Emma’s Collection of Sacred Hymns: A Legacy of Musical Expression in the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times

This article originally appeared in Vol.50, No.1 (2003) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Gracia N. Jones

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not yet five months old when, in July 1830, the Lord directed , wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith, to compile a collection of sacred for use in the Church.

Emma was well suited to the assignment, Raised in a devoutly religious family she was familiar with the concept of worship through music, and she was well grounded in basic biblical understanding. She was also familiar with the concepts that were being revealed through her prophet husband, as she served as his scribe from time to time.

Emma was told in the revelation given at Harmony, Pennsylvania, “It shall be given thee.. to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church. For 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” (D&C 25:11-12).

Emma undoubtedly took this assignment to heart and began from that time on to collect suitable hymns. We have no specific statement from her concerning this process, but we conclude, from studying the collection she eventually made, that she selected words and music from the hymnals of the day and gleaned text from many sources.

The hymnal was published by F. G. Williams & Co. in 1835 at Kirtland, Ohio. Between the time she was asked to make the compilation and the eventual production of her tiny volume of ninety hymns almost five years later, the Smiths underwent many severe difficulties.

Joseph and Emma moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio in January 1831. There they suffered the loss of their twin babies, Thaddeus and Louisa, They adopted the Murdock twins, Joseph and Julia, Then, sadly they lost the little boy.

In November, Emma gave birth to little Joseph Smith III, in Kirtland, Joseph was frequently away on Church business, leaving Emma to cope with two busy little children, and a house full of boarders, while living in makeshift quarters above the Whitney Store. Although it was a difficult and trying time, it is evident at she accomplished something on the project, since, according to History of the Church, during a council meeting held in Independence, Missouri, on 1 May 1832, “It was ordered that W W Phelps correct and print the hymns which had been selected by Emma Smith in fulfillment of the revelation.” 1

One month later, the first issue of The Evening and The Morning Star was published in Independence, Missouri. Along with news articles and revelations, it contained the words to six hymns. Each month thereafter, more hymns were printed. By the fall of 1833, about twenty hymns had been printed in the Star: The work of printing and binding The Book of Commandments was then underway. In November 1833, a violent mob laid siege to the printing office, destroying the press and most of the printed materials. Only a small part of the sheets for The Book of Commandments was saved when some children bravely gathered as many as they could and carried them to safety. Whether a bound hymnal had been in the works at that time is not known. If it was, it too was destroyed. Certainly, all of the preliminary efforts that had gone toward preparing Emma’s collection were lost. W.W. Phelps’s printing business was utterly destroyed.

The Evening and The Morning Star moved its labors to Kirtland, where it resumed publication under the F. G. Williams Co., with Oliver Cowdery serving as editor. We have no way of knowing if Emma had any particular input concerning the inclusion of hymns in the later issues of the Star. However, we may assume that many, if not all, of the hymns published in the early issues, were from her original collection.

Using the Church newspapers to provide the Saints with access to at least some of the hymns was woefully inadequate. Finally, by the fall of 1835, the Church was in a position to make another attempt at publishing the Prophet Joseph’s revelations, and the sacred hymns Emma had collected. History of the Church records that on 14 September 1835, in a meeting of the High Council and the presidency at Kirtland, “it was decided that Sister Emma Smith proceed to make a selection of sacred Hymns, according to the revelation; [as given in 1830] and that President W W Phelps be appointed to revise and arrange them for printing/’ 2 We are not informed what role Emma played in the final preparations for publication, but we presume, that having been given the commission to make the selection, she was probably involved to some extent in regard to the order in which the hymns were sen It seems very appropriate that the first hymn in this volume is “Know this, that every soul is free to choose his life and what he’ll be/’ The final hymn in the book was a new hymn written by W W Phelps, “The Spirit of God, Like a Fire is Burning/’

The small volume, about three by four inches contains words only. The Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS church) choir in Independence, Missouri, presents their rendition of Emma’s hymns a cappella. It is possible, even probable, that the Saints had a harpsichord, or even a pump organ, for accompaniment in congregational and choir singing.
In Emma’s hymns, for the Church of the Latter Day Saints, there is a code above each of the ninety hymns designating the type of meter required. Many of the hymns could be sung to more than one familiar tune* Some of the tunes used were adaptations of folk tunes, which were familiar to many in that day.

The Preface to this hymnal reads: “In order to sing by the Spirit, and with the understanding, it is necessary that the church of the Latter Day Saints should have a collection of “Sacred Plymns,’ adapted to their faith and belief in the gospel, and, as far as can be, holding forth the promises made to the fathers who died in the precious faith of a glorious resurrection, and a thousand years’ reign on earth with the Son of Man in his glory. Notwithstanding the church, as it were, is still in its infancy, yet, as the song of the righteous is a prayer unto God, it is sincerely hoped that the following collection, selected with an eye single to his glory, may answer every purpose till more are composed, or till we are blessed with a copious variety of the songs of Zion,” 1

The frontice piece of the hymnal is dated Kirtland, Ohio, 1835. However, the book was not completed until early in 1836. It was presumably available to the Saints in time for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, which took place on March 27, 1836. All six hymns were sung at the dedication; all are found within Emma’s small volume. This book served the Saints for the next few tempestuous years.

After the Church was established in Illinois, the High Council of Nauvoo, in October 1839, “Voted, that Sister Emma Smith select and publish a hymn-book for the use of the Church.”

The Times and Seasons, November 1, 1840, carried the following interesting notice:

“HYMNS! HYMNS! Having just returned from Cincinnati, Ohio, with paper and other materials for publishing a new selection of Hymns which have so long been desired by the Saints, we contemplate commencing the work immediately; and feeling desirous to have an extensive, and valuable book; it is requested that all those who have been endowed with a poetical genius, whose muse has not been altogether idle, will feel enough interest in a work of this kind, to immediately forward all choice, newly composed, or revised hymns. In designating those who are endowed with a poetical genius, we do not intend to exclude others; we mean ALL who have good hymns that will cheer the heart of the righteous man, to send them as soon as practicable, directed to Mrs. Emma Smith, Nauvoo, 111. Post Paid.” 5

Contributors to Emma’s original hymnbook included Eliza R. Snow, Parley P Pratt, W. W. Phelps, and many others. It has been suggested that Emma may have been the humble unnamed author of some of the hymns she included in her collection. The Times and Seasons, dated April 15, 1841, notes that during the celebration of the anniversary of the Church, on April 6th, and at the ceremony of laying the cornerstones for the Nauvoo Temple, the congregation sang from “the new hymn book.” 6 The subsequent edition was printed in 1841 by Ebenezer Robinson, then editor of The Times and Seasons.

Although the Prophet Joseph Smith was not a musician, he loved music. He encouraged the organization of music classes at Nauvoo University, and each ward in the Church was encouraged to organize a choir. Music was also an important part of the Smith family worship. One grandson, Frederick Alexander Smith, noted of Emma, “Grandmother loved music.” He went on to say that when they sang in the evening family devotionals, she did not even need to turn on a light, for “she knew all the words by heart.” 7 A granddaughter, Emma Smith McCallum, recalled that Emma had a sweet high soprano voice. She often heard her grandmother singing as she went about her work in the house and garden. 8

Emma’s original collection of Sacred Hymns is a legacy of musical expression in the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. It represents a monumental contribution to the musical worship enjoyed in the Church today. One historian notes, “This first hymnbook stands as a foundation of the Church’s musical tradition, with almost a third of its texts still found in the current hymnbook.” 3


Gracia N. Jones was born and raised in Montana on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where she and her father were members of that tribe, A direct descendant of Emma, her grandmother; Coral Smith Horner was the ninth child of Alexander Hale Smith, son of Joseph and Emma. Gracia was converted to the LDS Church in 1956 while living in Conrad, Montana. She is the mother of 8 children, grandmother of 37, and great-grandmother of 7. She served as a journalist (for the Deseret News) to the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, China, in 1995, She is the author of Priceless Gifts and Emma and Joseph: Their Divine Mission, published by Covenant Communications. She has given many lectures and classes, including three years at BYU Education Week.

  1. Joseph Smith’s History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, edited by B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 1974; Vol 1:270.
  2. History of the Church, Vol 2:273.
  3. Emma Smith, A Collection of Sacred Hymns.
  4. History of the Church, Vol 4:17.
  5. Times and Seasons, Nauvoo, Illinois, 1 November 1840.
  6. Times and Seasons, Vol. 2:374.
  7. Buddy Youngren, Reflections of Emma, (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Company), 93.
  8. Youngren, 67.
  9. Arnold K. Garr, Donald Q. Cannon, Richard 0. Cowan quoting Michael E Moody, in Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 807.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

X