Hymn text by George Gill, 1820-1880. View the full text of this hymn.

Beautiful Zion, built above;
Beautiful city that I love;
Beautiful gates of pearly white;
Beautiful temple–God its light;
He who was slain on Calvary
Opens those pearly gates for me.

While it is beautiful, I am a little surprised this hymn made it into the LDS hymnbook. In the LDS church, we do think of Zion as an actual heavenly city, but we also think of Zion as “the pure in heart,” which means it is here around us now on Earth. It is something that we are constantly trying to build up and thus not a city that we think of as “built above.” We also don’t talk much about the pearly gates: we see those more as a metaphor than as a reality. We are on board with temples, of course, but I’m pretty sure we don’t believe there will be temples as we now have them in heaven. Our temples are designed to teach us how to get to heaven, and once we’re there, that’s not instruction we’ll need any more.

Beautiful heav’n, where all is light;
Beautiful angels clothed in white;
Beautiful strains that never tire;
Beautiful harps thru all the choir;
There shall I join the chorus sweet,
Worshiping at the Savior’s feet.

Once again, we’ve got some significant differences. We do believe there will be light in heaven, and music, but we don’t believe that every moment of every day will be spent singing, or that there will always be harps involved (though a few harpists might want to continue the practice in heaven, so I won’t say harps will never be involved),  and while we believe we will worship the Savior, we also feel like we’ll continue to improve ourselves in heaven.

Beautiful crowns on ev’ry brow;
Beautiful palms the conq’rors show;
Beautiful robes the ransomed wear;
Beautiful all who enter there;
Thither I press with eager feet;
There shall my rest be long and sweet.

Here we go again. We don’t look forward to or expect literal crowns, or think we’ll be carrying around palm leaves, and while our art tends to show heavenly beings in robes, I’ve always assumed that was because Christ wore them when he came to earth, and at that time, robes were just what everyone wore. I don’t know that we have any solid doctrine on heavenly fashion.

So why, if the hymn is so far removed from LDS doctrine on so many levels, is it still included in our hymnbook? I can’t actually speak for the committee that chose it, but I’ve got a guess.

Mainly, we enjoy the symbolism. While at first glance, Gill’s heaven is a very sterilized and a little boring, with white clothes, pearly gates, and harp music, it’s got a lot happening under the surface. The white clothes of heaven’s inhabitants, says Revelations, have been dyed white in the blood of the Lamb. The dyeing isn’t an easy process for us, and the dying that produced the blood was clearly a difficult process for the Savior, too. Heaven’s sedate pace and appearance stands in stark contrast to the suffering and hardship it takes to get everyone there. As we struggle through our messy lives, wishing we had just another hour today to help get everything done, or wishing it weren’t so painful, Gill shows us a vision of what heaven can be–a rest. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel that keeps us motivated and moving along.

Personally, I might be more motivated by color than all white all the time, I prefer music played with guitars over harps, and I hope that in addition to praising God, we also get to go rock climbing and gardening and chili-cook-off-ing. But I also hope that my hard work will accomplish something, that I will be worthy of and suited to a place that is pure and peaceful and beautiful. And, honestly,  if I had to choose, I’d pick the pure heaven over the party heaven. Gill and I don’t agree on most of the details, but we do agree on the main points: heaven is where God is, where wrongs are righted, and where those who have worked hard are rewarded for their hard work.

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