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.

Imagine the Ideal Hymnbook

Imagine, in the not too distant future, that you come into sacrament meeting. You reach for the hymnbook for the opening song (or the sacrament song depending on how punctual you are) and you notice it is a completely new hymnbook. You start flipping through the hymnbook, and you notice some changes. A lot of songs are the same, but there are some new ones. Some you recognize and some you don’t. Some familiar ones have been modified. You flip to your favorite hymns to see if they are still there and if any of them have been changed. How do you feel? Are you happy with the changes? Are you upset? Was there something you wish they added? Was there something you wished they changed?

This scenario is soon going to be the reality facing members across the world. Hopefully, this will be a joyful experience. The Church says it wants a hymnbook that is relevant to a modern, global audience. It seeks to comfort the weary and teach core doctrine with clarity. These are noble goals, but not easy to achieve. It is impossible for any committee to completely understand the needs and experiences of a worldwide Church. I think that is why they are asking for feedback. Let’s go through the process now of discovering and articulating what we want in the new hymnbook.

Let’s imagine several years have passed after the new hymnbook has been released. You are going through a difficult trial and you come to sacrament meeting with your heart aching. What songs are you going to hear? How will that affect you? Are you going to find a place to come and mourn together, or feel isolated as everyone else seems to have homes where “hate and envy ne’er annoy” and “roses bloom beneath their feet”? Will the songs be about finding peace or wielding a sword? If you are mourning a wayward loved one, are you singing about how dear to the heart of the Shepherd they are, or how the wicked will surely be smitten?

We need to assume that there are going to members in our congregations who are struggling and need the peace and assurance the gospel brings. The hymns are an ambassador to the gospel message for those who hear it. It isn’t enough that our hymns are fun or sound pretty. They need to be free of hate and envy. They need to set realistic expectations. They need to bring comfort to those in need.

Let’s go a bit further in the future, maybe thirty years. The hymnbook has been around for a while now. All the youth and young adults will have been raised completely in the future. Are people going to complain that it is out of date, or is it going to be as relevant as it was when it came out? Let’s say some young people are coming to investigate the Church. They will probably have grown up with both genders being portrayed positively and equally and with racially sensitive language being the norm. Will they understand that phrases like “sons of men” actually refers to both women and men? Will they understand that the gathering of Israel doesn’t have anything to do with race? How will songs about the chosen race, about Babylon being wicked or about Ephraim being crowned be received in a racially hyper-sensitive culture?

We shouldn’t be writing our hymnbook for a modern audience, but for a future audience. As a culture, I think we are becoming more aware of how small nuances in our language affect people. We have studies about the psychological impact of everything from Disney movies to Barbie dolls. I believe the upcoming generations are going more aware and more sensitive to these nuances. Our hymnbook needs to be able to withstand future scrutiny.

We need to make sure our hymns are beyond reproach. Every hymn needs to bring peace, love, and inspiration to everyone in all circumstances. They need to portray women and men equally and positively. They need to be racially sensitive. Even the grouping of topics, as shown by ElleK over at the Exponent, can portray bias.

These are complicated and delicate issues that have no obvious answers, but it is better to have these conversations now rather than after the hymnbook is published. There are many other issues, which I can’t dig into on a single post, which I have gone into more depth on my web site, a place to discuss changes to the new hymnbook. We need to be educated about the issues and share our experiences so we can develop sophisticated and mature responses in our feedback for the Church.

Let’s come together and imagine the ideal hymnbook, and then work together to make it happen.

Two Songs I Hope Don’t Make It into the Children’s Songbook

This was originally posted by Ziff on the site Zelophehad’s Daughters on May 28, 2019. It was re-posted by permission on Fix LDS Hymns on June 8, 2019. The original post can be found here.

Chad Nielsen’s recent post at T&S on updates on the hymn book revision process reminded me that there are a couple of songs that I’m really, really hoping don’t make it into the new Children’s Songbook. The first isn’t even in there now, but from Chad’s post, it sounds like it’s a strong candidate. It’s “If the Savior Stood Beside Me.”

If your ward loves this song like mine and you’ve been in Primary in the past couple of decades, you’re probably familiar with it. Its lyrics begin with its title, and then has the singer ask if they would do various things differently if the Savior stood beside them. “Would I do the things I do?” “Would I think of his commandments and try harder to be true?” “Would I say the things I say?” “Would I try to share the gospel?” “Would I speak more reverently?”

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

I understand that this might just be because I’m a neurotic Mormon, but the tone of this song strikes me as very much shaming kids and reminding them that they need to stop having so much fun and return to the grim, joyless path that Jesus wants them to be on. And yes, I know there are scriptures and statements by GAs about how the gospel means living joyously, but I think for kids in particular, what they often learn in Primary is that Jesus is most concerned with having them shut up and stop wiggling. So having them sing a song where they question whether they would do this or that or the other thing if Jesus were standing there seems to me to be very much a reminder that having fun is for places other than church, and when we’re at church, we’re quiet and miserable.

Even if you don’t agree with how I read the tone of the first two verses, I wonder if you might not agree that the song has an impractical approach to teaching kids to be moral agents. Do we really think the best way to get them to make good choices is to have them think that Jesus is always looking over their shoulder? I think it would be far better for them to learn some internal moral compass where they can make good decisions on their own. Because even if you do think Jesus is always watching them, he sure doesn’t seem to intervene much, so what if they conclude that he’s not there, or that it doesn’t matter if he is, so they can just go ahead and do what they want? I know philosophers and theologians have thought about this question a bunch, and I’m sure there are a bunch of details I’m missing, but I just think it’s more practical to have kids be internally motivated to do good rather than externally motivated, because the external motivation will not always be available.

Anyway, getting back to the song, to be fair, I think it is somewhat improved by the third verse, where even though it has the kids sing that Jesus is in fact always there looking at them, it’s actually because “I am in his watchful care.” I still don’t think this makes up for the first two verses, though.

The second song that I really hope doesn’t make it into the new Children’s Songbook is called “To Think about Jesus.” That’s its title, anyway, but in my head when I think of it, I always refer to it as “It Shouldn’t Be Hard,” because that’s the line that’s repeated over and over in its lyrics. Here’s the first verse.

It shouldn’t be hard to sit very still
And think about Jesus, his cross on the hill,
And all that he suffered and did for me;
It shouldn’t be hard to sit quietly.
It shouldn’t be hard, even though I am small,
To think about Jesus, not hard at all.

What I hate about this song is that it’s obviously written from the perspective of an adult, someone who has decades of practice sitting still in long meetings, and projecting this adult behavioral norm back onto kids, for whom it obviously is hard to “sit very still,” regardless of what they’re supposed to be thinking about while they do. It sounds like it was written by a frustrated Primary teacher. To be clear, I totally sympathize with that teacher. I’ve taught Primary, and fought the endless, hopeless fight to try to get kids to keep their bums in their chairs during class or singing time, when all they want to do is be up on their feet or down on the floor or maybe if they’re using their chairs, using them as stepping stools. I sympathize with the teacher, but I think the problem isn’t with the kids, it’s with the structure of Primary, which requires willingness to sit still for periods that seem totally inappropriate for the ages of at least the younger of the kids. I also think it’s particularly awful to take these lines–these lies–and put them in the kids’ own mouths, and make them sing them. It teaches them that something’s wrong with them that they can’t sit still for long periods of time. It teaches them that the only reason they can’t is because they must not love Jesus. When of course the reality is that they’re kids, and especially when they’re young, kids aren’t going to sit still for any length of time for anything.

If we are going to force kids to sing this self-condemning song, I vote that the kids get to force the adults to sing the following alternative version:

It shouldn’t be hard, remembering back
When I was a child, the focus I lacked.
How each minute felt an eternity,
How painful it was to sit quietly.
It shouldn’t be hard, even though I am tall,
To recall my childhood, not hard at all.

Unlike “If the Savior Stood Beside Me,” this song isn’t improved by its later verses. Its second verse is just more of the same, featuring the lines “It shouldn’t be hard to sit tall in my seat, To listen politely, to quiet my feet,” as well as the same chorus as the first verse (the last two lines above).

After thinking of these couple of songs, I wondered how many other songs for children I might not like for similar reasons. I read through the lyrics of all the songs in the current Children’s Songbook. While there are some other songs I’m not a fan of for other reasons, I was pleasantly surprised that there weren’t any others that struck me in the way these two did. Actually, I was very happy to see how many songs talked about trying to be good, which strikes me as so much a better tone than shaming kids for not being good enough.

Also, maybe to disabuse you a little of the notion that I’m only a complainer and a critic (which I admit is probably a fair perception), here are a few of my favorites from the Children’s Songbook that I really hope do make it into the new version: “I Feel My Savior’s Love,” “Kindness Begins with Me,” “Beautiful Savior,” “I’ll Walk with You,” and “Stars Were Gleaming.”

What songs would you like to see added to or removed from the Children’s Songbook? (And if you haven’t already, be sure to let your voice be heard in the Church’s survey too!)