Sunday, March 01, 2009

Today I wished Joseph Smith was a southern black man

The three hymns in today's fast and testimony meeting consisted of three very sloooow and nearly monotone songs that triggered a series of yawns that I am still fighting off eight hours later. I wish this were an anomaly, but given the limited resources of our required hymnals, it is essentially the rule.

Enduring through sacrament meetings awake (and alive) is hard enough when they usually consist of poorly prepared talks by lay members who begin by announcing to the congregation that they don't want to be up there speaking. Our short opportunities to liven things up with some upbeat hymns are usually wasted away on organ-leading drones of puritanical music.

Yes. I blame the Puritans on our funeral-sounding meetings.

Because Mormonism sprouted up from the Puritanical heritage of New England, we have unfortunately adopted their musical culture as the standard by which the 'spirituality' of our songs (and services) are measured. And like so many things in Mormonism, the predominate cultural norms suddenly became the definitive universal eternal doctrinal Gospel truth. Mormons began to think that a songs had inherent characteristics based on a type of style that made the song spiritual or not. Along with this, certain instruments were deemed spiritual instruments (organs, pianos, and sometimes string or wind instruments) and other instruments have been classified as being a threat to spiritual settings (such as guitars, percussion, brass). This belief that only certain types of music and instruments can be spiritual is strengthened by our mostly white Mormon-bred oligarchy that has very little multi-cultural understand and experience.

There are a few exceptions. Thanks to Phelps and Snow, some of our hymns show a departure from the Puritanical model by incorporating Scottish and northern European melodies into the mix, also some children's songs that have made their way into the hymnal usually are not so dead and slow (or else they would have never survived as childrens songs). These however seem to be the exceptions, rather than the rule. Most newer hymns in the Church hymnal - especially those written by general authorities - share the Puritanical sentiments of being really slow and worthy of funeral processions.

And of course, we try our best to Puritanize those view anomalous hymns that we do have - Snow's "The Spirit of God" says "we'll sing and we'll shout!" and we practically whisper that exclamation marked phrase.

That we measure the spirituality of our hymns by Puritanical standards is especially evident when looking at hymns used to precede the Sacrament, as they universally bear the death-mark and are sung at nothing faster than fifteen beats per minutes.

This doesn't have to be the case though. The Puritanical view of spirituality is only one of hundreds of views of spirituality that exist throughout the many cultures of the world (of which many the Church has begun to infiltrate). We could easily tap these and utilize them to offer a multi-cultural and expansive variety of spirituality into our services.

But of course, instead of doing this we instead force our Puritanical standards on other cultures the Church has begun to evangelize and develop in. Instead of utilizing and adopting their views of spirituality, we enforce ours. We tell them how to dress spiritually, how to sing spiritually, and how to dress spiritually. A former mission president to Africa expressed to a friend of mine that retention in Africa would be so much stronger if we would just allow drums into our services. That is how they views and expressed spirituality in their culture. But instead, we force them to learn to play the piano and force them to change their conception of spirituality. These new converts decide that they would rather go to a meeting in another church where they can feel closer to God in the way that feels right to them.

So this is why today I wished that Joseph Smith was a black man from the south. Had he come from the south, the Church would have developed with a different concept of what spiritual music sounded like. Rather than Puritanical drones, we would be worshiping to songs of joy, clapping, dancing, and praise.

And I wouldn't be so tired and bored in church.


  1. Interesting title. I agree that our music could use some more variety. I've often said that I think Gladys Knight should be in charge of the hymnbook.

    I attended "Music and the Spoken Word" a few months ago. It was interesting to me how few mormon hymns they sing, and Lloyd Newell quoted Catholic and Protestant theologians in the service. I wish this was more culturally acceptable in the LDS church.

  2. funny story: (about Joseph Smith being a southern black man). We were discussing race in my class the other day, and one of my students said, "Yeah, it's like when I moved out here and everyone asked if I knew who Joseph Smith was, and I would respond 'Yeah, Joseph Smith, that black kid I used to skip class to smoke pot with.'" needless to say, this student is one of my favorites...

  3. Drums in African church meetings? What an interesting thought. Strange to us but I can see it incorporated into their meetings. I say why not?

  4. erin that was hilarious! i wish i witty enough to say stuff like that to people. so funny.

    loved this piece. i would love to see more life in our music. i would love to clap and shout hallelujah! maybe i will....


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