This article originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Pioneer Magazine.
by Dr. Ray Barron, Jr.
Early on, the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation (D&C 25) in which his wife, Emma, was “called to prepare a selection of sacred hymns to be had in my church. For the 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.” Soon, LDS writers and composers contributed. Eliza R. Snow’s “Oh, My Father” is an ideal example. Among many of his inspired compositions, W W Phelps gave us “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning,” which was sung at the Kirtland Temple dedication
Music played an important part in the westward movement. Crossing the plains and sitting around campfires, these brave men and women and children sang with love to God.
During a time of deep despair and sorrow at the death of his son and others, William Clayton composed the often-sung and always spiritually recharging “Come, Come Ye Saints,”
There were lighter times too. In the evening, the wagons were circled and music began. Often there was dancing. Singing w as combined with instrumental music whenever possible. A special favorite was Pitts Brass Band, which continued to perform after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.
After settling in the Valley, President Brigham Young picked up on the support of the arts. He wanted the best for the Saints, He commissioned promising members to travel East and abroad to study music, art, sculpture, architecture, and other pursuits. Fine artisans were joining the Church.
One such, adept in woodworking and organ building, was a convert from Australia named Joseph H. Ridges. He built the original Salt Lake Tabernacle organ.
There were other songwriters, such as a young convert who immigrated from the hills of Wales named Evan Stephans, who later became the conductor of the Tabernacle Choir and brought it to prominence. He added special LDS flavor to hymns; one such, “For the Strength of the Hills,” is a favorite. Thus, pioneering continued.
To the pioneer settlers of the valleys in the west, music was an integral part of life, and that tradition continues today I have friend who never uses a songbook. He doesn’t need to. He knows all the songs and words. He can lead or sing any hymn anytime or any place without a book. I was astounded and asked how he did it. He said that in his youth he worked on the hay rack, and to keep his mind busy, he memorized the hymns one at a time. He is a happy man.
Good music is uplifting. But there is such a thing as bad music. Satan’s music is degrading to the soul. It is loud, clashing, dissonant, and generally accompanied by words that degrade and suggest anti-religion, antimoral, and illegal persuasions. A composer of one of these songs recently boasted that his new video would bring him “big bucks,” stating that his new release was aimed at getting kids to have early sex. When asked about how this might affect children and their families, he replied, “Who cares about the family?”
As modern-day pioneers, we must espouse the good and be on guard against Satan’s counterfeit music. Many families are opening the day with a prayer followed by a hymn to invite the Spirit of the Lord to attend them.
Pioneering today can be easier with a song in our heart—a good song—that can be part of the cure instead of part of the problem. You can’t go wrong with a hymn. Christ said, “The song of the righteous is a prayer unto me.” After all is said and done, we bury our dead to the quiet harmonies of a hymn, and all of us will one day arise to the sound of an angel’s trumpet.