I 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).