Healthy Portrayal of Gender in the New Hymnbook

The Church is seeking to create a hymnbook that we can sing with joy, that will bring comfort to the weary and inspire members. By hearing our experiences with gender and suggestions for improvements they can be better equipped to create a hymnbook that achieves their goals. I have four main suggestions with regards to gender in the new hymnbook.

  1. Eliminate the use of males as the default gender.
  2. Clear, direct and frequent references to Heavenly Mother.
  3. More songs with female role models
  4. Represent gender and gender roles that empower and inspire members and reflect the diversity in the Church

Not only do I think these changes will be good, but I feel they need to happen in order for the hymnbook to continue to be relevant after it is published. Society is changing quickly. People are demanding these changes in movies, in literature, in schools, in business and in politics. We have studies about the psychological impact of everything from Disney movies to Barbie dolls. Children will grow up expecting equal and positive portrayal of both genders in every aspect of their lives. I can’t imagine a future where a hymnbook that doesn’t have these changes will survive.

Eliminate the use of males as the default gender.

Examples of male-centric language abound in the hymns. Christ died that “man might live”. We sing about the “faith of our fathers”. The “sons of men” join with the angels in singing. Children prepare their friends to hear the gospel from the Elders. Male-centric language used to be the acceptable norm for English. However, society has been changing as we have learned the psychological impacts of using gendered language. One study showed that women in a mock job interview that used male pronouns showed “lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job” than women in a job interview that used both pronouns. The effects continued throughout the job interview. We should never send that message to anyone.

The most obvious way to be more inclusive is change male-only references to gender neutral. Instead of resurrection coming to “the sons of Earth”, have it come to “souls of Earth”. Instead of Christ bidding “men” to follow him, have him bid “us” to follow Him.

If some hymns are too difficult to find a gender-neutral alternative, we could switch between genders. For example, the hymn, Lord, I Would Follow Thee refers to loving our brother twice. We could sing about loving our sister and then loving our brother, helping to maintain gender balance while maintaining familial connectivity.

Clear, direct and frequent references to Heavenly Mother

One of the main reasons we came to Earth was to get a body and learn to be more like our Heavenly Parents. They are our biggest role models. Both women and men are trying to be exalted, so shouldn’t we look to both Heavenly Parents as role models? The Church published several doctrinal points of emphasis that they want included in the new hymnbook. One of them is on the “Family of God”, specifically that “we are beloved spirit sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents”.

Currently, we only have two hymns that reference Heavenly Mother. Looking at the way the hymns sing praise to Joseph Smith, Adam, Mother Earth, or the blessed honored pioneers, we should at least be able to show Heavenly Mother the same reverence. We could change some hymns that reference Heavenly Father to be Heavenly Parents. For example, the hymn Children of Our Heavenly Father, could be changed to Children of our Heavenly Parents. We could also add verses or new songs that honor Her. Our post on Heavenly Mother suggested this verse to be added to Our Savior’s Love:

Our Heav’ly Queen, and Mother of humanity,
Through covenant, like Thee we seek to be.
Priesthood and power, example of divinity,
We feel Thy love. We seek our home with Thee.

More songs with female role models

One study measured the effect of female role models on students by randomly selecting economic classes to listen to two successful females in the field of economics. The study found that “women in the classes who had been visited by career women were 12 percent more likely to take the next-level economics class, and were 6.7 percent more likely to report intention to major in economics.” Similar results have been found in other studies.

If having a female role model makes that large of a difference, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to give women every possible advantage? VioliaDiva summarized several excellent suggestions of adding female scripture heroines on her post at The Exponent. She pointed to I’ll Stand Tall and Heroes of the Scriptures, both printed in the Friend. She also pointed to this additional verse to Follow the Prophet by Neylan McBaine and shared in Mormon Women:

Anna was a prophetess, in the days of Christ.
Serving in the temple, she would pray and fast.
Though she was quite old she served there night and day,
telling all she met the joy of Jesus’ way.

You could also find other verses of Follow the Prophet at Feminist Mormon Housewives by Mary Ann. ViolaDiva also suggested several verses to Book of Mormon Stories, including this one:

Abish was a Lamanite who served the King and Queen
She told all whom she could find about what she had seen
She taught of God’s power as a true missionary
And she did testify righteously

There are plenty of female role models that girls, boys, women and men can all look up to.

Represent gender and gender roles that empower and inspire members and reflect the diversity in the Church

Women and men have an unbalanced presentation in our hymns and primary songs, and they tend to follow gender stereotypes. For male roles, there are songs about prophets, scripture heroes, Dad coming home from work and male missionaries who teach the gospel with priesthood and power. Most references to females in the hymns are about being a mother and serving others. Songs about family and home that don’t mention a specific gender, like Love at Home or Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth, are listed in the topics section under motherhood but not fatherhood.

The problem with these discrepancies is that it can reinforces negative stereotypes. This can contribute to feelings of isolation for people who don’t fit the stereotype. If people don’t feel that they fit at Church, they are more likely to be disengaged or even fall into inactivity. Stereotypes can reinforce our prejudices, making it hard for us to reach out to others with love.

We should not have any songs that put boxes on gender, like missionaries acting like men or the errand of angels being given to women. We need to have songs that include women outside the home and men inside the home. We need songs specifically about women going forth with power and authority to teach the gospel.

One of the doctrinal points of emphasis, “Priesthood Power and Authority”, states that “Jesus Christ’s priesthood power and priesthood authority are given to women and men”. This is an important change. Priesthood power and authority is usually associated with men, but the new hymnbook will now talk about how it relates to women. One of the greatest callings that uses the priesthood is missionary work. While we have hymns about Elders serving missions, we don’t have anything specifically about sister missionaries. An earlier post suggested this verse for As Sisters in Zion:

The harvest is ready and women are needed
To work in God’s kingdom with power and might.
The Sisters will preach to each people and nation,
We’ll fill up the world with His glorious light.

Everyone benefits when we have a healthy representation of gender in our hymnbook. By removing artificial boundaries, we are more empowered to reach our full potential and help others do the same. More people feel included and represented in the Church. We become more accepting of gender variants. We become more loving and less judgmental. In short, we become more like our Heavenly Parents.

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