Jana Riess: Does it matter, pray tell, how Latter-day Saints talk to God?

I want the language I use in prayer to reflect my relationship with deity and help it to grow.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A young man offers a prayer in a priesthood quorum meeting in Paris. The church has resumed the practice of opening second-hour Sunday meetings with prayer.

This week, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued new guidance about Sunday meetings. Effective immediately, second-hour meetings such as Sunday school, Relief Society, priesthood and youth classes will open with a prayer.

On the face of it, this is hardly earth-shattering news. (Christians will now pray in church! Who would have thought?) As the news release explains, this shift simply reverses a policy the church has been trying since October 2018. That’s when, under the new leadership of President Russell Nelson, Latter-day Saints the world over shortened three-hour Sunday meetings to two hours.

I expect the 2018 policy was put in place in an effort to save precious time, just as I imagine it’s being reversed now because the experiment showed that having an opening prayer can set a more spiritual tone for a Sunday lesson. There’s no way to tell for certain, because the church did not explain either the 2018 policy or its 2022 reversal (which sounds like a familiar pattern).

What has shifted in the meantime, and is emphasized in the latest announcement, is the pronouns church members are directed to use in praying before class. “Members should pray using words that express love and respect for Heavenly Father,” the announcement said, quoting the most recent version of the church’s General Handbook. “In English, this includes using the pronouns thee, thy, thine and thou when addressing him.”

This direction in how to pray is not entirely new; a version of it has been in the sacrament meeting section of the church’s handbook since at least 2010. But the latest direction is not about sacrament meeting; it’s about what happens in the classroom. The logical extension is that using thee and thou is becoming the language that every Latter-day Saint is expected to use all the time.

Certainly, various church leaders have expressed strong opinions about “thee” and “thou” through the years. It was a particular concern of Spencer Kimball and of Dallin Oaks, who has been hammering this point for decades. In a 1992 General Conference talk called “The Language of Prayer,” apostle Oaks said that Heavenly Father wants to hear prayers that express respect for his elevated position over us and that frankly acknowledge his power.

It’s telling that Oaks opened the talk by drawing upon the rightness of using formal language to reinforce certain hierarchical relationships on earth — the soldier who must use special terminology when addressing a superior officer in the military; the honor due to a judge in the courtroom; the titles we use for government officials or royalty.

What I agree with about Oaks’ talk is his overall conclusion that “the way we pray is important.” How we address God reflects, and in turn shapes, how we feel about God. It demonstrates how we value that relationship.

“Relationship” is the key sticking point. A soldier does not have a relationship with a commanding officer; in fact, such congress is discouraged in the military. A petitioner does not have a relationship with the judge in a courtroom. And most of us don’t have relationships with government officials or royalty (even if we feel like we do after watching Harry and Meghan spill the tea on Netflix.

And at the end of the day, what I want is a relationship with God. I want to be a daughter, not a foot soldier. And I want the language I use for prayer to reflect that relationship and help it to grow.

For some Latter-day Saints, particularly those who grew up in the church and prayed in formal English in their family home evening each Monday or in family prayer each morning, “thee” and “thou” language absolutely can contribute to that kind of relationship. For them, the language becomes associated over a period of years with loving family time and what Latter-day Saints experience when they “feel of the Spirit.”

It hasn’t been that way for me. I grew up in a family where one parent was disinterested in religion (though that changed later in life) and the other was actively furious about religion (which never changed). There was no family prayer using “thee” and “thou” or any other pronouns.

Yet I was always fascinated by religion, drawn to it. For whatever reason, I always just knew that God was real. Even as a kid with no formal exposure, I would pray to God and try to learn more about Jesus. At my two-week stint at Girl Scout camp each summer, I would attend the Catholic Mass on Saturday evening and the Protestant church service on Sunday morning, just to learn more. If anything other than Catholicism and Protestantism had been on offer at that Iowa Scout camp in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I would have attended that too.

I’ve never doubted that God hears prayers, however they’re offered, in whatever situation. And to be fair to Oaks, his talk makes that clear, too: “If [Heavenly Father] is offended in connection with prayers, it is likely to be by their absence, not their phraseology.” He makes allowances for new converts who are just learning their way, comparing them to adorable children who are blithely mangling language when they’re little. But make no mistake, he expects them to grow up in the faith, and that includes learning and employing formal, “special language” for God.

I tried this language when I first converted to Mormonism in 1993, and it felt wrong for me. That’s not to say it’s wrong for everyone; it was wrong for me, coming from my background. It didn’t express the kind of intimate friendship with God I’d cultivated even in a largely irreligious childhood.

There are examples of Jesus using formal prayer in the New Testament, which Oaks mentions in his talk. And there are also times when Jesus manifestly didn’t — like calling God by the tender name “Abba,” the Aramaic familiar form for Daddy, instead of “Ruler of the Universe” or other formal titles from Hebrew prayers.

It seems reasonable that all kinds of ways of addressing God should be welcome and that all of those ways can be deeply spiritual.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)