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Don’t Sing a Lie

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 01, 2009

Keepa has some fine musicians as readers, and even more non-musicians like me who enjoy and listen closely to the music in our services. Here’s your invitation to tell your experiences with musical numbers that have added — or detracted — from services. Are there numbers you would dearly love to sing at church, if only it weren’t for that pesky second verse that preaches false doctrine?

Sing Only What We Believe

By Heber J. Grant, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

I recently attended the funeral of a faithful sister, the wife of an apostle, and the stake president of the Relief Societies. A solo was beautifully rendered entitled, “Just as I am,” sung, I understood, by special request. The melody is beautiful, one of the finest, to my untrained ear, I have ever heard.

On March 29th and 30th the second annual musical contest of Davis Stake was held at Kaysville and Bountiful. One of the solo contest pieces was, “Just as I am.” I did not have the pleasure of attending the contest …

The object of writing this article for the ERA is to show the absurdity of Latter-day Saints singing such a piece as “Just as I am.” I quote it in full:

Just as I am

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God! I come, I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot.
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God! I come, I come!

Just as I am, though tossed about,
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God! I come, I come!

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind,
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God1 I come, I come!

Just as I am; Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God! I come, I come!

– Charlotte Elliott.

It would be next to impossible to find more false teachings in so short a space than are contained in the above hymn. We who know the gospel to be true know that it is a falsehood that sinners will be received and pardoned and forgiven who have not taken the time to rid themselves of “one vile blot.” Salvation will come only to those who repent and have their sins washed away by baptism, and who thereafter show by a godly life that their repentance is genuine. … For falsehoods, pure and simple, I believe that the poem, “Just as I am,” deserves a premium. While in the European Mission, I gave three years of as faithful labor as it was possible for me to give, endeavoring to eradicate from the minds of the people just such false teachings as are contained in this song.

The Lord said in a revelation contained in Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “My soul delighteth in the song of the heart, yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” Can a song, the teachings of which are false, be a prayer of the heart uttered to the Lord? Would a prayer which was false be one of those to which the Lord had reference when he said, “My soul delighteth in the song of the heart”? Most decidedly the Lord could not have had reference to such a prayer when he said: “The song of the righteous shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” Every reader of the ERA knows how absurd it would be to answer “yes” to the above question. The fact that we cannot answer yes tells plainly that we should not sing songs where false doctrine is taught.

A number of years ago I wrote an article for the ERA – one of the first that I ever wrote – where I gave a practical illustration of a very remarkable fulfilment of the promise which the Lord makes in the revelation from which I have quoted. I have pleasure in quoting it:

Elders J. Golden Kimball and Charles A. Welch, neither of whom claim to sing well, while on a mission in the Southern States, were about to baptize some converts; a mob had assembled, and the brethren were given to understand that if they carried out their intentions of baptizing that the mob would throw them into the river. The brethren determined to go ahead no matter what the result might be. Before doing so, however, they sang a song. The song seemed to have such an effect upon the mob that they were almost transfixed. The brethren proceeded with their baptisms, and then went some distance to attend to confirming the baptized. A message came from the mob asking them to come and sing that song again, and the request was complied with. The leader of the mob, Joseph Harvis, afterwards joined the Church, and he stated to Elder Kimball that the sentiments of the hymn, and the inspiration attending the singing, converted him to the gospel. Brother Kimball’s recollection is that the hymn was “Truth Reflects Upon Our Senses.”

The more beautiful the music by which false doctrine is sung, the more dangerous it becomes. I appeal to all Latter-day Saints, and especially to our choirs, never to sing the words of a song, no matter how beautiful and inspiring the music may be, where the teachings are not in perfect accord with the truths of the gospel.

Singing is a very splendid part of the worship of the Latter-day Saints, and all are proud of the record which Utah’s two great musical organizations, the Salt Lake and the Ogden Tabernacle choirs, have made at home and abroad. There are also hundreds of other excellent choirs, from Canada on the north to Mexico on the south, whose singing to the ordinary lay member, like myself, is an inspiration. I have listened in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Christiania, Zurich, and Rotterdam to our “Mormon” choirs whose singing has been the equal in its inspiring and uplifting character to any that I have heard in the stakes of Zion.

The lesson which I desire to teach in this article is that no individual singer, or organization of signers, in the Church, should ever render a selection unless the words are in full harmony with the truths of the gospel, and can be given from the heart of the singer. In other words, our songs should be in very deed “prayers unto the Lord.” If we are careful to sing only such songs, then we are sure of the blessings which are promised by the Lord, because his promises are “true and faithful and will all be fulfilled.”

In conclusion, I say God bless our individual singers, and the members of our musical organizations. I know of no more self-sacrificing and loyal people than those who constitute our choirs, and who are constantly singing at funerals in our meetings for the benefit of the Saints. Their talents are given freely, and almost without exception without financial reward. I for one appreciate, beyond my ability to tell, the self-sacrificing and loyal devotion of our singers. I wish them God-speed, and there is no blessing too good for these faithful workers. From the bottom of my heart, I pray that the choicest blessings of the Lord may ever attend them, and that they may constantly grow and improve in their art, and that they may also advance in a knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

(Improvement Era, 1912, p. 784-787)



28 Comments »

  1. I recall my first mission president, a BYU religion professor, was opposed to missionaries listening to “Saturday’s Warriors” and the like because, as he put it ever so gently, it “trivialized” doctrine. (My second mission president, not a BYU religion professor, endorsed SW and the like.)

    My brothers and I have laughed at the second verse of “Book of Mormon Stories” as well. Did the Lamanites seek liberty?

    I hope I haven’t stepped on too many sacred cows.

    Comment by Steve C. — April 1, 2009 @ 7:40 am

  2. Step, Steve, step!

    Saturday’s Warrior didn’t bother me *in its sphere,* but that sphere doesn’t include Sacrament Meeting, IMO. Ditto for a lot of Mormon and Christian pop. Just because a song has a sacred subject doesn’t mean the song rises to sacred music.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2009 @ 7:59 am

  3. I love this song. It gives me a lot of hope, something of which I am in short supply these days.

    Do you think that, in these days of Steven Robinson, the doctrine of this piece is less objectionable in the Church today than it was at the time of HJG?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — April 1, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  4. I’m not sure if it’s completely false doctrine, but there is something frankly appalling about singing, to a jaunty, dotted eighth and sixteenth rhythm no less, that those who reject this glad message “will surely be smitten at last.” (And a fine “glad message” too–join us or get blasted! Where’s irony when we need it?)

    Or we could all press on so “when life is over we shall gain a reward.” That surely should be the motivating factor, shouldn’t it?

    Comment by Mark B. — April 1, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  5. In the last few decades, we seem to have become more interested in “grace” as a necessary component of our religion. I personally don’t find anything wrong with this song, and I doubt there would be such harsh complaints about it today.

    With regard to the arrangement of music, I know there are people who claim to enjoy the Spirit when they listen to contemporary arrangements, which I find irreverent. I wish I knew if we were talking about the same sensation. I suspect we aren’t, but I have no way of knowing.

    Comment by Rick — April 1, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  6. “Away in a Manger” (“Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”) and “Jesus Once Was a Little Child” (“He never got vexed when the game went wrong, and he always told the truth.”)

    http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2008/03/what-wouldnt-jesus-do.html

    Comment by Ray — April 1, 2009 @ 10:12 am

  7. Ardis, why did you have to go and do this on such an otherwise pleasant day? Asking to come up with musical pieces that have detracted from a worship service is so easy – and yet so displeasing – that my mood is going downhill as I sit here…

    But that won’t stop me! The first piece that came to mind is the piece called “His Hands” by Kenneth Cope. It may not contain overt false doctrine, but the musical setting is so over wrought that I lose my testimony a little each time I hear it.

    As for pieces I’d like to perform but may contain the figurative “pesky second verse,” I think of “Amazing Grace.” We hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” with its phrase, “Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!” So, bring on Amazing Grace! All in favor of putting it in the next edition of the hymnal, raise your hand.

    There. I ended with something positive. Good on me.

    Comment by Hunter — April 1, 2009 @ 11:17 am

  8. The first piece that came to mind is the piece called “His Hands” by Kenneth Cope. It may not contain overt false doctrine, but the musical setting is so over wrought that I lose my testimony a little each time I hear it.

    Thankfully I haven’t heard “His Hands” “sung” in sacrament meeting since 1995. Same for songs from Living Scriptures videos.

    Do the other verses of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (the ones we don’t sing in church) teach false doctrine?

    Comment by Justin — April 1, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  9. I heartily concur with Hunter on the addition of “Amazing Grace”. I plan on having it sung at my funeral because the sentiments expressed so aptly fits the feelings of my heart. I believe that President Hinckley’s family had a bagpiper play “Amazing Grace” at his gravesite. I also will include “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” in the service because it is hard for me not to be moved to tears when I hear it sung well. In the 40 plus years of my membership I have seen the Church slowly move towards creating a new image of themselves akin to the ‘born again’ Christians. The addition of “Amazing Grace” would fit in to this new image. I wish they would also review the hymnody of Isaac Watts and the Wesley brothers. They seemed to have had a far greater gift for composing melodies that are far more lyrical and memorable, i.e. ‘hum-able’ than many of our own hymns. There is a veritable musical gold mine in their works and if they find the thoughts/doctrines expressed not quite in line with ours then they can re-word them as we have done with so many others.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — April 1, 2009 @ 11:54 am

  10. Justin, from my Protestant upbringing, I believe the original English words to “A Mighty Fortress…”(Ein Feste Burg” in German)are;

    “A mighty fortress is our God,
    A bulwark never failing.
    Our helper, He, amid the flood
    Of mortal ills prevailing.
    For still the ancient foe
    Doth seek to work us woe.
    His craft and power are great
    And he is armed with cruel hate
    On earth is not his equal.”

    I think you can see why the Brethren might have issues with the first verse. I can’t recall the remaining verses but it is plausible there were other similar thoughts that would be of concern.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — April 1, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  11. I want to remain positive, so first a shout out for “Be Still My Soul” by Sibelius. Great music and a message of great comfort:

    Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
    Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
    leave to your God to order and provide;
    in every change God faithful will remain.
    Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

    On the down side, our choir recently sang a version of “I Stand All Amazed” arranged by an evangelical musician with an added verse that was a bit too much on the “grace” side for me, but the music was nice.

    At the bottom, though, is the father of a newly called missionary at his farewell who sang, accompanying himself on the guitar, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, by the Eagles. I personally did not witness it, but many members of my ward still do, with much pain, and a few chuckles.

    Comment by kevinf — April 1, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

  12. I should say in # 11, “many of our ward members still remember”, not “still do”. That would be bizarre.

    Comment by kevinf — April 1, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  13. Justin, apparently “His Hands” is still around.

    But back to the original post, I’m guessing that the Church’s strong preference for music based only on our hymns is another manifestation of HJG’s concern for singing only what we believe.

    Ironically, some of our hymns are less than doctrinally “pure”: the text of All Creatures of Our God & King personifies “Mother Earth” as one who actually “unfoldest blessings” on us; in High on a Mountain Top” the last verse proclaims that we will “save ourselves”; the text in Reverently and Meekly Now has Jesus Christ saying words that he never actually said; Love at Home is a doctrinal Twinkie; and, despite all our emphasis on Gethsemane elsewhere, if a non-member picked up our hymnal only, s/he would probably think that our theology of Christ’s atonement is fixed squarely only on the cross/Calvary. (Gethsemane is mentioned only twice, I think.)

    Which is all just a long way of saying that, I think HJG is not taking the long view on this issue. When all is said and done, I think the poetry of hymns should be given a little leeway, for interpretation, for inclusion of typical literary figures, including metaphor, etc. If we were ever to actually come up with some sort of Magical False Doctrine Filtering Machine, we might end up with a hymnal that had a bunch of tunes, but no text.

    Comment by Hunter — April 1, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

  14. Someone once pointed out to me that since children have no sin, it’s possible that “I Like to Look for Rainbows” may teach false doctrine when eight-year-olds sing that their wrongs are washed away when they are baptized.

    (You could argue for the idea in that they were already washed away in Christ, but little children, imo, ought not be singing about how their sins were there until they were in the water, because they were already pure to begin with.)

    Comment by m&m — April 1, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  15. I had no idea what direction this conversation would go, and I’m alternately laughing and cringing.

    At least this is evidence that we do pay attention to the music and don’t just sit stupidly through it as a routine part of our meetings.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  16. When it comes to closing hymns, I don’t care if they have false doctrine or not. Just as long as they are short. :-)

    Comment by Steve C — April 1, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  17. I’ll be the Grinch who Stole Christmas. What about “With Wondering Awe,” which has the wise men traveling far by the light of the star to seek the lowly manger? Or what about “The First Noel,” which has the shepherds looking up and seeing a star in the east?

    Actually, I like, and sing, both of these hymns.

    Comment by Maurine — April 1, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

  18. I dare say there is a difference between false facts and false doctrine.

    Comment by Ugly Mahana — April 1, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

  19. I think Ugly Mahana makes a worthwhile point.

    I also think it’s important to distinguish between the example from the post (something brought into Church externally) and hymns that somehow passed some sort of approval process.

    (I confess that I’m working hard not to internalize what has been said here; I would rather not have stuff get in the way of just enjoying hymns. It’s like those who start to analyze hymns for feminist violations — at some point, it can just be a distraction, ya know?)

    (Ardis…as a completely off-topic point, I was hoping you would read my latest post on my blog — looking for book recommendations about Utah history. :) )

    Comment by m&m — April 2, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  20. (If that last comment came across as a post party pooper kind of comment, I’m sorry.)

    Comment by m&m — April 2, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

  21. My last comment on your blog was something of a party pooper, wasn’t it? ;) You and I think well enough of each other, I think, not to take offense, m&m, where none is intended.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 2, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

  22. Years ago, I made an arrangement for a small choir that I sang with, coupling the text of There is a Green Hill with the great Thomas Tallis tune that Vaughan Williams used in his famous Fantasia. We performed it at a couple of nursing homes and Sacrament meetings and a dear friend asked to use it in an Episcopal Easter service. Having been composed in the 16th Century, it has a modal, ancient church quality that some Sacrament meeting members objected to and a few comments were made after the service. At the same meeting we also performed something from “Les Mis,” and were somewhat nervous about singing a selection from a stage musical in a Sacrament service. Yet the piece members found objectionable was not the Broadway show tune, but the Thomas Tallis composition, which sounded too “Catholic” for the “restored church” congregation. Tallis was a Catholic until his death in 1585, and he left a legacy that still inspires.

    Comment by Steven B — April 2, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

  23. In a similar vein, there are songs with a wonderful message, but fall into that evil category of “Contemporary Christian.” I linked to one such piece here.

    Comment by Steven B — April 2, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  24. Hmm. I love “Les Miz” but can’t think of a single song I would consider suitable for Sacrament Meeting. As for “modal, ancient church qualities,” my favorite Christmas music is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I guess I’m out of step with that ward!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 3, 2009 @ 5:19 am

  25. Re: Les Mis…someone once sang “Bring Him Home” at a farewell (back in the days of mission farewells). Well-intentioned to be sure, but makes m squirm to think about it. I doubt it would happen now, though.

    Comment by m&m — April 3, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

  26. I once used “Stars” from Les Mis as an introduction to a RS lesson on repentence and the atonement. I referred back to Javert’s false reasoning in the song throughout the lesson. It went over very well, I thought. Of course, I know that’s not the same thing as singing it in Sacrament meeting. I’m sure I remember at least one general conference address that references Jean Valjean, so I thought it would work.

    Comment by Fiona — April 3, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

  27. As for the line about saving ourselves in “High on a Mountain Top” There is a scriptural reference for the line.

    The scripture is
    D&C 38: 42
    And go ye out from among the wicked. Save yourselves. Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord. Even so. Amen.

    Comment by J. Paul — April 5, 2009 @ 12:39 am

  28. Mark B.
    In the words of the Hymn “We thank thee o God for a prophet”, It’s “the wicked who fight against Zion” that ” will surely be smitten a last.
    “While they who reject this glad message” (the Gospel) “shall never such happiness know”.

    On an unrelated note we used to sing “Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along”… … we all have work SO DON’T BE A JERK, put your shoulder to the wheel

    Comment by J. Paul — April 5, 2009 @ 1:02 am

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