In July 1830, while living in Harmony, Pennsylvania, Joseph Smith received a revelation directed to his wife, Emma, that would bring greater harmony to congregations and homes for generations to come. Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord told Emma, “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” (D&C 25:11–12). The Lord called Emma to “make a selection of sacred hymns” (D&C 25:11), thus confirming divine approval of worshipful music in church services and solidifying what would become a longstanding tradition of reverent hymnody among the Latter-day Saints.
When Emma first began her divinely appointed task, typical hymnbooks of the day included lyrics only, which could be sung to a variety of well-known tunes. Hymnals were often pocket sized for carrying in aprons or jackets, since members of most American denominations accessed them often throughout the week. Families relied on hymnals for leisurely reading, singing together as a family, teaching children to read, obtaining comforting messages in times of hardship, and reinforcing tenets of the family faith.Given this teaching function of hymns, it was important for Emma to choose wisely among traditional Protestant hymns. Additionally, William W. Phelps accepted the assignment to make clarifying corrections to the original texts of many hymns.
Publishing a new hymnbook proved to be challenging. In the year following Emma’s assignment to gather hymns, she and Joseph endured the personal tragedies of losing twin babies shortly after their birth and losing another child, an adopted twin, incident to exposure following a mob invasion of their home.
Even as Emma dutifully continued her work on the hymnal, her distance from the Church printing press in Independence, Missouri, complicated the process. By 1832, Phelps began publishing some of Emma’s selected and adapted hymns and some of his own original hymns in the Latter-day Saint periodical, The Evening and the Morning Star, for which he served as editor. A mob halted all printing, including the printing of the hymnal, in 1833 by destroying the printing press. After competing with mob violence and other publishing priorities, such as revelations and periodicals, a hymnal stamped with a publication date of 1835 finally rolled off the press in early 1836.
This particular copy of the first Latter-day Saint hymnal was a gift from William W. Phelps to his wife, Sally. It is the only 1835 edition known to have gold embellishments on its sheepskin cover, and its unique ornamentation serves as a reminder of Phelps’s artful touch made manifest in all hymn collections published by the Church to date. William W. Phelps was well educated and poeticand was one of the Saints’ early doctrinal teachers through the medium of music. His original compositions and alterations to traditional hymn lyrics reflected Latter-day Saint doctrine and emphasized community faith rather than individual devotion. For example, Phelps adapted Joseph Swain’s poem, which originally read: “O Thou, in whose presence my soul takes delight, / On whom in affliction I call; / My comfort by day, and my song in the night, / My hope, my salvation, my all.” Phelps changed the text celebrating one’s individual relationship with God to a communal one: “Redeemer of Israel, Our only delight, / On whom for a blessing we call, / Our shadow by day And our pillar by night, / Our King, our Deliv’rer, our all.” In the hymnal Latter-day Saints use today, Phelps wrote or adapted 15 hymns, including “The Spirit of God,” which has likely been sung at every temple dedication since the Kirtland Temple dedication in 1836.
Overall, the first Latter-day Saint hymnbook helped create harmony within the Church. Like the gold that illuminates the cover of Sally Phelps’s hymnal, each page illuminates doctrines of the Restoration. The lyrics aided early Church members in achieving doctrinal harmony, while their singing from the hymnal established a legacy of including music in worship services. For us today, the songs Emma chose also serve as snapshots in time, revealing which themes were of greatest importance to the early Saints. While their Protestant neighbors sang extensively of the gloom of sin and the horror of the cross, Emma Smith and W. W. Phelps created a hymnal that would highlight the hopeful task of building Zion, celebrate the good news of the Restoration, and focus with happy anticipation on the Second Coming of the Savior.