Prayer Rolls

October 10, 2004 | 21 comments
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Did you know that you can add a name to the Salt Lake Temple prayer roll by calling an 800 number? Our priesthood instructor mentioned this today, and it started me thinking again about the nature of prayer. And I admit, I am stumped by the prayer roll.

In my prior post on the nature of prayer, I asked whether “faith does not so much cause things to happen as it allows us to submit our will to the Father’s.” This function of prayer makes sense to me. Under this view, prayer is a process of discovery, and the power of prayer is that it makes us more like God. Not in some mysterious way, but in the same way that deep conversations with friends or parents influence us.

This need not be the only function of prayer. (Some of the comments to my prior post explore this a bit.) Surely we can imagine that faithful prayers influence God’s will, though this introduces a whole set of questions about which faithful wishes God grants and which faithful wishes He denies.

Regardless of how you think about that set of questions, I think you will concede that the prayer roll is an odd institution. It is a list of names, unknown to the people who are praying. Even if the people who are praying could see the list, they would have no idea why the names are there. So there is no attempt to pray for certain outcomes. Moreover, the people on the list often (usually?) do not know that they are the beneficiaries of the prayers, so they are not comforted in knowing that others are concerned for them. Finally, as far as I know, there is no attempt to exert any quality control on the prayer rolls. Are the people “worthy” of prayers? If I want my son to perform well in his next football game, should I send in his name? Maybe I should request temple prayers for George Bush or John Kerry? What if I put my dead grandparents on the prayer rolls?

And why do we limit prayer rolls to people? Why can’t we pray that the war in Iraq will end? Or that the U.S. economy will perk up? Or that hurricanes will miss Florida? Or that the Wisconsin Badgers will go undefeated?

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21 Responses to Prayer Rolls

  1. [...] the custom is around here, but I thought everyone would like to know. A Times and Seasons prayer roll, of sorts.
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  2. john fowles on October 10, 2004 at 10:07 pm

    If I want my son to perform well in his next football game, should I send in his name? Maybe I should request temple prayers for George Bush or John Kerry? What if I put my dead grandparents on the prayer rolls?

    I think that the Church expects that its members will self police in adding names to the prayer rolls.

    Because of the absence of some of the other qualities of prayer that you listed, I think that the prayer roll sends a clear signal that Latter-day Saints believe in the literal power of prayer as well as the faith-promoting and submission side of prayer. By going to the temple and participating in a session, in which you know that the prayer roll, which you know contains names you don’t know suffering from issues that are also unknown to you, will play a role, you signal that none of that matters in this particular prayer because you trust in the judgment of God and that if it is his will to do so, he will heal the afflicted people or grant them the relief that they are seeking. You are signaling faith and submission, but in this case on a different level: you show (1) that you simply believe God will answer the prayer (literally, i.e. not just sending a comforting message to those being prayed for) and (2) that you are willing to comform to this ritual within the Church, trusting that it is ordained of God. It might be irrational, but if God expects it of us, then its irrationality shouldn’t concern us too much.

  3. diogenes on October 10, 2004 at 10:25 pm

    For some reason, I’ve always mentally classified the prayer roll as a labor saving device something like the Tibetan prayer wheel, perhaps because I always thought the prayer wheel such a clever idea — a little cylindrical device containing a slip of paper, on which a prayer is written, and each time the cylinder goes ’round, the text of the prayer is believed to ascend.

    This suggests that it is the attitude of prayer, rather than the details, that matter — which seems to me consistent with Gordons’ prior post on the subject.

  4. Gordon Smith on October 10, 2004 at 11:02 pm

    John, After reading your response, I would phrase my question thus: is prayer for the prayor or the prayee? Or both? If I am reading you correctly, I would say that your answer is “both.” This prompts two questions:

    1. How does any prayer affect prayees? Part of what motivates my post is that I do not understand “the literal power of prayer.” As I hinted in my prior post, the notion that God answers prayers by changing His will to accord with my desires is strange. I am not saying that it never happens, but it seems like it would take a pretty exceptional circumstance. I think the more common scenario is that we change through prayer in that we learn to see the world through His eyes, thus making fewer demands against His will.

    2. How do temple prayers over the prayer roll affect prayors? Both you and diogenes see some value in a general prayer where the people who are praying have no idea what they are praying for. I have no problem with this, though I am not sure why we need a prayer roll to utter that sort of prayer. We could just as well say a prayer for all of God’s children.

  5. Jim F. on October 10, 2004 at 11:03 pm

    It seems to me that the prayer roll also points to the communal nature of prayer. We do not pray “My Father who art in heaven,” but “Our Father.” Even the most private prayers are done from within the community of believers. In addition, the prayer roll widens the object of our prayers. In personal prayers I presume that we most often pray for those we know. The prayer roll extends that circle to those who are with us as children of our Father, but whom we do not know.

  6. Gordon Smith on October 10, 2004 at 11:17 pm

    Jim, Your last comment comes pretty close to my best explanation for the prayer roll. In my experience, we serve and love the people who are the object of our prayers. By extending that circle of people to some indeterminate group, perhaps we train ourselves to have an attitude of service toward all people, not just those in our immediate family or friends.

  7. Jonathan Stapley on October 11, 2004 at 12:29 am

    The aspects of theosophy which I find most readily accessible are those which relate to reason, belief and action. More difficult to grasp are those things which tend toward the tangible. The seer stone and the Rod of Aaron are both interesting examples. I lump the prayer rolls into that category as well. They obviously play a part in ritual and there is obviously some purpose.

    I know many people who have placed names of family and friends on the temple rolls. This process does not require faith per se and the blessing does not come as a function faith of either persons (i.e., the person placing the name and the named). From that perspective it is almost hermetic.

    The blessing comes then as a function of what? As a function of the faith of those working in the Temple? I don’t know if I can accept a scenario where there is faith to do something that is not even conceived in the mind of an individual who is exercising it. We are left with a scenario where the Blessing occurs not as a function of faith, but as a function of ritual. Maybe the prayer roll is simply a fringe benefit of having a temple worthy community.

  8. Johnna on October 11, 2004 at 1:10 am

    I’ve been participating in an ecumenical Bible study program since September, which includes praying for prayer requests for individuals in our discussion group. It makes me appreciate the confidentiality of the prayer rolls of the temple. Maybe it’s culture shock, but it’s strange and hard to me for people to be revealing the one thing they most want or need. It creates an emotional investment in the group and program, because you’ve exposed your tender spot, whether or not you wanted to ante up.

    Isn’t the temple prayer roll also about making the temple present in our everyday, difficult lives? Isn’t it about interceding between earth and heaven? Especially when there’s a scandalous problem like a marriage falling apart, financial chaos, or wayward children, the prayer roll seems to bring the order of the temple and eternal hope to the messed-up life.

  9. danithew on October 11, 2004 at 9:38 am

    The temple prayer rolls remind me very much of the Jewish practice of writing requests or prayers on papers and inserting the slips inbetween the stones of the Western (Wailing) Wall. I believe there are services that will take faxed messages and place them in the wall for people. Whether those services are paid or unpaid I can’t remember exactly.

  10. greenfrog on October 11, 2004 at 10:11 am

    There are a large number of scriptural accounts that indicate that God’s actions are, in fact, dependent upon human volition, expressed as prayer. While those stories can create some pretty difficult theological or philosophical dilemmas (“Can God ever refrain from doing the right thing because no one has asked for it?”, etc.), in order to understand those stories in any different fashion, the interpretations have to be so contorted as to turn the stories on their heads (“When God gave Nephi the sealing power, God intended Nephi to use that power to impose a famine, so when Nephi did ask God to impose the famine, God wasn’t really doing what Nephi wanted; instead, Nephi was doing what God wanted, so Nephi wasn’t really exercising independent human volition, but rather was conforming his will to the pre-existing will of God, so God’s actions in imposing the famine really didn’t depend on human volition, after all.”) .

    Is the latter the possible resolution of the issue? Of course. But try teaching it to a class of Primary students. Or, really, anybody.

    Gordon,

    Perhaps a useful question at this point, rather than poking further into the philosophical underpinnings of prayer, is to ask about what you have experienced of prayer and what you have experienced of God. I’m not sure that it’s always useful to use the tools of logic to explore what we understand another person’s conception of such matters has been. It may be that their experience and their expression of it are not perfectly aligned. If they’re not, then extrapolations of what they have said can lead us far from the spot to which they were pointing.

    I am reminded of the instruction not to mistake a finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.

  11. Frank McIntyre on October 11, 2004 at 11:04 am

    Imagine a set of blessings available to a given person. Some blessings God grants or doesn’t grant and the person’s prayers, or the prayers of others have no effect. Ignore those blessings.

    There are at least two other subsets of blessings worth thinking about.

    1. Blessings that God is willing to grant a person conditional on that person’s praying for them.

    2. Blessings God will grant that person if someone else prays for them to happen.

    These sets overlap. But the scriptures indicate that by asking we recieve, and the story of the Sons of Mosiah and the prayers of the people for them to repent makes clear that prayers can bless others. If God grants a blessing based on (1) or (2), it is still His will, but the prayer did change his behavior, because he is making the blessing explicitly based on asking. He may also condition blessings on obedience or faith or other things, as D&C 130 makes clear.

    He may grant us blessings we ask for even when He knows of a better blessing that we should have asked for, but didn’t. But I think this is part of the Veil, that we are no longer in his presence and so must feel along blindly on faith. This points out the importance of praying to know what to ask for. All of these things work to make us into the person God would have us be. Thus the conditional blessings act as an incentive to learn to communicate with the Divine and to be obedient to eternal law.

    So to look at one of Greenfrog’s posited questions “Can God ever refrain from doing the right thing because no one has asked for it?” He most certainly can if the “right” thing is conditional on people asking. (of course, then “the right thing” is for Him to not act because no one prayed, etc. etc.)

  12. danithew on October 11, 2004 at 11:15 am

    I am wondering whether placing names on prayer slips is a modern Restoration innovative practice or if this practice has any basis in temples that existed in ancient times. I thought that the prayer slips at the Western Wall might have some basis in Torah. I haven’t learned that this is not the case but I haven’t found any basis for this idea either.

    Here’s a Q&A that begins with the following question (link below):

    When did the custom of placing prayers on scraps of paper in the Western Wall begin? Who, if anyone, collects these prayers and what is done with them? What’s the folklore, if any, around this ritual?

    http://judaism.about.com/library/3_askrabbi_o/bl_simmons_kotel.htm

  13. Mark N. on October 11, 2004 at 1:55 pm

    I think that the Church expects that its members will self police in adding names to the prayer rolls.

    Would it be seen, do you think, as somewhat gauche to put Adolf Hitler’s name on the prayer roll? I mean, I can’t imagine too many more people who probably need it as badly as he might. Rumor has it that we’ve done his temple work (several times over, if I’m not mistaken), so it could be a legitimate request.

    If someone tried to give me the hairy eyeball over it, though, I might be tempted to say, “No, it’s a different ‘Adolph Hitler’.” ;-)

  14. danithew on October 11, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    I’d be seriously concerned about the sanity and morality of any person who took it upon themselves (exercised their own initative) to do Adolph Hitler’s temple ordinance work. I’m disgusted to think that his name would even be mentioned in a temple.

  15. greenfrog on October 11, 2004 at 3:53 pm

    Do not we all fall short of the glory of God? And, assuming that prayer can actually yield a benefit to those prayed for, who more than he would need the benefit of others’ prayers?

    It does raise an interesting question about the effect on the pray-or of such a prayer.

  16. danithew on October 11, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    If someone is so charitable and idealistic as to pray for Adolph Hitler’s soul, I don’t have a problem with it, as long as they don’t neglect or exclude mentioning everyone else, by name, in the same prayer. I’m guessing the mortal fool who sincerely loves and prays for the Fuhrer isn’t paying as much prayer attention to the widows and single mothers who are still alive, ultimately more redeemable and even in the same neighborhood. Can you think of a single person in your ward and neighborhood that you shouldn’t be praying for fervently by name, if you’re going to be so conscientious as to include Hitler in your prayer?

  17. Bryce I on October 11, 2004 at 8:48 pm

    A few thoughts:

    One function the prayer roll serves is to make some of the blessings of the temple available to those who for some reason cannot attend themselves.

    Others have already commented on the connection that the prayer roll makes between the community of temple recommend-holding members and the rest of the world. I generally think of the three-fold mission of the church as dividing humanity into three groups (actually four, but one is left out): the dead, the Lord’s covenant people living on earth, and those living who have not yet received the gospel. Clearly temples are the primary locus of the work we do in the church for the dead who have not received the saving ordinances of the church, and are likewise the only place where members of the Church can receive these ordinances. Temples seem to have little connection, however, with the rest of the people living on the earth. The prayer roll is one way in which that missing connection can be made. Temples are here to bless the lives of all people.

    Finally, prayer rolls can be a means of focusing our own temple worship. We often pray for others in our personal prayers. Our temple worship, once our own work has been done, is for others as well, and if we have ancestors that still need temple work done, it can be a more personally meaningful experience. We also often go to the temple seeking guidance and inspiration for ourselves.

    It’s more difficult to go to the temple seeking help for another. In general, we don’t have any control over the content of the ordinances. The prayer roll is a means of inserting our own content into the script, to focus our worship and to personalize it for us.

  18. Bryce I on October 11, 2004 at 8:55 pm

    Dan –

    I can envision quite easily why someone would want to do temple work for Adolph Hitler, or some similarly evil person. One of the most difficult tasks we are given on this earth is to forgive. Judgment is not ours. However, in some cases, the appropriate judgment seems clear cut. Nonetheless, we are to forgive. In such a case, forgiveness can be understandably difficult.

    Some of the best ways to develop Christ-like love for others are to serve them and to pray for them. I can imagine someone so tormented by hatred for Hitler or someone else that in order to move on, he or she would have to try to perform some act of loving service for that person. Inclusion on a prayer roll, or performance of a temple ordinance would certainly qualify.

    Of course, given the requirements of temple service, to do so in sincerity would really require a person to do a lot of work beforehand. It is quite clear that temple work should not be done with hatred in one’s heart.

  19. danithew on October 12, 2004 at 8:36 am

    Bryce, I appreciate your thoughts. I know what you’re saying and there’s no question that I need to learn more about the principle of forgiveness.

    For now I’ll just say that I don’t think sympathy for the plight of Hitler’s soul should be blithely mentioned without simultaneously expressing profound sympathy and appreciation for the souls of his victims.

    However, to really respond adequately, respectfully and thoughtfully I need to think and write and think and write and think and write. So I’m going to hold off for now and ponder this one for awhile.

  20. Joel D. on October 12, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    There is another perspective to consider: the effect on the submitter of a name. I have generally thought that the practice of the prayer roll is primarily one to augment the faith of the one submitting the name in order to obtain a blessing for the person put upon the prayer roll. When I have put a name on the prayer roll, I know that the person has need of some divine aid. I do not put down every person I think needs help, but those who need special help, for which I feel the need to have increased faith so that this person’s special need can be met.

    Knowing that those who attend the temple are generally the most faithful segment of church population, I know that by submitting a name to the prayer roll, I am able to draw on the faith of these other persons. This strengthens my faith. When I am in a temple session praying for those on the prayer roll, I think mostly about the people I have submitted (if I have done so) and my faith increases by knowing that other faithful people surrounding me are praying for the person(s) I submitted. My prayers outside the temple for the same needy person are similarly strengthened, knowing that others of faith in the temple are also praying for them.

    To sum up, I think that the prayer roll is akin to the scenario when a friend asks you to pray for his or her sick mother, whom you’ve never met. You pray for this person’s mother, not because you know the mother, but because you care about your friend and want to strengthen his or her faith by adding your faith to your friend’s. I think the temple prayer roll is an intensified, institutionalized version of this scenario. You may not know the other people in the temple who are praying for the person whose name you’ve submitted, but you know generally that they are people of relatively strong faith and this serves to increase your own faith on behalf of others with special needs.

  21. John Carson on November 2, 2005 at 2:01 am

    Several studies have been performed on the results of anonymous intercessory prayer. The results are non-random, and positive. If we have faith that prayer is beneficial, and we are told it is beneficial, then we should pray. I am a physician, LDS, and maintain a prayer list in my locker at work. Several saints in my ward laughed a little but I tell you, lifting up the sick in prayer helps them, and helps you. And sometimes all we can do is pray for someone.
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