Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Heber J. Grant on Sing Only What we Believe

10.21.12 | | 8 comments
Heber J. Grant

Heber J. Grant

As Mormons, we are cautioned regularly and frequently to take care in what we see, listen to and read—and, apparently, in what we sing. Today we usually see this as a prohibition against displays or descriptions of immorality. We are to avoid that which is sexually suggestive, violent, contains profanity, etc. And these suggestions have led to many controversies among Mormon artists — controversies that are, I think, largely still unresolved in the minds of many Mormons.

But what about materials we don’t believe in? What if a book or a film or a play or a song teach a principle that is against our doctrine. Should we still read it? or see it? or sing it?

Heber J. Grant, at the time he wrote the following in 1912, was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. He has since gained quite a reputation for his thoughts on music and singing—principally his use of singing as an example when he cited Ralph Waldo Emerson: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do…” But when he heard Mormon musicians performing the song “Just as I am” by Charlotte Elliott, a non-Mormon hymn with a “saved by grace” message, he felt it necessary to discourage singing the song. The result was an article for the Improvement Era that read (in part) as follows:

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Sing Only What we Believe

by Heber J. Grant

The Lord said in a revelation contained in Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants : “My 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.” Can a song, the teachings of which are false, be a prayer of the heart uttered to the Lord? Would a prayer which was false be one of those to which the Lord had reference when he said, “My soul delighteth in the song of the heart” ? Most decidedly the Lord could not have had reference to such a prayer when he said : “The song of the righteous shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” Every reader of the Era knows how absurd it would be to answer, “yes” to the above question. The fact that we cannot answer yes tells plainly that we should not sing songs where false doctrine is taught.

The more beautiful the music by which false doctrine is sung, the more dangerous it becomes. I appeal to all Latter-day Saints, and especially to our choirs, never to sing the words of a song, no matter how beautiful and inspiring the music may be, where the teachings are not in perfect accord with the truths of the gospel.

Singing is a very splendid part of the worship of the Latter-day Saints, and all are proud of the record which Utah’s two great musical organizations, the Salt Lake and the Ogden Tabernacle choirs, have made at home and abroad. There are also hundreds of other excellent choirs, from Canada on the north to Mexico on the south, whose singing to the ordinary lay member, like myself, is an inspiration. I have listened in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Christiania, Zurich, and Rotterdam to our “Mormon” choirs whose singing has been the equal in its inspiring and uplifting character to any that I have heard in the stakes of Zion.

The lesson which I desire to teach in this article is that no individual singer, or organization of singers, in the Church, should ever render a selection unless the words are in full harmony with the truths of the gospel, and can be given from the heart of the singer. In other words, our songs should be in very deed “prayers unto the Lord.” If we are careful to sing only such songs, then we are sure of the blessings which are promised by the Lord, because his promises are “true and faithful and will all be fulfilled.”

Improvement Era, v15 n9, July 1912, p. 784-788

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“Can a song, the teachings of which are false, be a prayer of the heart uttered to the Lord?” Hmmm, Perhaps not, but I have to ask, must every song be a prayer? I guess what I’m asking is does this issue need to be seen so black and white that every song must be either a prayer or an evil? Aren’t some things neither spiritual nor devilish? Surely Puff the Magic Dragon isn’t either, right?

Perhaps we are all different when it comes to these questions. I’m sure there are differences between many of us on this question — some agreeing with Grant that songs (or books or film or whatever other media) are either spiritual or not, and others thinking that with some media the question of spirituality is irrelevant.

Of course, spirituality and belief aren’t exactly the same thing either. It seems like it is possible to believe in something — say a physical law — without that belief becoming spiritual.

Nor is the type of participation in the medium used—merely hearing a song is one thing, singing a song is another thing altogether. Its much more involved. In song, like acting, you are participating in the production of music, and therefore what you sing becomes part of who you are and, I believe, how you think.

Over the past year I’ve become increasingly convinced of the wisdom of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh and its suggestion that the way we think controls how we act and what kind of a person we are. Christ hinted at similar thinking in the New Testament when he said “Not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man; but that which proceedeth out of the mouth, this defileth the man.” For those of us involved in producing literature and works of art, where we have to believe that these works have an effect on their audiences. If not, why bother producing them? And if a song has an effect on those who hear it, perhaps changing how they think, then how much more so must the song have an effect on those who participate in its creation?

Still, the evidence is that we all hear and most participate to some degree in creating works of art — especially songs. As a child of the 1960s and 1970s I have dozens, if not hundreds, of songs rolling around in my head, many of which I can recite by heart or at least significantly in part. Does the fact that I know almost all the words to Paradise by the Dashboard Light, or some of the words to Lady Marmelade (I even understand the words in French in the song!) and Chevy Van really mean that I’ve irrevocably lost the spirit? [I know this dates me. You can google the lyrics if you don't know the songs.]

Of course, these are all about sex, and depictions of sex, so I’m not sure that they are equivalent to reading a book about abortion or even reading the Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf. Must I not read these because I don’t believe them? Or must I avoid writing a summary or description or review of these books because I could then be participating in creating a work based on ideas I don’t believe in? Aren’t fiction writers then stymied if they try to create a world that includes things they don’t believe in?

Perhaps in the end there is a lot of difference between works that display immorality and those that display what we don’t believe in. I suspect that the influence comes from the preponderance of what we receive and the weight and importance we give each item in our brain.

But, then again, that isn’t what Heber J. Grant says.

8 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Heber J. Grant on Sing Only What we Believe

  1. Mark Penny

    It’s late, so I haven’t read the whole post, but I thought I’d remark that from time to time I find people–yea, even Mormons–putting heart and soul into performing a song just because they like the music, even though the lyrics are completely wrong for the occasion–or just completely wrong for a supposed Saint. I suppose as a songwriter I’m particularly sensitive to lyrics.

  2. Luisa Perkins

    It seems to me that he is talking about music performed in Church, though I follow your extrapolation.

    It’s hard for me to be objective about the extrapolation, since I spend so much time humming the Ramones and arias from Don Giovanni.

  3. Kent Larsen Post author

    Luisa, I know I didn’t include this part of his article, but he introduces the article giving examples outside of Church — a funeral and an evening musical performance.

  4. Luisa Perkins

    Ah, okay, then.

    So, only hymns and The Book of Mormon Oratorio, all day, every day? No Beatles or Cole Porter or Ella Fitzgerald or Depeche Mode or Mass in B Minor?

    Is singing about immorality the same as singing false doctrine? Can I keep my Niamh Parsons if I throw out all the Ave Marias?

    I’m kind of playing, but I kind of wish I knew, for serious.

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    That’s not how I interpret it.

    For example, I don’t think there is anything in the lyrics of “She Loves You” (Beatles) that we don’t believe. [She loves you. And you know that can't be bad.... etc. -- no conflict with Mormon doctrine there.]

  6. James Goldberg

    I wonder whether the intent here isn’t tighter. Given the time and the context of choral music, this strikes me as less about immoral music than about, well, Protestant music.

    As we created a new religious culture in the 19th century, we wrote many of our own “hymns of Zion.” But we saw no reason to wholesale reject the rich Protestant musical tradition that surrounded us.

    In the early 20th century, though, Grant seems to be concerned that we’ll get pulled back into Protestant doctrinal views if we sing songs without examining them for compatibility with our own new culture. The angst here may be over religious re-assimilation into the Protestant majority. (Which actually may be related to our anxiety today about popular music…we want to enjoy, but without becoming assimilated into the dominant hedonistic consumer culture.)

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