Jesus Christ/Atonement/Portrayed in Latter-day Saint hymns

The centrality of the atonement as portrayed in Latter-day Saint hymns

The Song of the Righteous

From the earliest times Christians have "sung hymns to Christ as to a God."[1] The singing of those hymns was a method of instructing the congregation in the doctrines of the Church. Paul wrote to the Colossians that at their religious gatherings they were to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Colossians 3:16) He taught the same concept to the members in Ephesus: "speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:19) Most frequently those hymns are meant simply as a means of expressing devotion to the Savior, or to His Father. But at times they have been polemical, a means of inculcating new doctrine, as in the period following Nicaea.[2] The hymns penned by John and Charles Wesley "were more than specimens of devotion. They were tools for doctrinal instruction."[3] The hymns of the Latter-day Saints have also been an effective means of instructing the membership of the Church about their relationship to the Savior. It has been so from the earliest hymnal, published in 1835, to the present. A look at some of those hymns will indicate the centrality of the Savior's atonement, and the elements of it that were taught to the membership.

The 1835 hymnal

The 1835 edition of the hymnal was a collection of ninety hymns, over one-third written by members of the young church, and put together by Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet.[4] Twenty-six of those hymns are still in the current hymnal, which includes many written by non-LDS authors. The 1835 edition (which is not available to me) includes hymns with the following thoughts expressed: "Blest inhabitants of Zion, purchased by the Savior's blood; Jesus, whom their souls rely on, makes them kings and priests to God."[5] Another hymn, by Isaac Watts, stated, "The Lord of Glory died for men. But lo! What sudden joys were heard! The Lord, though dead, revived again."[6] Another hymn, by LDS writer William W. Phelps, indicated that Christ "died for us."[7] One of the more popular hymns in the current edition, also written by W.W. Phelps, is "O God, the Eternal Father," and appeared in the 1835 edition. It included the phrases "Jesus, the Anointed…gave himself a ransom to win our souls with love… And die, or all was lost."[8]

The 1889 hymnal

In 1889 another edition of the LDS hymnal appeared. A third reprint of this particular edition was published in 1906. Many of the current hymns also appeared in it, but it also included hymns no longer in the current hymnbook. Among this latter group of hymns, for which no authors are listed, are several which declare the importance of the Atonement of the Savior. "Spirit of faith, come down, reveal the things of God, and make to us the Godhead known, and witness with the blood. 'Tis thine the blood to apply, and give us eyes to see; who did for every sinner die, did surely die for me."[9]:173 Another hymn includes the phrase "remembering God's incarnate Son, who suffered death on Calvary to set the contrite sinner free."[9]:20 Another taught the Saints "when He our Savior did the same, without a place to lay his head, a pilgrim on the earth he came, until for us his blood was shed."[9]:31 Another hymn records that "they follow their General, the great Eternal lamb—His garments stained in his own blood—King Jesus is his name."[9]:105 Another, applicable to participation in the Eucharistic celebration (Sacrament of the Lord's Supper), reads: "O Lord of Hosts, we now invoke Thy spirit most divine, to cleanse our hearts while we partake the broken bread and wine. May we forever think of thee, and of thy sufferings sore, endured for us on Calvary, and praise thee evermore. Prepare our minds, that we may see the beauties of thy grace; salvation purchased on that tree for all who seek thy face."[9]:109 Another tells the family not to weep for their dead child, for "your child is saved through Jesus Christ [for they have] washed their robes and made them white in Christ's atoning blood."[9]:135 Another hymn, penned by LDS poet Eliza R. Snow, first appeared in an LDS hymnal in 1871, and continues today. It reads, as per 1906: "How great the wisdom and the love, that filled the courts on high, and sent the Savior from above to suffer, bleed and die! His precious blood He freely spilt, his life He freely gave; a sinless sacrifice for guilt, a dying world to save."[10] Another hymn indicates that Christ "died that we might live."[9]:42 Yet another refers to "him who died, that we might live."[9]:198 Another hymn refers to him "who died to save."[9]:224 One proclaims the activities of the missionaries who go out in order to teach "that divine and glorious conquest once obtained on Calvary." [9]:239 Another hymn, written by LDS author William W. Phelps, found in the 1835 hymnal and still very popular today, refers to "that sacred, holy offering, by man least understood… when Jesus the Anointed, descended from above, and gave himself a ransom to win our souls with love… He was the promised Savior." The recent edition includes a fourth verse that concludes "and die or all was lost."[11] Another hymn, still in the modern edition, tells that "Jesus, our Lord and God, bore sin's tremendous load."[12]

The current Latter-day Saint hymnal (1986 to present)

There are simply too many hymns in the current hymnal to recount all of them satisfactorily. But there are several which need some attention. First though, it should be remembered that there are several hymns in the current book which were written by non-LDS authors, and which bear on our theme. Many of these have already been mentioned above. The current hymnal contains many sentiments relative to our theme.

  • "I am the sacrifice offered for thee."[13]:120
  • "…thou Son of God, who lived for us, then died on Calvary."[13]:169
  • "Thou gavest thy life on Calvary, that I might live forever more."[13]:171
  • "Let me not forget, O Savior, thou didst bleed and die for me when thy heart was stilled and broken on the cross at Calvary."[13]:172
  • "For us the blood of Christ was shed; for us on Calvary's cross he bled… Jesus died that justice might be satisfied."[13]:174 [14]
  • "Oh, wondrous plan—to suffer, bleed, and die for man!… For Jesus died on Calvary! That all thru him might ransomed be."[13]:176
  • "May we forever think of thee and of thy sufferings sore, endured for us on Calvary, and praise thee evermore… Salvation purchased on that tree for all who seek thy face."[13]:178
  • "Leaving thy Father's throne, on earth to live, thy work to do alone, thy life to give… Bruised, broken, torn for us on Calvary's hill—thy suffering borne for us lives with us still."[13]:181
  • "…praise and honor give to him who bled on Calvary's hill and died that we might live… The bread and water represent His sacrifice for sin; ye Saints, partake and testify ye do remember him."[13]:182 [15]
  • "When thy self thou gavest an offering, dying for the sinner's sake."[13]:183
  • Vilate Raile wrote: "Upon the cross of Calvary they crucified our Lord and sealed with blood the sacrifice that sanctified his word. Upon the cross he meekly died for all mankind to see that death unlocks the passageway into eternity. Upon the cross our Savior died, but, dying, brought new birth through resurrection's miracle to all the sons of earth."[13]:184
  • "Again we meet around the board of Jesus, our redeeming Lord, with faith in his atoning blood, our only access unto God. He left his Father's courts on high, with man to live, for man to die… Help us, O God, to realize the great atoning sacrifice, the gift of thy beloved Son, the Prince of Life, the Holy One." Additional verses included: "Jesus, the great facsimile of the Eternal Deity, has stooped to conquer, died to save from sin and sorrow and the grave."[16]
  • "Thyself the Lamb forever slain… View thee bleeding on the tree: My Lord, my God, who dies for me."[17]
  • "Our Savior, in Gethsemane, shrank not to drink the bitter cup, and then, for us, on Calvary, upon the cross was lifted up. We reverence with the broken bread, together with the cup we take, the body bruised, the lifeblood shed, a sinless ransom for our sake."[18]
  • "…sent the Savior from above to suffer, bleed, and die! His precious blood he freely spilt, his life he freely gave, a sinless sacrifice for guilt, a dying world to save."[13]:195
  • "O Savior…upon the cross they nail thee to die, O King of all. No creature is so lowly, no sinner so depraved, but feels thy presence holy and thru thy love is saved. Tho craven friends betray thee, they feel thy love's embrace; the very foes who slay thee have access to thy grace. Thy sacrifice transcended the mortal law's demand, thy mercy is extended to every time and land… What praises can be offer to thank thee, Lord most high? In our place thou didst suffer; in our place thou didst die, by heaven's plan appointed, to ransom us, our King. O Jesus, the anointed, to thee our love we bring."[13]:197

Clearly, there is much in the hymns that the Latter-day Saints sing regularly which teaches that the Savior, Jesus Christ, came to earth for the specific purpose of "being lifted up upon the cross" to save the world. Through the sacrifice of His life, the spilling of His blood, he has redeemed all mortals who will come to Him.

Notes

  1. Pliny (ca. 115 AD), epistle 10:96, in Pliny. Letters, Vol. 2, translated by William Melmoth, Loeb Classical Library (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1958), 403. Pliny's letter to the Emperor Trajan can be found online at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html. See now, Margaret Daly-Denton, "Singing Hymns to Christ as to a God (cf. Pliny Ep. X, 96)," The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, edited by Corey C. Newman, James R. Davila, and Gladys S. Lewis (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1999), 277–292. She points out that there are two types of hymns in the New Testament: hymnic and liturgical. The liturgical hymns are about Christ, not to him.
  2. Daniel Liderbach recently wrote that prior to Nicaea the hymns appeared to embody expressions that had their origins in response to the Spirit moving the congregation. "However after the Council of Nicaea and again after that of Chalcedon /451 AD/, the tone of the hymns used by the community shifted to polemical, theological insistence upon the doctrine that the church at Nicaea and Chalcedon had approved," Daniel Liderbach, Christ in the Early Christian Hymns (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1999), 79–80.
  3. Alan C. Clifford, Atonement and Justification: English Evangelical Theology 1640–1790. An Evaluation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 99. Estimates for the number of hymns composed by John and Charles Wesley vary between 6500 and 8000. They published at least 57 hymn collections during their lifetime. The most significant one was in 1780, and was based in part on eight previous collections. In the preface to the 1780 edition John Wesley wrote, "It is large enough to contain all the important truths of our most holy Religion, whether speculative or practical; yea, to illustrate them all, and to prove them by Scripture and Reason." He also wrote that "the hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully ranged under proper heads, according to the experience of real Christians. So that this book is, in effect, a little body of experimental and practical divinity." Quoted in Ken Bible, "The Wesley's Hymns on Full Redemption and Pentecost: a Brief Comparison," Wesleyan Theological Journal 17:2 (1982).
  4. See D&C 25:11–12 for Emma's call to edit the volume. The Preface to the 1835 edition states: "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 Hymns,' 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," quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1947), {{{vol}}}:93.
  5. John Newton, "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken," hymn 46 in the 1998 version. Newton, an Anglican clergyman, was also the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace."
  6. Isaac Watts, "He Died! The Great Redeemer Died," hymn 192 in the current hymnal. It is hymn 56 in the 1906 (1889) edition.
  7. W.W. Phelps, "Come, All Ye Saints Who Dwell on Earth," hymn 65 in the current hymnal; 114 in the 1906 edition.
  8. W.W. Phelps, "O God, the Eternal Father," hymn 175 in the current edition, 255 in the 1906.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 9.9 The Latter-day Saints Psalmody, Third Edition (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1906). Citations are to hymn number, not page number.
  10. Eliza R. Snow, "How Great the Wisdom and the Love," hymn 136; number 195 in the current hymnal.
  11. William W. Phelps, "O God, the Eternal Father," hymn 255. It is hymn 175 in the 1998 edition. The 1835 edition contained eight verses; the fifth verses included "He is the true Messiah, that died and lives again; we look not for another, He is the Lamb 'twas slain."
  12. James Allen, "Glory to God on High,"., hymn 262. Hymn 67 in the current edition
  13. 13.00 13.01 13.02 13.03 13.04 13.05 13.06 13.07 13.08 13.09 13.10 13.11 13.12 Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 1986).
  14. Also in the 1906 edition, hymn 50.
  15. Richard Alldridge, "We' Sing all Hail to Jesus' Name," hymn 182. It was first published as a poem in the Millennial Star, 1871, with music in Juvenile Instructor, 1883 (both LDS publications). It originally had a sixth verse which read, in part: "Then hail, all hail, to such a Prince who saves us by his blood!", in Karen Lynn Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 199. That a verse is occasionally dropped from an earlier hymn book to a more recent one should not be interpreted as necessarily significant; John Wesley also did the same during his lifetime; see Bible, "The Wesley's Hymns on Full Redemption and Pentecost: a Brief Comparison," in the section headed "Overlap of the Two Collections."
  16. Eliza R. Snow, "Again We Meet Around the Board," hymn 186; first published in the Millennial Star, 1871, later in Utah Musical Times, 1877. It was included in the 1906 hymnal, hymn 13. The additional verse was included in the hymnals from 1950 until the 1985 edition; Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns, 201–202.
  17. William H. Turton, "O Thou, Before the World Began," hymn 189; in LDS hymnals since 1927.
  18. Frank Kooyman, "In Memory of the Crucified," hymn 190. Notice that both the Garden and the cross come into play here, with the strongest emphasis being on the cross, where the sacrifice took place.