Thousands of missionaries past and present have sung the beloved hymn “Called to Serve.” The rousing number has long been a favorite among Latter-day Saints, but what Church members may not know is that it wasn’t originally scheduled to be included in the 1985 hymnal. So how did it become a staple for missionaries?
In an October 1997 general conference talk, President Boyd K. Packer recalled that some years previous, “we were looking for something to inspire a conference of mission presidents. In a very interesting way we found it in a long-unused Primary songbook.”
“Called to Serve” was indeed first written for children, according to the book Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages. The song has been a part of children’s songbooks in the Church since 1920, although some editorial changes have been made since then to make the language more inclusive—today the lyrics are “Sons and daughters, children of a King” instead of “Sons of God and children of a King.” This verse in the 1951 songbook was also omitted from today’s hymnbook and Children’s Songbook:
“Called to serve his path of service loyal / Called to lead to his eternal light; / Rich reward awaits in mansions royal. / Forward then in heavenly might.”
But there’s more to the story of how the hymn came to be included in the conference of mission presidents Elder Packer referenced. In chapter 10 of Anxiously Engaged: A Biography of M. Russell Ballard by Joseph Walker and Susan Easton Black, a single sentence offers some additional explanation. The biography reads, “The hymn ‘Called to Serve,’ suggested by Donna Packer, would be introduced to all mission presidents throughout the world who gathered to Salt Lake for training meetings.”
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Sister Packer, who passed away at age 94 on Sunday, March 5, 2022, was a mother of 10 children and clearly a woman of many talents. According to Church News, her musical background included violin lessons as a girl and she could play in front of others, which served her well in callings and assignments. But what exactly was her involvement in suggesting “Called to Serve” being sung at the conference?
In an email to LDS Living, Black provided additional context of how the hymn was selected. George Durrant, who served as Executive Secretary for Home Teaching and Family Home Evening for the Church in the 1980s, often reported to Elder Packer in his assignment. Durrant told Black the following:
“All the mission presidents across the world had been called to Church Headquarters for a special meeting on missionary work. It was decided by Elder Packer, who was over that work at the time, to have missionaries from the Missionary Training Center come in at a certain point in the meeting and march to the front. As they came in, they were singing ‘Called to Serve.’ None of those in attendance knew that song, but they were greatly impressed as the missionaries sang.
“Elder Packer told me that he knew the importance of this grand entry of the missionaries and wanted to have them sing a special song. He searched diligently for such a song. He said to his wife Donna, ‘Do you know any song that would be appropriate for such an occasion?’ She recalled a song from her youth. That song was ‘Called to Serve.’ Donna sat down at the piano and played it for Elder Packer and they sang it together. Elder Packer knew that was the song he wanted. Elder Packer often turned to Sister Packer for advice on various matters. Elder Packer was known for his wisdom. Sister Packer was not one whit behind him in this great spiritual gift.”
Our Latter-day Hymns explained that the conference, held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City in 1985, included mission presidents, Area Presidents, and Regional Representatives. As the missionaries from the MTC marched in singing the song, the effect certainly did leave a strong impression on the audience—so much so, in fact, that an editorial in Church News reported about the captivating performance. It said, “The impact of this experience was so moving that tears were flowing and deep emotions were stirred. It was an unforgettable moment.”
Our Latter-day Hymns continues, “The shared feeling following that meeting was, ‘But of course “Called to Serve” is going to be in the new hymnal!’” The book then explains that the song was “the very last to be added to the list of hymns approved for the 1985 hymnbook.”
Today, it remains to be seen whether “Called to Serve” will be included in the revised hymnbook or Children’s Songbook, which ChurchofJesusChrist.org explains will consist of “new and existing hymns and songs from around the world.” But the legacy of the hymn, its stirring melody, and Elder and Sister Packer’s influence in bringing “Called to Serve” to light at the conference of mission presidents back in 1985 will doubtless live on and continue to inspire Latter-day Saints everywhere.
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