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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : You Know That “We Thank Thee, O God, For A Prophet” Isn’t About Prophets, Right? » You Know That “We Thank Thee, O God, For A Prophet” Isn’t About Prophets, Right?

You Know That “We Thank Thee, O God, For A Prophet” Isn’t About Prophets, Right?

Rusty - December 4, 2006

I mean, surely those who decide to sing it at EVERY SINGLE meeting that President Hinckley attends have read the lyrics and know that only the first two lines are about prophets and the rest is about the Gospel in the latter-days, right? Not that there is anything wrong with singing about the Gospel in the latter-days, but if that’s the objective then there are many others which are better. Seriously now, President Hinckley can’t still enjoy hearing this song, can he?

17 Comments »

  1. Rusty, I love how when the second and third verses roll around, most folks don’t know the words too well until the main chorus kicks in, and it gets louder again. Why is it that most people only know the first verse of a given hymn, yet all verses of the hymns get equal singing time in church? ;)

    Comment by David J — December 4, 2006 @ 9:35 pm

  2. Errr, there really isnt a chorus in that one. And I know all 3 verses. Especially, “While they who reject this glad message, Shall never such happiness know.”

    Comment by David B — December 4, 2006 @ 9:50 pm

  3. It really is a strange line to end a hymn with.

    I think everyone believes that the song is about prophets because the name is just the first line. If it was called “latter-day blessings” we would never sing it for the prophet.

    Comment by Ariel — December 4, 2006 @ 11:41 pm

  4. One other fun fact about that song. In old hymnals you’ll see that the not stays the same on the phrase “…to lighten our minds…” but everyone always sang it the way it’s printed now, so they finally changed it!

    David J,

    I think everyone remembers the first verses more because we often only sing one verse in other meetings, foraml and informal.

    David B,

    Good point. I did a wonderful arrangement of this song by my director at BYUI that repeated that phrase for emphasis and ritarded before going on to a beautiful new, fianl verse she wrote herself. If I was more tech savvy, I’d post a recording of it. (and if I had copyright)

    Comment by Bret — December 5, 2006 @ 2:31 am

  5. By George, you’re right, Bret. I hadn’t noticed that in all those dotted eighth and sixteenth notes.

    And you too, Rusty. Here I thought I was the only one who had figured out the song–maybe we’re all afraid of going public with the news. But, not only is the song not about prophets, but it’s a pastiche of every trite and banal phrase about religion that you can imagine. Then to top it all off the last two verses end with the presumed judgment to be visited upon those who don’t believe as we do. I don’t know how we as a church can sign with a straight face, in bouncy dotted eighth/sixteenth notes, about our neighbors “surely be[ing] smitten at last.”

    All the blessings of modern revelation–of prophets in our day–and that song is the best we can come up with??

    Comment by Mark B. — December 5, 2006 @ 7:53 am

  6. Another funny thing about this song is that it was almost certainly originally written in reference to Joseph Smith, and not to prophets in general. The hymn was probably written before 1863, when its author (William Fowler) migrated from England to the US — and certainly before 1865, when Fowler died. So it dates from the Brigham Young period. But the practice of referring to the current president of the church as “prophet” didn’t arise until substantially after the Brigham Young era.

    Brigham Young himself rejected direct comparisons between himself and “the Prophet,” Joseph Smith. For example, in an 1860 sermon, Young said:

    The brethren testify that brother Brigham is brother Joseph’s legal successor. You never heard me say so. I say that I am a good hand to keep the dogs and wolves out of the flock. (Journal of Discourses 8:69

    In fact, the phrase “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” wasn’t even used at general conference sustainings during Brigham Young’s lifetime, except during 1855 and 57, basically during the Mormon Reformation (see this book, page 251, for documentation).

    One popular hymn from the Joseph Smith era had the following first verse:

    A church without a prophet is not the church for me;/It has no head to lead it, in it I would not be;/But I’ve a church not built by man,/Out from the mountain without hand,/A church with gifts and blessings, oh, that’s the church for me,/Oh, that’s the church for me, oh, that’s the church for me.

    During the early years after Joseph Smith’s death, this hymn was used by one of Brigham Young’s rivals as Smith’s successor, James J. Strang, to embarrass Young. Strang, after all, claimed to be a prophet and produced extensive revelations and scriptural translations. Young did not. As a result, Young ended up banning the singing of the “church without a prophet” hymn at Nauvoo and among the Utah Saints. (See this book, pg. 134.) In the terminology of the day, after all, the Utah church didn’t have a prophet — it had apostles as leaders instead.

    A content analysis of Church News discussions of church presidents suggests that the practice of referring to the current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as “prophet” (rather than reserving the term for discussions of Joseph Smith or of figures from ancient scripture) dates to 1955 (see this book, page 363).

    So, not only is “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” not about prophets — the first line, which does mention “a Prophet” was almost certainly intended to refer only to Joseph Smith, and not to any subsequent Mormon leader. Singing this hymn to honor our current leader makes about as much sense as singing “Praise to the Man” for the same purpose would do.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — December 5, 2006 @ 9:28 am

  7. RT,
    That is fascinating stuff.

    Comment by Rusty — December 5, 2006 @ 9:49 am

  8. Singing this hymn to honor our current leader makes about as much sense as singing “Praise to the Man” for the same purpose would do.

    So.. let me get this straight, you are contending that we should not use the phrase “We thank thee O, God for a prophet” as a respectful homage to.. a prophet?

    All the hermeneutics aside, isn’t the sentiment here to sing a song that expresses our gratitude for our current living prophet and latter-day revelation, etc..

    On top of that, why isn’t it appropriate to sing a song that includes all the blessings of the restoration (all of which, by the way are essentially worthless when a prophet is subtracted from the equation)

    And the wicked who fight against Zion actually will be smitten at last.. as a careful reading of the scriptures will reveal.

    In all your analysis don’t forget that there’s a forest somewhere amongst all them trees. :)

    Comment by Ryan — December 5, 2006 @ 12:05 pm

  9. Don’t know if anyone has mentioned this yet, but President Hinckley actually doesn’t like this song to be sung. My Wife was in charge of the music and choir for a devotional preceding the opening of the San Antonio Temple, and felt the members would want to sing to their prophet. Anyway, when she called the songs in, she was told “Absolutely not, He doesn’t like that sung to be sung to him.” (I paraphrase.) Apparantly, it is a humility issue for President Hinckley.

    Oddly enough, my wife removed the song, at their request, only to happily see it added back into the program later.

    It may not be the meaning of the whole song, but there is something powerful about singing the words “We thank the oh God for a prophet…” full blast with 10,000 other people while the prophet is there with you.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 5, 2006 @ 1:06 pm

  10. Yes, Matt W. There is something powerful about that. It’s just too bad that that first line is followed by the rest of the song–mediocre music, trite words, nothing to do with the blessing of having a prophet.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 5, 2006 @ 3:34 pm

  11. Just like “The spirit of God” isn’t really about the spirit at all, but about the last days.

    Comment by Kim Siever — December 5, 2006 @ 3:46 pm

  12. Early during President Hinckley’s administration, he publicly stated that he thinks of that song as referring to Joseph Smith, and *not* himself, when it is sung. Sorry I don’t have the source handy, but IIRC it was published in the Church News at the time. Seems to accord with Matt’s comment.

    Comment by Nick Literski — December 5, 2006 @ 3:46 pm

  13. I’ve always figured the prophet doesn’t mind this song because he knows what we know. It has very little to do with him.
    As for the harsh treatment of those who reject our glad messege, no worse then over what half the psalms say about the same group of people. I’m almost always for more hellfire/damnation in any of our liturgy.

    RT,

    Hey! Long time no comment on this blog! Good to hear your analysis again:)

    Comment by Bret — December 5, 2006 @ 10:50 pm

  14. This is going to bring out my smugg, pompous jerk side but this post is so last century. I remember having a big discussion about it back in deacons quorum. (nothing wrong with a little ribbing rusty) I was under the impression that it was only the GConference chorister who wasn’t in the loop. I’ll just say that I blame who ever titled the hymn more than anyone. It does seem to be common practice to just throw in the first line of a hymn as the title but how do you read the words and think “WTTOGFAP, that sounds good”?

    Comment by cj douglass — December 6, 2006 @ 12:40 pm

  15. I am the great great great great grandson of William Fowler. He only lived long enough to have one child born to him. His life was cut short by stomach issues most likely due to his travels accross the ocean and then the plains as a pioneer following his true feelings about our religion. His original poem was written when he was a young (orphaned) child walking to church in England in thanks for what he had found.

    I personally feel a strong spirit when the song is sung. I love this song in the present version even with all of the changes that have been made. The man who wrote this song wrote it with great love and the members who choose to sing the song sing it with thier own meanings and to whom and how they choose. The love and feelings we each carry with us is the reason the spirit chooses to be there.

    Comment by Fowlers Grandson — July 19, 2009 @ 8:15 am

  16. I disagree strongly with your comment! I have this whole song memorized and I could listen to it over and over without getting sick of it. Also William Fowler is my ancsetor and I do not appreciate this.

    Comment by vanessa — May 31, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  17. I disagree strongly with your comment! I have this whole song memorized and I could listen to it over and over without getting sick of it. Also William Fowler is my ancsetor and I do not appreciate this. I find you to be quite rude! This is one of the best and most popular songs in the church!

    Comment by vanessa — May 31, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

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