communication has long been held in dispraise by the disciples of elitists and obscurantists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. It was Robert Frost who last, among those esteemed by the world to be great, mastered and used both form and clarity. When that tradition faded away, so did the love of the public for poetry.

The result is that Gabbott, whose works should long since have been collected into an important volume of LDS poetry, has been left to languish.

Except in our hymnbook, where her "In Humility, Our Savior" is one of our favorite sacrament hymns. Musically and lyrically, it may well be the most beautifully appropriate of all our hymns for the task it was created for.

Oddly enough, though, this is the one sacrament hymn that is usually too short. Since we sing the hymns while the priests break the bread for the sacrament, the hymn should be long enough to allow time for all the bread to be broken. When the hymn does not last long enough, the organist will usually keep repeating it until the job is done. But that always feels as though something has gone wrong; it takes our minds off repentance of our sins and the atonement of Christ.

Is it possible to add another stanza?

The quick answer is, no! What an outrageous idea! What Gabbott wrote was in fact a standard four-stanza hymn text:

In humility, our Savior,
Grant thy Spirit here, we pray,
As we bless the bread and water
In thy name this holy day.

Let me not forget, O Savior,
Thou didst bleed and die for me
When thy heart was stilled and broken
On the cross at Calvary.

Fill our hearts with sweet forgiving;
Teach us tolerance and love.
Let our prayers find access to thee
In thy holy courts above.

Then, when we have proven worthy
Of thy sacrifice divine,
Lord, let us regain thy presence;
Let thy glory round us shine.

Only when it was combined with Rowland H. Prichard's pre-existing music did the four stanzas become only two. Since all the words are there, and the hymn text is the standard length, the hymn should not run short. Why does it?

The music and words invite us to sing it at a conversational pace. Gabbott's words are never pompous; as with the sonnet of hers that my mother gave me, her exquisite artfulness is so well-concealed that her words seem as natural as ordinary speech -- even with the perfectly parsed second person singular of "Thou didst."

The only conceivable weakness of the hymn is when in the second stanza (as written), she changes from first person plural to first person singular -- from "we pray" to "Let me not forget." This was made necessary when she decided to rhyme "me" with "Calvary" -- and there's really nothing wrong with such a minor inconsistency. Taking the sacrament is at once a group rite and a completely private covenant.

Her hymn text is thus complete, taking us from this shared ritual here in sacrament meeting, through personal repentance, then a group prayer for the saints to be united in love and prayer, and concluding with the promise of exaltation in the presence of Christ.

What more could possibly be added? And what hymnist would be reckless enough to try to add something to Gabbott's perfect text?

Me. But only if you understand that I am not seeking to improve a perfect hymn; I am only offering to improve an imperfect sacrament meeting experience: an optional third stanza (or, technically, fifth and sixth), for when the bread-breaking outlasts the hymn-singing.

Additional stanza(s) (51)

At thy feet we rest, O Savior.
Here we listen to thy word,
Taught by thy beloved servants:
Let our lives show they were heard.

In thy house our eyes are opened;
By thy light we learn to see;
Rising up, we find our burdens
Light, for they are borne by thee.

Since Gabbott's original text takes us through our return to the presence of Christ, what this additional stanza does is return us to the meeting where we're taking the sacrament. Still speaking to the Savior, we recognize that we have gathered here to be taught by his appointed servants; then we recognize that we are in the Savior's house, what we are taught is his gospel, and the true comfort we receive is the lightening of our burdens when the Lord bears them for us.

Morning Songs

Sacrament hymns are not just worshipful -- they are also practical. They must fulfil a role in our meetings, taking up a certain amount of time and setting a contemplative, sober mood.

There are other hymns that, for practical reasons, have nearly become unused in our meetings, though once they were common and beloved. Why? Because they speak of evening, the end of the day. In the old days, when sacrament meetings often ended in the dark of night or the dim light of dusk, it was appropriate to sing "Now the day is over,/ Night is drawing nigh;/ Shadows of the evening / Steal across the sky."

That hymn was also beloved because it was so short. When a sacrament meeting had gone long, these two brief stanzas could be sung in only a minute. We loved this hymn.

But when sacrament meeting not only doesn't end the day, but doesn't even end the overall bloc of meetings, how can we possibly sing this hymn without its becoming ridiculous?

So now we sing it only at the end of firesides and such ... or in Alaska and northern Scotland during the winter, when it's dark no matter what time sacrament meeting ends.

We also have morning hymns, but they tend to have the bouncy, perky feeling that used to mark Sunday school songs. Since Sunday school began as an auxiliary service mainly for children -- an extra meeting designed for teaching, and which people attended only because of their enthusiasm for the gospel -- there was often a note of whipping up fervency. These were Sunday school pep songs: "Welcome, Welcome, Sabbath Morning!" and "Come Away to the Sunday School" and "There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today," among others.

These bright morning songs can still be sung (though "Come Away to the Sunday School" must be astonishingly rare these days); but they are not really sacrament meeting songs, are they?

It might be practical, therefore, to have some hymns that reflect the actual time of day when our meetings are likely to take place.

In This Chapel, On This Morning (17)

In this chapel, on this morning,
Under thy sweet care,
We thy children gather, singing,
Offering this prayer:
    We confess our sin in sorrow;
    Now repentance starts
    Help us sin no more tomorrow;
    Heal our broken hearts.

Kindle in us godly fire,
Calm us from our fear,
Free us from our dark desire,
Make our vision clear.
    All our sins can be forgiven,
    All our debts be paid
    Through thy Son those gifts were given
    Long before we prayed.

Jesus came as to a marriage,
Bridegroom gracing wife.
From his comfort we have courage,
From his dying, life.
    From his pain comes exaltation:
    That is why he came.
    Father, make this congregation
    Worthy of his name.

Technically, this is a six-stanza hymn -- the refrains are syllabically identical with the verses. But each pair of stanzas makes a whole unit.

Moreover, the third line of the verse stanzas is different from the third line of the refrain stanzas. At the midpoint of the verse lines, the phrase ends after the unstressed fourth syllable. But at the midpoint of the refrain lines, the phrase can be parsed to end with the stressed third syllable.

To compose music that would work with both phrase patterns would be a needless challenge to a composer. If the musical phrase fits the verse -- "We thy children / gather, singing" -- it would be hopelessly wrong with the stanza -- "Help us sin no / more tomorrow." It needs to be phrased: "Help us sin / no more tomorrow" -- which wouldn't work at all in the verse.

Where composers will hate this hymn is in the rhyme of "fire" and "desire" in the second stanza. We absolutely pronounce the written syllable "ire" as if it were two syllables -- we strongly palatalize the end of the long i, and the retroflex r becomes a syllable of its own: "Fi-er." But we can't write it that way, because the analogous spellings bier, pier, and tier are pronounced quite differently.

So composers often try to defy the way English is spoken and treat "fire" as if it had only one syllable. Even in our most beloved anthem, many a choir conductor insists that the poor choir embarrass themselves by singing the line "The Spirit of God like a fire is burning" as if "fire" had only one syllable -- even though there are two notes available for the word, and every other stanza offers two syllables for those notes.

Of course, I hate the whole business of eliding syllables anyway. "Heaven" is a two-syllable word -- though I once had a conductor ridiculously insist that a choir sing the word as "heav'n" even when it was written "heav-en" and there were two separate notes for the syllables.

The idea is to sing words in the English language, not deform English to fit some arbitrary idea of what our language would be if only we spoke it differently. "Fire" has two syllables in English, and "desire" has three. They are divided "fi-re" and "de-si-re." Live with it.

Stretched over two stanzas-worth of music, this hymn might easily be too long. So the third verse could be dropped. "Through thy Son those gifts were given / Long before we prayed" is a very respectable ending for the hymn. In fact, the third stanza, "Jesus came as to a marriage," seems almost as if we were starting an entirely new hymn, though the last two lines of the refrain tie it back to the rest of the hymn.

The usefulness of this hymn comes from the fact that it is definitely a sacrament meeting opening hymn, not a perky Sunday school song -- but it speaks of gathering together in the morning. It fits our most common worship pattern.

Afternoon Hymns

The next hymn is meant to serve another common need: The opening hymn for the early afternoon sacrament meeting.

Sabbath Afternoon (16)

On this Sabbath afternoon
Praise the God who holds us dear,
The Savior who is coming soon,
The Spirit who is with us here.

As the meeting hours flow
Let our hearts and minds be clear,
So by the Spirit we may know
The truth within the words we hear.

As the trays of bread are passed,
As the water cups are blessed
Let all our hearts be pure at last,
The love within our lives expressed.

Sister, Brother, in this place
Jesus gives us equal part;
Until I see the Savior's face,
By loving you I know his heart.

Because of the references to the sacrament in the third stanza, this might be taken as a sacrament hymn -- but that would be wrong. This hymn is not about the atonement, it is about meeting together with fellow saints.

In fact, in the fourth stanza the congregated saints sing to each other -- completely wrong for a sacrament hymn, but long overdue, I think, for an opening hymn in a ward or branch of the Church.

After all, one of the reasons we gather is to share the fellowship of the saints, to buttress each other's faith and obedience by showing that we are not alone in our effort to live the gospel. And it's not a bad thing at all, I believe, for us to sing words of love to one another. Isn't that what Jesus commanded? "Love one another, as I have loved you."

One oddity in this hymn will disappear when it is set to music. In reading the hymn, the first two lines establish the pattern of beginning on a stressed syllable; so when the third and fourth lines begin on an unstressed syllable, it can make us stumble as we read. When singing it, however, the music will clearly mark the stress without any effort at all on the part of the congregation.

There's another issue, though, where I'm still ambivalent:

The Savior who is coming soon,
The Spirit who is with us here.

Even though it is clear and settled doctrine that the Holy Ghost is a person, not a thing, we still tend to sing and speak of the Spirit without using "who" pronouns. We are more comfortable singing "The Savior who is coming soon, / The Spirit that is with us here."

And I would have written it that way, except that when we juxtapose those two phrases, it seems to be making a point of the nonpersonhood of the Spirit, which is doctrinally just plain wrong. So it's a matter of the difference between the comfort of familiarity and the discomfort of correct but oft-ignored doctrine. I went with the doctrine on this one.

Hymns Must Fit

It's not enough for a hymn text to be meaningful, truthful, apt, and well-constructed. Nor is it enough for the music to be beautiful, moving, or clever. They must also fit in some appropriate niche in our worship services or there is no real point in including them in a hymnal.

That is part of the reason why many well-intended religious songs are not a regular part of our musical experience in the Church. Songs like "A Prophet Stood" and "O That I Were an Angel" are beloved and familiar, but they would be awkward for congregational singing.

Even "Love One Another," which is now in our hymnal, used to have an interlude with the words "Now there were in that upper chamber / Jesus and his disciples / Come to take the supper of the Passover," etc. I remember singing that when it was a choir song, and I missed it when the song moved into the hymnal. But it would have been too complicated to annotate properly. "For All the Saints," with its weird order of verses, is about as much complexity of organization as the average congregation can bear.

Likewise, there are hymns that are rarely used simply because they just aren't right for most church meetings. "If I Could Hie to Kolob," with its haunting minor key, is a musical favorite of a small minority of saints; but what meeting, exactly, is right for such a reflective, personal poem? It wasn't really written to be a hymn, and makes a poor fit with the needs of our worship services.

Someday, I imagine, the longest hymn in the hymnbook -- "I Believe in Christ," which is eight stanzas that only pretend to be four because the nearly-identical music is simply repeated twice in a row -- will someday be edited down to a more-usable length.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie, the writer of this hymn, was a great man of many gifts, but just as becoming an apostle does not necessarily make one a qualified brain surgeon or rocket scientist, so also does it not necessarily imply that a heartfelt hymn by an apostle will be well-written. Anyone who has actually worked at the art of hymn-writing will recognize a nearly-complete array of beginners' mistakes in "I Believe in Christ," beginning with the fact that the scattershot ideas make no coherent point beyond the title.

Solecisms like "hath" used solely to rhyme with "path," when all the other verbs are expressed in contemporary English ("sets," not "setteth," "stands," not "standeth"); awkward cliches inserted only to make a rhyme, like "my fondest dream" and "so come what may"; and weird syntax like "on earth to dwell his soul did come," and "good works were his" -- if anyone but an apostle had written this hymn, it would not for a moment have been considered for inclusion in the hymnbook without serious reworking and editing.

Elder McConkie's life and testimony were important to us, but his hymn is not practical. Included for sentimental reasons in the current hymnbook, I expect it will eventually be shortened, dropped from the hymnbook, or simply ignored by ward and stake leaders who don't want to put the congregation through the eight interminable, repetitive stanzas.

I know many people consider it a favorite hymn. I suspect for many of them it is because they loved Elder McConkie; for others, it may simply reflect the simple, cliched, scattershot language of the ordinary testimony meeting. It feels familiar because it is familiar. Those who dread the hymn for its length, dullness of music, and awkwardness of expression don't dare speak up, for fear of being lambasted for their "disrespect" for an apostle.

But to recognize the actual quality of the hymn is not disrespect to an apostle, whose life and works stand unassailable. It is respect for the art of hymn-writing, which, when done well, enhances a vital part of our worship.

Hymns don't go into the hymnal as a favor or out of sentiment alone: They must help our meetings accomplish their purposes. Almost all hymn-writers are sincere, their hymns heartfelt. Few, however, create something worthy of being sung by every congregation in the church, year after year.

Even a wonderful poet and hymnist like Mabel Jones Gabbott only placed four hymns in our book. And only one of her hymns is sung regularly in our meetings.

It is no shame if many sincere attempts at hymn writing are not included in the hymnbook at all. I'll be pleasantly surprised if any of mine are ever included. In the meantime, though, we owe it to the Lord, our fellow saints, and our own self-respect to make sure that the hymns we create not only uplift and inspire, but also fulfil the practical requirements of our meetings.

For the hymnist, this means a willingness to revise even "finished" hymns. Just because we are able to find a rhyme doesn't mean the stanza works, or that it could not work better. Nor does correct form imply that the content of a stanza works within the hymn.

As soon a composer starts to work with a hymn text, everything in that text comes into question. The composer's skill and judgment are every bit as valid as the text-writer's, and so the latter must sometimes bow to the former, as the composer so often bends to fit the decisions of the writer.

And then there is the placement of a hymn in our meetings. The sentiment of "I Believe in Christ" should place it at the end of testimony meetings; but the length of this undisciplined hymn makes it the worst hymn in the book for that position, because testimony meetings so often run overtime, and adding this hymn at the end would delay even more the beginning of Sunday school and Primary.

Sincerity and faith are always a part of hymn writing -- I doubt an unbeliever could write a convincing hymn. But sincerity and faith are not a replacement for skill, or respect for form, or a humble willingness to revise a text to fit the needs of the music and the meeting.

All that we as hymnists can do is try to fill a niche in our worship, either by expressing a true idea that is insufficiently stated in our more popular hymns, or by finding an occasion that has too few hymns available.

Thus I offer one more hymn that fits the time of day when most sacrament meetings are held. The heart of this hymn is the notion of the Sabbath itself. For Mormons, it is often our most hard-working, exhausting day -- hardly a day of "rest." But it is a day of respite from our weekday labors; it is a withdrawal from the world of chores and errands, and, most importantly, of money-making.

It is also the occasion for gathering with likeminded people, who share our faith in Christ and our effort to obey the words of the prophets. No matter how hard we must work to fulfil our callings, that fellowship with the Saints is a rest indeed.

We Gather in the Sabbath Light (24)

We gather in the sabbath light,
Having left the world behind.
Work and care no longer bind;
Darkness vanished with the night.

O joyful sabbath, when we meet
Fellow-citizens and saints,
Sheep and shepherds, both at once,
Gathered at the Savior's feet!

Dear Father, this is what we pray:
Heal the broken hearts we bring;
Hear the praises that we sing;
Help us find the Savior's way.

Hymn Texts by Orson Scott Card   >>


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