An Inside Look at the 1985 LDS Hymnbook

As a member of the 1985 Hymnbook Executive Committee, Marvin K. Gardner, a teaching professor in the Department of Linguistics and English Language, joined other committee members at a recent sing-in and fireside in anticipation of the hymnbook’s 30th anniversary celebration to take place this coming September. He also visited with a writer from the College of Humanities and reminisced about working on the hymnbook.

singing-658557-galleryPROVO, Utah (May 27, 2015)—When Marvin Gardner was serving as a young missionary in Colombia in 1972, he came across an announcement in an issue of the Ensign magazine about the possibility of a new LDS hymnbook. Gardner never would have dreamed that less than 10 years after coming across that announcement, he would be an editor at the Ensign and a member of the Hymnbook Executive Committee, tasked with the responsibility of creating and editing a new hymnbook for the Church.

Gardner was in his late twenties and working as an assistant editor at the Ensign when he was called in 1981 by President Ezra Taft Benson to serve on the General Music Committee. Not long after he was called, the First Presidency decided to move forward on the creation of a new hymnbook, and Gardner was called as one of eight members of the Church to serve on the Executive Hymnbook Committee.

Unintended Humor

“My main role was to work with the text because I was a professional editor,” Gardner says. “I looked at every comma, every hyphen, every word, and every letter of every word in that entire book. I also proofread all of the music.”

Gardner says that when they set out to edit existing hymns, General Authority advisors cautioned them to approach these hymns with a light hand because generations of members had memorized and sung them for years.

Though none of the word changes were major, the changes were nevertheless important to the text, Gardner explains. At the fireside, he shared a few examples of editing changes that made the texts of the hymns either more doctrinally accurate or simpler to sing.

“Remember ‘How Firm a Foundation’? In verse one, the words, ‘You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled’ had long been a source of merriment, and not just among those sitting on the deacon’s bench,” he joked. “Now, instead of singing ‘You who unto Jesus,’ we sing, “Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled.”

A Missing Comma

Gardner had countless spiritual experiences during the course of his service on the hymnbook. He says that one of his most significant memories took place one evening after a long day of work at the Ensign.

As usual, he walked three floors down from his Ensign office on the twenty-third floor of the Church Office Building and stopped by the Music Division office to pick up a large folder of hymns that needed to be edited by the following morning.

That evening, after he had finished reviewing and proofreading everything in his folder, he couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong.

“But where should I start?” he wondered. “I had just spent the whole evening reviewing this folder full of hymns. All I could do was start looking through it again. As I did, I came across the hymn ‘Silent Night.’ Something witnessed to me that that was the piece of paper with the mistake on it that I needed to find.”

Gardner studied the text several times over but found no errors. Thinking the concern must have been a figment of his imagination, he put the hymn back in the folder and tried to walk away. Yet something kept pulling him back.

Recommencing his efforts, he read the text backward and forward, pouring over every word and punctuation mark as carefully as possible. Finally, he found what he was searching for.

There, at the end of verse two, the words read, “Christ, the Savior, is born!/Christ, the Savior is born!”

hymns-768191-galleryTo the untrained eye, the missing comma was perhaps insignificant. But what the error communicated was an entirely different message than what was intended, Gardner says, one that could even be perceived as taking the name of the Lord in vain.

“I was happy that the Lord was able to take an imperfect vessel that was tired and bleary-eyed,” he says, “and help me know I needed to search that pile of hymns again and find the one that was missing a comma.”

“We often prayed that the Lord would bless us beyond our natural abilities, and he certainly blessed me with that.”

A Hymn of His Own

In addition to editing, Gardner also served as chair of the Hymn Review Subcommittee. With the assistance of a Church service committee, Gardner reviewed thousands of potential hymns submitted over many years by members of the Church for potential inclusion in the hymnbook.

“I was surprised to find how few of them were based on Latter-day Saint scripture,” Gardner says. “Although I had never even considered writing a hymn text myself, I began looking for verses in the Book of Mormon that could be adapted into a hymn text.”

Gardner recalls an evening in 1984 during a Saturday session of stake conference that prompted the creation of his own contribution to the hymnbook. He says that the speaker quoted 2 Nephi 31:20, which reads, “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ.”

“I remembered the testimony and commitment that I had felt many times when reading those words,” he says. “I wrote in my notes, ‘Press forward, Saints, with steadfast faith in Christ,’ thinking that those words could potentially become the opening line of a new hymn.”

Before the speaker was finished, Gardner had written down a three-verse outline, which would eventually become the text for the beloved hymn “Press Forward, Saints.”

Once in a Thousand Lifetimes

Bonnie L. Goodliffe, one of the members of the Hymnbook Executive Committee, said at the fireside that working on the hymnbook was not a once-in-a-lifetime experience but a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes experience. Her words ring true for Gardner as he remembers his own experiences.

He expresses gratitude for the opportunity to work on the hymns and for the difference they have made and continue to make in his life.

Gardner hopes that members of the Church will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1985 LDS hymnbook this year by becoming familiar with hymns that are unknown to them. He suggests singing a different hymn each day of the year, taking the opportunity to discover hymns that are not their typical, well-known favorites.

He concludes, “It’s not true that the only good hymn is one that you already know. Consider getting to know others by learning to love them and cherish them.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)