If you remember this hymn for anything, it’s probably for the opening bars. We have plenty of hymns in which the men drop out, leaving the women to carry the melody for a moment, but here, the opposite happens. The men are left alone for the first eight beats of each of the first two lines, and if your ward is anything like mine, there’s a strange sort of silence as the men try to figure out what it is they’re supposed to be doing.
It’s a shame when that happens, though, because we miss the call and response aspect of the beginning of the hymn. Listen to the first two lines:
What was witnessed in the heavens?
Why, an angel earthward bound.
Had he something with him bringing?
Yes, the gospel, joyful sound!
The angel we sing about was Moroni, as he appeared to the boy Joseph Smith, telling him the location of the Book of Mormon and teaching him about his role in the upcoming restoration of the gospel. The hymn is about the restoration, yes, but you’ll notice the tag “missionary work,” too. The men sing the part of someone who doesn’t know about the restoration, asking someone who does. That may not be apparent in the first verse, which feels more like exposition than genuine questioning, but it’s unmistakable in the second verse:
Had we not before the gospel?
Yes, it came of old to men.
Then what is this latter gospel?
‘Tis the first one come again.
This was preached by Paul and Peter
And by Jesus Christ, the Head.
This we latter Saints are preaching;
We their footsteps wish to tread.
It’s an honest enough question to ask. Don’t we already have the gospel? Isn’t the earth littered with Christian churches? What is this new gospel we’re talking about? It’s the same as we had before. It’s the same gospel we read about Paul and Peter preaching, and the same one we read about Moses and Abraham living as well. Jesus Christ stands at its head, and it was restored in its fullness to us today.
That’s an exciting prospect, if true. We claim a direct link to the church of Christ in His time. I remember learning about the Protestant Reformation in high school and talking about all of the branches of Christianity that came out of it. My teacher, knowing I was a Latter-day Saint, pulled me aside after class, showed me the chart with all the churches on it, and asked where mine fit. I drew a line off to the side from the top to the bottom and said, “This is our church. It’s the original church Jesus taught, restored in our day.” Nothing came of that conversation that I’m aware of, but the boldness of my claim has always remained with me.
It’s a bold claim that we make, and since it’s so bold, it’s our responsibility to make it often. And as we touched upon yesterday, we not only share the gospel with those we meet here, but those who have gone before without a chance to hear the gospel. “What became of those departed,” we ask, “knowing not the gospel plan?” The Lord extends an opportunity for them to hear and receive His teachings, too. The fullness of the gospel was gone from the earth for a long time (about 1700 years), so there’s a lot of catching up to do. We sing that as the angel said, the gospel is to go “to all men, all tongues and nations.” All doesn’t allow for much wiggle room. Everyone is entitled to know and share in those teachings. That’s a bold claim that we make, too.
Whether here on the earth or in the spirit world, everyone will have their chance to hear the gospel message and decide for themselves how they feel about it. “God is just to ev’ry man,” we sing, and it’s true.