One Sunday this last May I substituted for the Primary Chorister. She asked me to introduce the hymn the children are supposed to learn this year: number 27, “Praise to the Man.”
I was immediately uncomfortable with the idea of teaching this particular hymn to children. For one thing, the text is archaic and obtuse, riddled with words like “extol” and “dispensation” and “lauds.” How can a pre-reader like my little Elspeth really grasp the meaning of this hymn? Then I started to get anxious about the meaning itself, and especially the idea that I would need to explain it to these kids. Here’s the text of the first verse (the verse I was asked to introduce; the older kids also learned the third verse in later weeks):
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus annointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.
Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.
Yeah, it’s a hymn about Joseph Smith, specifically his martyrdom. I have trouble believing every good thing the church teaches about Joseph Smith. There are some pretty messed-up things in LDS History and a lot of them involve him. I also think it’s weird to be singing an entire hymn dedicated to praising a man. Shouldn’t songs of praise and worship be directed toward God and Jesus?
So, on said Sunday in May, I focused on the rousing music rather than the text. I played a really great Pipes & Drums setting of “Scotland the Brave” (on which the hymn’s melody is based), and we sang through the first verse a couple of times. I tried to explain some of the more difficult words without getting too involved in the overall meaning of the hymn. I guess it was kind of a cowardly way to bow out of the controversy, but it worked pretty well and it didn’t end up being a big deal.
And guess what has been Elspeth’s favorite song for the past six months! That’s right, “Praise to the Man.” She sings it ALL the time, and she wants me to sing it, too, since I know all the words and she doesn’t. She asks me to sing it everywhere. At home, when we’re driving in the car, when we’re grocery shopping. I have to admit that it’s adorable when she sings “Praise to the man who commune wif Jehomah” but we had an extremely awkward moment last weekend when she requested it at a friend’s house while we were eating Shabbat dinner.
It’s not just Elspeth, either; all the kids in our ward LOVE this hymn. I was asked to sing it at a baptism, all four verses. The little girl who was being baptized, a girl I hardly knew, called me herself and asked me to sing it. They all get excited when they get to sing it each week in primary. So I guess I made an impression when I introduced it. Last week was our primary program (a special service, held once a year, that showcases the children in our congregation) and it opened with the children walking into the chapel singing “Praise to the Man.” I’m not gonna lie, I got chills. Was I feeling the spirit, as we Mormons are wont to say? I don’t know. I felt good. There is just something incredibly moving about the way children sing when they really love the song- that combination of eagerness and innocence. I’m not sure it was the song so much, but rather the singing. Maybe I would have felt that way if they’d been singing “hasa diga eebowai” with the same gusto. Ok, bad example. But you know what I mean. I feel the same way when I hear these boys sing “Balulalow.” What do these feelings mean? What do feelings ever mean?