In our lovely Deseret,
Where the Saints of God have met,
There’s a multitude of children all around.
They are generous and brave;
They have precious souls to save;
They must listen and obey the gospel’s sound.
For a long time, I had a sharply negative association with this hymn. I thought of it as you might, as the brainwashing hymn. It has a cloyingly catchy tune, and the “hark! hark! hark!” chorus lends itself to easy mocking (we always pretended to be seals, clapping our hands and barking to the music), and the second verse feels a little too on the nose with its specifics about the Word of Wisdom. We’d sing it at the start of meetings for comedic value, certainly, but never more seriously than that. It was a joke, and nothing more.
That’s my daughter up there at the top of the post. Everything changes when you’re no longer singing about a “multitude of children,” but about your child.
It’s easy to see this as a brainwashing hymn telling children how they must live their lives, but I prefer to think of it as instructional. Children come into the world pure and innocent, not knowing how to do, well, anything. If you’ve ever spent time around a child of virtually any age, you’ll understand as I’ve come to over the last year just how little children actually know. I’ve spent the better part of a year teaching my daughter which things she puts in her mouth are food and which aren’t. You might be teaching a child when it’s appropriate to be loud and playful and when it’s better to be quiet and still. You might be helping a child learn to share, to ride a bike, to sing, or any of a number of things. And every time you come across something that this child can’t do, you may be astonished. “What do you mean you don’t know how to whistle?” you may catch yourself thinking. “Doesn’t everyone know how to whistle?”
Everyone knows how to whistle, or fly a kite, or throw a frisbee that first has been shown how to do those things. Those who have gone before are responsible to teach those who come after how to do things. Why should the gospel be any different? Children need to understand the gospel, the same as you and I do. An instructional hymn, particularly one with a catchy tune that is easy to learn, can aid in their understanding. The next time the child is tempted to be mean, the lyrics, “They should always be polite, and treat ev’rybody right, and in every place be affable and kind” may come into his or her head, causing an unkind thought or action to be forgotten. When laying down to sleep after a long day, the lyrics, “They must not forget to pray, night and morning ev’ry day, for the Lord to keep them safe from ev’ry ill” may present themselves as a reminder to offer a prayer of their own. And yes, when a child finds him or herself tempted with a cigarette or anything else similar, this tune and the words “tea and coffee and tobacco they despise” may come to mind.
We are responsible for teaching our children to love the Lord and to obey His law. We can do that by reading the scriptures with them, praying with them, having talks with them, and yes, we can do so through music. Primary songs like “I Am a Child of God” and “Families Can Be Together Forever” are just as didactic as this hymn is, and for good reason. We want these tunes stuck in their heads. We want them thinking about the Lord and His gospel constantly. We want these principles to never be far from their hearts.
And why is that? To put it simply, it is because “they have precious souls to save.” You can read that as the children needing to grow up strong in the gospel so they can go and rescue others. It’s true. We need to be strong in the faith so that we can help others along the path. But I think it’s just as appropriate to interpret that phrase as referring to the children’s own souls. Their souls are precious, and they need saving, just as ours do. They are our responsibility, and now that I’ve held one of those precious souls in my arms, I’m determined to use any means necessary to save it, including a song I was only too happy to dismiss as cloying and jingoistic.
Hark! Hark! Hark! ’tis children’s music–
Children’s voices, oh, how sweet,
When in innocence and love,
Like the angels up above,
They with happy hearts and cheerful faces meet.