This Sunday in sacrament meeting we sang the hymn O God, the Eternal Father. I noticed this time, more than previous times, the gender-exclusive language:
That sacred, holy off’ring,
By man least understood…
With no apparent beauty,
That man should him desire…
To walk upon his footstool
And be like man, almost…
I understand that when W.W. Phelps wrote these lyrics back in the 1830’s, gender-exclusive language was the norm, it was the way people talked, wrote, and thought. I also understand that in many instances such gender-exclusive language was typically understood to mean both men and women. I suspect that Brother Phelps had no overt desire to leave anyone out; by using “man” he may have been simply using the default term for the word “humans”.
Now, one might ask that if the word man is commonly understood to mean both men and women, then what is the big deal about continuing with this traditional language?
Here’s the big deal:
Research has shown that terms such as “he” or “his” are not interpreted generically, but rather tend to evoke masculine referents. In addition, man-linked words (e.g., man, mankind, chairman, etc.) are not perceived as referring equally to men and women. Importantly, such usage can limit the opportunities and affect the self-concept of women, leading to a lower sense of belonging and less motivation in an organizational context. In short, gender-exclusive language affects the way that men view women and the way that women view women, typically placing women in a subordinate, one-down, less-than position relative to men.
There is no disputing that some Mormon women experience alienation from their faith community simply because they are women–their gender acting as a barrier to full inclusion in church participation and full recognition in the eyes of God–and I think it is reasonable to conclude that gender-exclusive language has a tendency, or at least the potential, to contribute to this alienation.
So if gender-exclusive language negatively impacts how we all view women in the Church, it behooves us to strive for better gender-inclusion in our language. Promisingly, the rhetoric in General Conference seems to be slowly moving toward such language.
But can gender-inclusive language work in our hymnbooks? Clearly there is a need for it. Furthermore, the history of LDS hymnbooks has also shown a movement towards increased sensitivity towards women and minorities. Yet, one might object, many of the hymns are traditional, the rhyme-scheme is already set, and changes have the potential to make them less beautiful and possibly just strange.
Perhaps. But there are numerous precedents for changing LDS songs that we should consider. I will describe two of them that I noticed myself, the first, which makes what is left of my hair stand on end, and the second, which seems necessary and good.
First, one of my favorite Primary songs used to be titled, “Genealogy, I Am Doing It”, but The Committee for Removing Charm from Primary Songs in Order to Improve Correlation with Church Programs gave it the current title: “Family History, I Am Doing It”. I am not a fan–I still play from my pre-correlated Primary songbook as a mild form of rebellion–but it was done, so there is a precedent.
Second, in the pre-1985 hymnbook the chorus of the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation” used to be, “You who unto Jesus for refuge hath fled,” which sounds fine until you put it with the music and repeat it:
You who unto Jesus, you who unto Jesus, you who unto Jesus for refuge hath fled.
You-hoo! Jesus! Over here!
You can see the problem. So in the 1985 hymnbook it was changed to: “Who unto the Savior for refuge hath fled.” Good call–I can get on board with that change.
While these are two examples I noticed personally, a number of other examples are provided by Douglas Campbell in his wonderful and detailed Dialogue article from 1995: “Sons of God, children of a King” was changed to “Sons and daughters, children of a King”; “Go Forth, My Son” was changed to “Go Forth with Faith”; “…turn the heart of the fathers to the children…” was changed to “…turn your hearts toward your parents…”; and so on. He goes on to chronicle creative and elegant strategies that have been employed in the past to make the hymns more gender-inclusive.
Which simply demonstrates that there is no reason we can’t continue modifying the hymnbook if there is an acknowledged need to do so. And I would say that there is a need to do so. So many Church policies and practices treat women as being invisible–kind of like that old cliche, “Everyone is invited to the meeting, and women can come too.” According to some conceptions of modern Mormonism, Heavenly Father, like Mitt Romney, has binders full of women–a gender rolodex, if you will. It is about time we call women up and invite them to full participation in Mormonism.
Changing the next edition of the hymnbook to be more gender-inclusive would be a small but important step in that direction, and I could see most Mormons, and perhaps most Mormon leaders, being supportive of such changes. A modified hymnbook would not require doctrinal changes, but the impact would be huge because everyone would notice it–we would sing the changes each week, with even bass and tenor voices echoing the inclusiveness. It would be a powerful but subtle statement acknowledging that we have heard women’s voices telling us that some women feel excluded, and that we have taken some steps to better include them. As a move for the Church, it would seem to be low cost and high reward.
I have been told that the Music Committee made a series of additional suggestions for improving gender inclusivity in the 1985 hymnbook, but these were turned down by the General Authorities. Now here we are, nearly 30 years later, and surely a better understanding of the importance of gender-inclusive language has permeated even our Mormon consciousness.
We have been told by church leaders that women are incredible. If this is so, then it is time to demonstrate it through actions, including through changes to our hymnbook. Apparently we love women because of their special natures and abilities. Well then, in the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle:
Don’t talk of stars burning above
If you’re in love show me
Tell me no dreams filled with desire
If you’re on fire show me…
Say one more word and I’ll scream…
Please don’t [mans]”expl’ine”, show me, show me
Don’t wait until wrinkles and lines
Pop out all over my brow
Show me now