Why New Zealand Mormons need to edit the Green Hymn Book

IMG_2121I love Mormon hymns.  They are the songs of my childhood and my youth.  I can’t play much else on the piano but I’ve taught myself to play every hymn in the hymnbook.  I’ve played ‘guess that hymn’ at firesides, I’ve done solos in stake conference, sang ‘God of our Fathers’ truly badly with my ward choir on National Radio and played a natty wee game when bored in sacrament meeting  (suggested by a friend with the then initials NW – you know who you are) called ‘In the bath’.   Its when you flick through the hymn book and put ‘in the bath’ at the end of each song title.  You end up with things like; ‘We listen to a Prophets Voice in the bath” or “Scatter Sunshine in the bath” or “Be Thou Humble in the bath”  Its quite diverting, if not a bit small minded.

There is a little history to LDS music in New Zealand that’s a bit interesting. As well as translating the Book of Mormon to Māori the hymns were also translated and compiled in a hymnal called ‘Nga Himine Māori’ and they had a wonderful local flavour.  There were songs about the M.A.C (Māori Agricultural College where George Nepia learned to play rugby), Whakaaria Mai, and lots of other important compositions which recognised not only the language of the people but also the local context.  In future blogs I will have a bit more to say about correlation but right now I want to sound off about the colonizing influence of the Green Hymnbook (1985).

I’ve been bothered  for some time by the inclusion of hymns in the standard issue hymnbook of what feels like dozens of songs about adulation of America more generally, or deep affection for Utah specifically.  I don’t have anything against America or even Utah per se – I’ve been to both and have thoroughly enjoyed myself.  But I do find myself with  a number of  questions about the  Americentric repertoire of a hymn book which can be found in the scripture totes and church bags of millions of Mormons around the world.  For instance, I’d like to know what the deal is with the American national anthems – I mean how many songs does one country need to sing about themselves and why are they conflated with religious worship by putting them in a hymnal?  Why can’t I have a hymn book where my national anthem has been thoughtfully inserted at page 340?    I suppose no one is asking us to actually sing those yank songs here in New Zealand, at least we have that amount of autonomy, but I rather think its unfair that we are constantly reminded of our lack of fit as a nation by songs that come from the centre but have no relevancy at the periphery.

For instance ‘High on a Mountain Top’ might have been a good song to sing if the call to ‘gather’ to Zion was still current, but now that we Mormons are staying put in our own countries by decree,  its seems a bit redundant, unless you edit it to say something like ‘That he on Zion’s hills (add an ‘s’), Truth’s standard would unfold!’  But that wouldn’t do for us on the plains (or for Saskatchewan for that matter) so they’d have to think of something that captures the absence of geographical protuberances.

And I think we need to take the whole of verse three out of No.30  ‘Come, come ye Saints‘ – because if we were heading West we’d end up in Hokitika and that’s more to be avoided than anticipated.  What about No.33 – is that even a hymn?   It seems more like one of those pastoral songs like ‘Sheep may safely graze’ (which would be more appropriate for New Zealand) because of its flourishing valorization of Utah. It has a  pretty tune but it would be frankly odd for us to sing it here, even if we did move into one of the National Parks.

There are all kinds of refrains to mountains, hills and pioneers;  For the Strength of the Hills; They, the Builders of the Nation; Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded; Behold the Mountain of the Lord etc. that seem irrelevant  here in New Zealand,  which has me wondering why they can’t just have a unique Hymnal for Utah.  They can sing about themselves to their hearts delight for all I care, but until  an air in Utah is sung about Wellington Harbour’s rocky shore ,  or Canterbury’s meandering marshland rivers and ducks I’m going to hold firm to my indignation at having to see songs that don’t apply to me in a ‘standard issue’ hymn book.

Now, what about all of those US anthems?  ‘O Home Beloved’, ‘America the Beautiful’,  ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ and ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.   I thought the purpose of hymns was to praise the Lord, yet if you do a count of the number of times God is mentioned in all of these songs put together, it only comes to 8 – and Jesus doesn’t even get a look in!  And please someone explain to me what the heck ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is about?    Isn’t it some Naval shanty about a maritime skirmish in which a flag resiliently bested a bombardment? I’m not one to criticize national anthems, and I’m sure it draws a tear at football games, but why is it in the Hymn book and why do I have to see it every time I dive toward the back?

Even No. 341 on ratio mentions God more than the others – but I have to ask why ‘God save the Queen’ is included as ‘God Save the King’?   Why defeminize a song to one of Britain’s longest reigning female monarchs – which is surely something to be celebrated .   But in 1985 they were clearly anticipating her impending demise and were probably thinking (in their typically patriarchal way) that an outright acknowledgement of the monarch’s gender might make all the Mormon ladies bolshie.   Liz looks set to be around for donkeys and apart from the fact that Charles probably needs God to Save Him he’s not the king yet.

If its good enough for those Yank songs to be here in New Zealand then why not have our anthem in the hymn books in the U.S.?  I know there will be some Australians who will argue that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ should be in there if the NZ anthem is there.  But its a stupid Godless song about surfing, immigration  and mining and we’re better off without it.  ‘God of Nations’ is noble, inclusive, worshipful, prayerful, bicultural and humble.  In my opinion the church would be better off singing ‘God of Nations’ universally – because after all – isn’t New Zealand Godzone? (I like to think so).

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  • lpf43

    So true. I remember when the Boses as youth leaders had the youth paste the NZ anthem in all the hymn books. Probably needs to be done again since most of those books have disappeared.

    Sorta on this theme and having to do with a previous post when you were talking about leaders being a bit patronizing when they came to NZ. They were the same when they came to deepest darkest Ohio!

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      Good on the Boses! I’m starting to wonder if everyone outside of Utah is being colonized by the Great Basin Kingdom. It just gets more and more complex the further you move away. It must do your head in if you are living in Mauritius (which is the country furtherest away from SLC).

  • Kiwi bloke

    Hi I take your point about the American flavor of our hymn book,I always found it odd that the battle hymn of the republic is in there. The hymn I have the biggest question over is ” praise to the man” The hymn that is all about how great Joseph smith is. A hymn dedicated to a person. We have hymns to commemorate the first vision and the restoration and the events he brought forth . Why then do we need a hymn praising the man. Shouldn’t hymns be about praising. God. No wonder people think we worship him! Always feel awkward when this is sung in Church, never mind the fact it’s is to the tune of ” Scotland the brave’ . Keep up the posts a refreshing read.

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      I know. I think PTTM is a bit odd but also a bit of a giggle. Makes we want to break out my bagpipes and dance a jig. But I think perhaps JS is more to sing about than endless songs about mountains and hills.

  • Amber B

    Just had a conversation Sunday about some of the hymns that I really feel ought to be either trimmed, edited, or cut entirely. (This came after an exchange of raised eyebrows when we sang a horrible dirge that, in addition to the awful “Utah is super cool” rubbish, included a line about the noble indian savage or something to that effect….)

    So much time and effort is put into translation and such for non-English language versions of church documents. I’d love to see such care given to appropriately building hymnals and other documents for non-US congregations. And, if it’s not too much trouble, another look over for us in the States. Good points about all the songs that don’t quite seem gospel…

    (I should say that I do love the hymns. And that, as part of my scripture study, I work my way through the hymnal. I may not love every song, but I’ve sung every one of them and pondered each more than once, trying to find spiritual lessons and applications for them.)

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      It might be time to lobby the church for an updated version. The non-English hymnals seem to have more thoughtful selections but I guess us English speakers are simply lumped together with assumptions being made about our sympathy with certain elements in the hymn book because we are, at least in that respect, ‘the same’.

  • David Pershouse

    Advance Australia Fair about surfing, mining & immigration? You obviously have not read the words. It mentions nothing about those activities. If all the verses were published you would see that one of them mentions Christ being the Master. You need to know all the facts before making a comment like that as it adds to relevance of your argument instead of detracting from it. I do agree that the NZ national anthem is a good song. From an LDS Aussie

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      Teehee! Oh contraire my Aussie friend! I beg to differ: ‘Our land is girt by sea’ (a barely disguised reference to surfing)
      ‘Our land abounds in nature’s gifts of beauties rich and rare” (an obvious allusion to Gold, Bauxite, and copper), ‘for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share’ (these two lines were seen by the Greeks and Italians as an invitation). But the big question is why don’t we hear those wonderful Christ filled refrains at the Bledisloe matches? Mmmm there’s a question! wink wink!

    • Julie

      Sweet As! I am a complete newbie to LDS only being baptised 3 weeks ago – I accidently found this blog looking for the score and words to the NZ Anthem “God Save NZ” in preparation for my son’s highschool ANZAC service. (I admit I don’t know the words to it, but was absolutely stoked when it was sung at my local dawn service on the 25/4/11 by a mens choir – afterall without NZ it’d be AAC!!
      I just wanted a copy so I can sing the words too) I have to agree there is an excess of United Statesian(not American!) patriotic hymns but I am happy to say our local ward has had someone lovingly hand paste Hymn #342 “Advance Australia Fair” (despite omitting verses 3-7)in the back of every green Hymn book. I would love to see an allocation # for every Praiseworthy hymn-like national anthem for use in those nations (& internationally)
      Be forgiving of our Utah-centric brethren & sisters as they have compiled the Hymnbook only on what they know [A of F 1:11] And remember A of F 1:12 about honoring (the laws of our jurisdiction) we are subject to, and we seek after anything good [A of F 1:13]
      Perhaps we could get the anthem in our Aussie hymnbooks too as we have alot of Kiwi & Maori members in our ward, and as for surfing – until I too can walk on water, a board will just have to do!!
      Keep us posted on the progress of getting the Hymnbook revised so we can all give our support,
      Love Julie.

  • Southernpuck

    I agree. I could not explain why the Hymn book still refers to “God Save The King” to my YM group in the UK, when They have never known a reigning king & the Hymn book was printed long before the were born and even longer after the coronation of QEII (long may she reign).

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      I know right – what the heck were they thinking? I think I’d be seriously ticked if I was QE2 with all of these Mormons singing songs about a non-existent monarch.

      • Kate C.

        I could be wrong about the song in general, but as I understood it, it’s officially printed as GSTK b/c that’s how the original text was written. However, custom then dictates that you sing the title of whomever is the ruling head at the time. Anywhere I’ve gone that has sung it out of the hymn book, they simply sing ‘God Save the Queen.’

  • Dave Maller

    Don’t forget, Utah Mormons live is a bubble. They have difficulty thinking past the mountains that surround them. Take out all of the patriotic Hymns including the Stars Spangled Banner and Americans, especially Utahan’s, will plot a revolt. QE2 around for 60 years! That doesn’t even register in the colloquial minds of the Salt Lake brain trust. It’s interesting to look at the list of songs in the Spanish and French LDS Hymn books – 130 or so less than the 341 in the English edition and no baner étoiles étoilé for the French. You think the music committee might realize that English is spoken and sung in more places that the USA. Maybe those people might need a different edition! But that may be too much to hope for.

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      I think it has something to do with the music committee. There’s some dodgy stuff going on there! Conflate that with being located in Utah its a recipe for disaster. Time for a hostile take over. We could put together a rogue hymn book – make it red and sneek it into the pews with all kinds of natty editions! That would be enormous fun. I quite like the New Zealand Anglican hymnal and I would base the New Zealand one on that.

  • Sophia

    I like our national anthem. It’s one of the better ones out there, and I would certainly prefer it to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. But, yet again, the US thinks it’s the centre of the world. It’s fine if you’re there, but what about us? I’ve always had the same problem with the church magazines, to be honest. Sigh.

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      Come now Sophia! We get the insert. Cultural adaptations in church materials seem to be standard where a different language is spoken. The trouble is that there hasn’t been a recognition that just because we speak the same language it doesn’t mean that we are culturally similar. Yes, God of Nations – it can’t be beat.

  • Salt Lake Sympathizer

    I live in downtown Salt Lake City, in a ward with a very vocal member of the Music Committee that put together the 1985 hymnal. He talks about it every chance he has to get hold of a microphone, to the point where you wonder if he has accomplished anything in the quarter century since he worked on that book.

    Would it help to know that many of us here are completely on your side when it comes to the hymns? Few of us have been to New Zealand (I know one who has), but many of us have served as missionaries in other parts of the world and sympathize with related problems of translations of the “mountains of Utah” hymns and the lack of beloved local hymns. Many (including me) go so far as to stand silently and refuse to sing the nationalistic songs on holidays, because we believe they have little to no place in worship services. We are a minority — those jingoistic services are still planned and carried out — but we are here.

    Because Brother Hymnbook likes to talk about it so much, he has usurped enough Sunday School lessons with that topic that we have been able to ask many of the same questions asked in this post. His answers are usually that he and his committee know better than anyone else, that everybody outside of Utah is a new convert who has to be trained in his “new Mormon heritage,” and the common (i.e., exported) hymns “bind us together as the people of God with a shared musical language” (doesn’t seem to be working, does it, based on expressed feelings?)

    I do Church history professionally. Over the course of the last ten years I’ve seen a real shift in the willingness of the Church to address openly all aspects of its history. The Church hasn’t collapsed; the Church is stronger for it. Music evidently has lagged behind because fewer people are as seriously affected as are the huge numbers of Church members faced with unfamiliar history pushed at them over the Internet. But if music follows the same course history has, the old guard will finally pass away, and the issues you mention — issues known and supported by the majority of my acquaintance — will improve.

    Too long a comment, but offered in the best of fellowship. I’m using a pseudonym publicly, but have left my true email address and would be glad to correspond and identify myself privately, if you wish.

    • http://kiwimormon.wordpress.com kiwimormon

      What a hilarious story! Thanks for sharing. I’m glad we aren’t alone down here shaking our heads and wondering! I’m going to email you!

  • Logan

    I do agree with you that you should have your own New Zealand hymn book. But as for the star spangled banner and other American songs should stay in (at least the U.S’s) hymn book. After all, America is where the church was founded and where the book of Mormon took place. So why not celebrate America? I for one feel the spirit the most when we all stand up and sing the anthem.

  • http://rustedsun.blogspot.com Rusted Sun

    I’m an American living in New Zealand and your anthem is much better than ours, and so much more appropriate for church. I really do love singing “God of Nations” and, even as an American, I can sing it with more conviction than I can “Star-Spangled Banner” because I agree with the ideas expressed in the song.

    • Gina Colvin

      It is nice isn’t it. It feels like prayer!

  • JohnH

    It would appear that you have missed that many of the mountain songs are not referring to Utah at all but to the mountain of the Lord (the temple) similar to what is found in Isaiah (at least one of which was written in reference to Switzerland fyi). Zion’s hill, mount Zion, also refer to the temple due to the temple at Jerusalem being on mount Zion.

    Pioneers are completely appropriate due to the church being formed by pioneers with new members being pioneers to the faith.

    Articles of faith 10 would appear to give a tiny bit of justification to some of the America centric songs. Most however are due to the majority of members and the majority of English speaking members living in America, ignoring them in favor of relevant country specific songs would probably be fine.

    God save the King is actually sung in US congregations as a worship song to God. Admittedly it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but it is done and is probably an older tradition then the hymnbook. Having it be God save the Queen in those cases would be singing to Heavenly Mother (or Ishtar or Mary or …).

    As for Praise to the Man see D&C 135.

  • http://thesacredgrove_nathair.blogspot.com Sam

    High on a Mountain Top is using a common metaphor that dates back at least to Isaiah for the temple. It’s not so much about any geologic mountain as it is about the Mountain of the Lord’s House. Now, as an ethnic Scot, I do find “God Save the Queen” offensive because of the fourth verse.
    This video explains the issue.

    • Gina Colvin

      Sam! You are a man after my own heart! Bloody English – they need us to plead to God to save their monarch because of what they did in the highlands!

  • Andy

    I’m English, and do you know how many times I’ve sung the British national anthem from the hymnbook since it came into print? Not once. We just don’t do patriotism in church the same as the Americans do. Yes, we feel passionate about our country, but not in a church environment. Including it in the hymnbook smacks of a token effort by the music committee to keep the Brits happy – but sadly failed! Sure, it would be impractical and expensive to compile a hymnbook for every single country in the world, but couldn’t there be continental versions at the very least.
    Are there any plans in the pipeline for a new hymnbook, or is that it now until the Second Coming?

  • Amanda

    Being from Canada, I totally feel the same as those in NZ and Australia. I am not an American and do not want to be clumped together with the Americans as if I were one… On Canada day, we sing O Canada at church, and you bet I belt out all those verses with pride… however, this song, too, is hand-glued into the back of the books. That’s besides the point… I’m a citizen of this country, I know the words… perhaps if Americans were as patriotic as they’d like the world to believe, they’d know the words to their anthem too, and then they’d be able to take it out of the hymnbook. It’s a patriotic song, not a hymn. It’s appropriate to be sung at church on the appropriate day but it doesn’t need a whole page in the hymnbook .

    Interesting comments about Praise to the Man… I’m a convert, and I love LOVE this hymn. For me, it’s about thanking God that Joseph Smith was willing to help restore this church! This hymn definitely helps me praise the Lord. Half the hymns in the book though… why are they in there, but Come Thou Font didn’t make the last cut? I’m hoping some re-evaluations are in the works.

  • Robert

    I’ve often heard the complaint, primarily from Canadians, about “O Canada” not included in the hymnbook. I agree that other patriotic songs from English-speaking nations should be included. Interestingly, the church setting is the only place where more than the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is performed. In public performances (e.g. professional sporting events, ceremonies, even the recent Presidential inauguration), only the first verse os performed. I don’t know whether it’s tradition or juist a lack of general knowledge of the other verses. When you convert the text of the first verse to modern-day parlance, and make it more succinct, what you get is something like, “Hey pal, can you see the U.S. flag?”

    I also agree that some Utah-centric hymns should be removed. However, hymns like “Behold the Mountain of the Lord” use the word “mountain” as a metaphor for the temple… any temple… even if its surroundings are relatively flat.

    And “God Save the King”… That’s the generic form. When the reigning monarch is female, the word “king” is replaced with “queen”, and male pronouns (he, him) are replaced with female pronouns (she, her). Just be thankful that these replacements don’t change the number of syllables.

    • Robert

      Or rahter, the church setting is the only place where I’ve heard more than the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” performed.

  • Cori

    I’m Canadian but I live in the US. I’m the ward organist and I ended up in tears a couple of years ago when I had to play “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”. It made me homesick for “God Save the Queen”. One sensitive sister in my ward said to me “If you’re so unhappy in this wonderful country, you should go home”. The bishop agrees that I don’t need to play any patriotic songs (I get a substitute for the Sunday near Independence day).