SALT LAKE CITY — No toil nor labor fear, indeed.
Two small committees have begun to wend their way through a mountain of 17,000 new songs submitted for long-awaited revisions of the hymnbook and children's songbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In fact, mailed submissions postmarked July 1 — the deadline for new hymns and songs — poured into church headquarters throughout early July. Contributions came from more than 60 countries.
"We were expecting about 10,000," said Audrey Livingston, secretary to both the hymnbook committee and the children's songbook committee. "The 1985 hymnbook (still in use today) generated about 6,000 submissions."
The project is immense. It will take years to complete, Livingston said. The goal is a hymnal both sacred and more reflective of a global church, which counts more than 16 million members. When the current hymnbook was published, 60% of church members lived in the United States. Today, Americans constitute 40% of the faith.
The 14 committee members asked for help from church members. Even that created more work. They are sifting through 45,000 suggestions received through an online feedback survey — recommendations for hymns to keep or remove from the current hymnbook, or hymns to adopt from other faiths.
"It's a lot to go through," Livingston said.
It's also a once-in-a-generation opportunity for songwriters and lyricists to contribute to a book designed to inspire, provide spiritual nourishment and build faith.
Each person was allowed to contribute up to 20 submissions — five hymns, five children's songs, five hymn texts and five children's song texts.
However, contributors could also collaborate with others. That allowed some lyricists and musicians to be involved in many more.
Michael Young, for example, submitted the full 20 works in his own name, but he also worked with 75 collaborators. In all, he was part of 150 submissions.
"It was a lot of work, and I started on Day 1," he said. "I was flying out on tour with the Tabernacle Choir when the announcement was made and I started writing lyrics on the flight. I worked on it just about every day. I actually worked literally to the very last minute on a submission with my uncle, right up to the deadline on July 1."
Young, 35, is a second-grade teacher in a German, dual-language immersion class at West Elementary School in Tooele, Utah. A couple of years ago, he felt a strong pull to practice writing hymn texts and wrote one every day in 2017. He also began compiling hymns from other Latter-day Saint musicians with his own.
So when the church announced plans to revise its hymnbook in June 2018, Young was primed. He said he mostly wrote texts and farmed them out to others to write the music.
For example, he worked with Tami Jeppson Creamer, who wrote the music for the children's song, "I Know That My Savior Loves Me," which was published in 2015 in the church's children's magazine "The Friend."
"I wrote a children's song with her called, 'Then It's Time to Pray,' that I'm very happy with," Young said. "I approached a lot of other well-known people, but most were busy with their own works."
One hymn Young submitted is called "O Great and Holy Savior." He collaborated on the lyrics with Fen Frehner and Angie Mae Killian — Young and Killian worked together on 14 submissions — and Frehner composed all the music. Young especially liked how the lyrics focus on different roles of the Savior — shepherd, refiner, physician and more.
Livingston said she enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of contributors like Young, Creamer, Killian, Frehner and others.
"It's been amazing to hear their gratitude," she said. "Members around the world don't typically have the opportunity to be a part of developing a project like this."
With a mountain of submissions, the church's committees didn't wait to begin their work.
"Before the submission deadline, we already had evaluated all of the current hymns and all of the hymns published in church magazines over the past 30 years as well as hymns from other Christian traditions," Livingston said.
The committee members will have more help, too. They are in the process of creating subcommittees around the world. Those subcommittees will narrow down the submissions based on criteria created under the direction of the church's First Presidency. New hymns and songs will increase faith in and worship of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, teach core doctrine, invite joyful singing, comfort the weary and inspire people to endure in faith and unify Latter-day Saints and others around the world.
Committee members used the criteria to evaluate the current hymnbook in weekly meetings.
"We are making recommendations that say, 'Yes, we think that this hymn sufficiently meets the criteria that has been approved, or no, this probably doesn't sufficiently meet that criteria, and we should retire this hymn. It's been a good process, and it's been really helpful to have some criteria because music is so subjective for people," Livingston said.
The submissions will go through multiple rounds of evaluation. The subcommittees will make recommendations to the committees.
"A lot of the work can be done digitally and individually," Livingston said. "We can assign batches to people on their own and then they can counsel with others if they have a question on a submission."
No timeline has been set for publishing the revised hymnal and children's songbook. Once the lineup has been selected and approved, Livingston said, "It takes about nine to 12 months to print a hymnbook with as many copies as we need in English worldwide."
Meanwhile, translation will begin for other languages.
"Spanish and Portuguese are at the top of the list because there are so many members who speak those languages," said Livingston, who added, "48 languages qualify for a new hymnbook."53 comments on this story
The committees are evaluating the translations of current hymns and training people in several nations who can translate music. The church is still translating the 1985 hymnbook into 12 languages, a project that will transition to the new hymnal and songbook.
One new feature of the new books will be that they will all, regardless of language, have the same hymns in the same order with the same hymn number, part of a desire to foster global unity in the church.
Until then, the 14 committee members may want to heed at least one declaration from the church's famed pioneer anthem "Come, Come Ye Saints":
"Fresh courage take."