Many of our hymns were written in the 1800’s, when views on race were more rigid. They believed in distinct racial categories with distinct roles to perform. Many theories were put forth, which have since been disavowed by the Church. In 2013, the Church put forth an essay saying:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.Race and the Priesthood
In addition, 2 Nephi 26:33 says that “all are alike unto God”. We can’t tell anything about a person based solely on their race. Everyone is alike and no race has priority over any other.
However, several hymns still have racial language. We sing about the chosen race (Come, O Thou King of Kings) and the holy race (Adam-ondi-Ahman). We identify Israel as “the people of his choice” (Israel, Israel, God is Calling), even while singing about “their transgressions” (Come O Thou Glorious Day of Promise) and how they are “in error’s gloomy ways“(Israel, Israel, God is Calling).
Many hymns talk about the gathering of Israel, making it seem that Israelites have a higher priority over other people. Many early members believed that they were literally descended from Ephraim, one of the tribes of Israel, and as such are now his chosen Israel (For the Strength of the Hills). We sing how Ephraim will be crowned with his blessings in Zion (The Spirit of God). We sing about how we built over Indian lands (The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close), and that God prepared it for us (Come, Come, Ye Saints). We identify some nations as heathen (Come, O Thou King of Kings). Babylon is associated with the lands of woe (Israel, Israel, God is Calling), and we bid people to leave it (Ye Elders of Israel) .
Even if we consider this racial language to be purely symbolic, it could be easily misinterpreted. Do we want to ever become comfortable with reducing race to a literary device? As we prepare the hymnbook for the decades to come, we need to be more careful with racially charged language than in previous editions of the hymnbook.
How do we interpret racial language? Are they symbolic, or just outdated? How do we make sure everyone feels equally valued with equal priority regardless of race? How do we update hymns to reflect modern revelation?