Theology of the Body, Episode 2: The Gendering of Voices in a Mormon Sunday Choir

Like the master-signifier of reality, the hanging portrait of a prophet hovered in the air of a vacated instruction room, smiling with relief over a group of the elect youth of God’s Zion who had been selected by heavenly beings in heavenly places to live in the latter days of human history and to call downtown Salt Lake City their home.

Our fearless leader was a young urban twentysomething who had managed to negotiate the waist of her yellow pencil-skirt by means of a thin, tan belt that somehow maintained its functionality regardless of the fact that it had no loops. She rapped stubbornly upon the pulpit with her conductor’s baton to summon the attention of chuckling boys who were seated in chairs that had been designed for children whose ages bear only one digit. A small selection of voices–the ward choir–had gathered into the room to reflect on the character of the day’s imminent performance.

“Men’s voices are on the right; women on the left,” the conductress sighed tiredly, explained. “Tenors, basses, altos–do you know your parts? Sopranos.”

During the 1990s, the late Gordon B. Hinckley, the 15th prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stood before a  general assembly of Mormon women and introduced them to the first public reading of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Though the document has not as yet been incorporated formally into the body of official Mormon canon, it has grown to fill an enormous practical role as a guiding revelatory document on matters of gender and sexuality for the world’s 14 million Mormons.

To those who approach the task of exegesis with a deep cushion of traditional social norms, the Family Proclamation is a clear affirmation of the same. Yet to those for whom gendered dichotomies are not a preconceived given, the Proclamation is, in the words of one scholar of Mormonism,” a French post-structuralist dream-text in its capacity to mean precisely opposite things to people inclined to interpret it differently.”

In the staggered rows of the Sunday morning choir, gender is both essential and divine. The men and the women divide amongst themselves to perform the labor of performance, working to produce the unity that Socrates described in his Symposium as a “reconciliation of opposites,” a thought-exploration “concerned with the principles of love in their application to harmony and rhythm.”

Tenors oscillate between repeated sequences of three–maybe four–pitches on the bass clef, while the altos jerkily hop from accidental to unpredictable accidental to create a sense of balance and harmony within the final product: “[g]ender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

Glancing up momentarily from the rules on my sheet music, I look again at the pencil-skirted conductress who now vigorously directs the choir with rhythmic motions of her arms and chin. I wonder aloud–through the planned allocation of breaths, through the Anglicized pronunciation of harsh vowel-sounds–I wonder aloud my questions.

I ask which chair in the room the leader would use to seat the castrati of mediæval history who subverted the processes of natural human development in order to keep their voices high and mighty. And I ask which spaces the leader would use to situate Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady who practiced to lower her voice by several decibels so that the people of Great Britain would listen seriously to her ideas.

I ask these questions for a first time with a masculine voice; I ask the same things again, with a feminine voice. Hearing nothing but music, I bring my eyes back down to the sheet, stumbling to find my notes in my place in my part.

Postscript: Joseph Smith, Jr., transcribed a revelation in July 1830 appointing his first wife, Emma, to the project of gathering, arranging, and, in some cases, creating, the hymns of the Church’s first hymnbook. The text of this revelation was canonized into Mormon scripture as the 25th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. 

The voice of the prose passage speaks in the character of a resurrected Jesus, lecturing to Emma about the sacrality of her musical talents. “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart,” we can imagine her receiving the words slowly and methodically from her husband, first into her ears and then into her mind, following his lead at some table in some house on some unidentified summer afternoon in Pennsylvania.

“Yea,” he or He would continue, “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” 


This is the second installment in an ongoing series that will explore issues in spirituality through a review of significant symbolic motions, poses, and gestures from a variety of religious traditions.

Throughout human history, the heart’s longing for religious enlightenment has spawned many practices associated with the active contemplation of and interaction with the bodies of selves and others. What can our interactions with the body teach us about the mind, and what does the mind teach us about the body? How can we engage with both of these aspects of human experience without lodging ourselves within a limiting soul-body binary?

Over the course of this series, I will do my best to present an objective account of each chosen ritual and cultural context, although I must admit that I am led in this journey by the guiding belief that together, in the words of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., “the spirit and the body are the soul of man” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:15). Recommendations for religion-and-the-body subjects are welcome and can be submitted to kekpenyong[at]gmail[dot]com. Previous installments of this series can be found here

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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One thought on “Theology of the Body, Episode 2: The Gendering of Voices in a Mormon Sunday Choir

  1. I’m not sure that choir quite serves as the paragon of gender essentialism that you’re making it out to be. The issue is not so much gender as vocal range—but the boundary here is somewhat permeable, as you suggest. In my home ward as a teenager, the tenor section usually had a female occupant. This year we were talking about seconding one of our altos to the tenor section on one piece so that a tenor or two could become ad hoc baritones. Add to this that in congregational singing, the musically apt often enjoy singing a different part for each verse of a hymn. I’ve heard men sing the alto line as written (not an octave down). My wife enjoys singing the bass part (an octave up).

    Another possible angle, however, would be the way that LDS arrangers divide verses between men and women. To think analytically about how and why these divisions occur, with reference to both music and text, would be interesting.

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