The History of "Press Forward, Saints"

The current hymnal used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was first published in 1985. In the years leading up to the creation of the hymnal, the Hymnbook Executive Committee was formed to select and edit the texts and music of the hymnal. Marvin Gardner and Vanja Watkins were both members of that committee and, in an unusual way, created the beloved hymn “Press Forward, Saints.”

As chair of the review committee that screened thousands of hymns submitted for possible inclusion in the hymnbook, Gardner noticed a lack of submissions that were based on Latter-day Saint scripture. Although he had never written a hymn text, Gardner set out to write a text based on verses from the Book of Mormon—particularly a passage that spoke of faith, hope, and charity.

During a 1984 session of stake conference, a speaker quoted 2 Nephi 31:20. Suddenly, Gardner remembered the feelings of testimony and commitment he had always felt when reading that scripture. He noted that phrases from this verse could be the basis of the text for the Book of Mormon hymn he had hoped to write. Before the speaker had finished his talk, the format of the hymn text and some of the lyrics were nearly complete.

In addition to emphasizing the names of God and Christ and repeating the words press and alleluia at consistent points in each verse, he created symmetry with internal rhyme: flame/name/proclaim. Gardner matched the text to a Protestant hymn tune and submitted it to the committee. As was done with all new hymns being considered, the secretary removed his name from the hymn so that when presented to the committee, it would be evaluated on its own merits rather than on the name of the author.

Later, the committee voted to accept the lyrics but felt that the hymn tune to which it had been matched did not fit the exuberant feeling of the words. Several weeks after pairing the text with another well-known Protestant hymn tune, the committee learned that this second musical setting was not available for use. So the committee set out to find completely new music for the words.

Some time after hearing the lyrics for the first time, Watkins, who was also a member of the committee, was at a dinner with her husband and his colleagues. With conversation swirling around the table, she heard an insistent melody come into her head along with the words of the first line of the text. Throughout the evening, the second, third, and fourth lines of words came successively, each with a tune that stayed until it was safely stored in her memory. During that night, the harmonization ran through her mind, and she wrote out the parts during the next few days.

Thinking that a different tune was planned for these words, Watkins wondered why a new melody would have come into her mind. When she found out several weeks later that completely new music was needed, she submitted the tune that had come to her. Like the text, the tune was submitted without the name of the composer.

During a weekly committee meeting, Gardner’s words and Watkins’s tune were combined and sung. The committee immediately felt that the text and tune were a match, and the hymn was accepted for the hymnbook.

When the names of the lyricist and composer were revealed, the two friends were thrilled to discover that—although their collaboration had not been planned—their individual efforts had worked together to create the hymn. Watch the video above to see Watkins and Gardner discuss their famous hymn, “Press Forward, Saints.”

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