“I want you to go to Columbia Studios in New York City and sing one of our hymns. They will make a professional record of it. Do not tell anyone what you are doing.”
Late in 1913, William Mockridge fulfilled this unusual assignment from Charles Taze Russell. * That song, known by some as “The Sweet By-and-By,” was produced as a 78-rpm record. Later, William learned that the song would be used in the opening of the “Photo-Drama of Creation,” a visual presentation of recorded Bible talks and music that was synchronized with silent movies and pictures painted on glass slides. The “Photo-Drama” premiered in New York City in January of 1914.
William’s record was one of more than 50 that phonograph operators played at various English-language showings of the “Photo-Drama.” While most of the music had been produced by others, a few of the records, including William’s, were commissioned by the Bible Students and sung using words from Hymns of the Millennial Dawn, one of their songbooks.
Paying Attention to the Words
For many years, the Witnesses used songs for worship that were written by others. When necessary, though, they changed the words to reflect their understanding of the Scriptures.
For example, one song played during the “Photo-Drama” was entitled “Our King Is Marching On,” an adaptation of the song “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The first verse of the “Battle Hymn” begins: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” However, the Bible Students changed the words to read: “Mine eyes can see the glory of the presence of the Lord.” This change reflected their belief that the rule of Jesus Christ involves not just his coming but his presence over a marked period of time.
With the publication of Singing and Accompanying Yourselves With Music in Your Hearts in 1966, an effort was made to eliminate music known to have originated from secular sources or other religions. In that year, the Witnesses assembled a small orchestra and recorded each of the book’s 119 songs. The congregations used those recordings to accompany the singing at their meetings, and some Witnesses enjoyed listening to them at home.
In 2009, Jehovah’s Witnesses published a new songbook, Sing to Jehovah. Vocal renditions of the songs in it have been recorded in dozens of languages. In 2013 the Witnesses began publishing their first children’s music videos. One has the title Pray Anytime. Visitors to jw.org download songs several million times each month.
Many have expressed appreciation for this music. A woman named Julie wrote regarding Sing to Jehovah: “The new songs are so beautiful! When I’m alone, I play the ones that express how I really feel. As a result, I can perceive my relationship with Jehovah getting stronger and I’m more determined than ever to give him my all.”
A mother named Heather wrote the following about how the video Pray Anytime has affected her children, aged seven and nine, “It has helped them to pray, not just at the start of the day or when they’re with us but anytime they feel like talking to Jehovah.”
^ par. 3 Charles Taze Russell (1852–
Learn the unique challenges when translating song lyrics into many languages.
Learn about the dramatic early history of Christianity and the spiritual heritage of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The self-guided exhibit includes hundreds of documents, photos, and other artifacts.