In General Conference of April 2009, Elder Russell M. Nelson reminded us:
Our prayers can be enhanced in other ways. We can use “right words”—special pronouns—in reference to Deity. While worldly manners of daily dress and speech are becoming more casual, we have been asked to protect the formal, proper language of prayer. In our prayers we use the respectful pronouns Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine instead of You, Your, and Yours. Doing so helps us to be humble.
The current connotation of reverence, attached to those T-words, is undeniable. Aside from its obvious realm of application for Anglophone Latter-day Saints, the topic is also interesting from other angles.
– One is the international perspective. The Church operates in many languages: To what extent can the counsel apply to them?
– Next, we tally among us many (recent) members with limited knowledge of English, who attend Church in English: How do they cope with this “proper language of prayer”?
– Then there is the unavoidable disparity between formal, public prayer and the varieties of informal, personal conversation, or attempts at conversation, with God: How does this affect our lingual interaction with Deity?
– Finally, the way we pray, and the scriptural language we use, define, at least partially, our relation to other Christian churches, where the usage is different: What are possible implications?
These are the four questions this (long) post tries to explore.
But first, a look at the origin of the T-forms, which will help us address some of the questions raised.
Where do the T-words come from?
Thou-thee-thy are common words, originating thousands of years ago. How did one address other people in those primeval times? Ancient Indo-European language forms, from which many current languages, including English, evolved, made a clear difference between addressing “one person” (singular) and “more than one person” (plural).
For the singular, this meant, here rendered in an English perfectly common at some time in the past:
– subject of the verb: Jake, thou must come quickly!
– object of the verb: So long, Magda, it was good to see thee and talk to thee!
– possessive: Ah, is Emma thy sister and Sam thine uncle? (thine before a vowel)
For the plural:
– subject of the verb: Children, ye should be ashamed!
– object of the verb: Cherry pickers, I’ll see you tonight to pay you.
– possessive: My friends, I appreciate your help.
These pronouns are identical in dozens of languages that have Indo-European roots—as diverse as Danish, French, German, Hindi, Hittite, Icelandic, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and on. Through phonetic assimilations and morphological adjustments these words have evolved from their primeval stems to their present forms in modern languages. E.g. (can you identify the language?):
– singular (known as predominantly T-forms): du, þu, te, thou, ti, tii, to, toi, tu, tui, tuk, ty, tvam…
– plural (known as predominantly V-forms): u, uw, vas, vi, vie, vii, vo, voi, vos, vous, vy, ye, you…
Originally the distinction between T- and V-forms was only numeral, without any other connotation, neither of reverence or of intimacy. Only the tone and content of the sentence, as used by an individual, set the “register”—respect or contempt, love or anger, decency or vulgarity.
The T-V distinction: intimacy versus deference
In the early Middle Ages a practice developed to address the emperor, the king, or the pope with the plural form, therefore a V-form, in Latin vos. It recognized the ruler as superior to a simple, single person, or as representative for all. In the later Middle Ages this metaphor for power spread to also address noblemen with the plural form, and next any superior. Both vanity from above and servility or flattery from below bolstered this social play with semantics. Slowly European society as a whole moved to the so-called T-V distinction. In nearly all languages this shift occurred.
In French, for example, the pronoun tu became solely used for inferiors, close relatives, friends, children, or pets. Vous extended to address any superior, and, politely, every equal adult with whom one was less acquainted. By the 17th century, elegance among French nobility and bourgeois even required to address your own close adult family members with vous. Servants and peasants were T-users among themselves.
In English the plural you first addressed the king and next spread to all superiors, while thou-thee-thy dealt with equals or inferiors. But over time, compared to other languages, English prolonged this inflation of politeness, until the plural you became the standard for all relations, even when addressing children or intimates. The singular thou-thee-thy became more and more relegated to colloquial speech, even vulgar, or contemptuous. In some local English dialects that despising style survived up to now: “What’s thee doing, little brat? – Don’t thee me, it’s rude!”
The verb thoutheeing—as used by Goold Brown in The grammar of English grammars—to express this more intimate addressing, is found in many languages: tutoyer in French, jijen en jouen in Dutch, duzen in German, tutear in Spanish, tykat in Russian, etc. In those languages it is a social sign of closeness to be allowed to use the T-form with someone.
(Note that another style of distant politeness turned to the third person, to highlight the position of the addressee: Your Majesty, Your Highness, Your Excellency, Your Honor, with the verb following in the third person. In Spanish it led to an additional generalization: vuestra merced (your mercy) first became extended, from addressing nobility, to addressing all persons who aren’t close. The form next evolved into vusted, and then to usted. In Italian a similar development led to the use of the third person “courtesy pronoun” Lei. Indeed, honorifics, as they become common, never cease requiring altered forms.)
How did English T-words become “reverential” for Deity?
How then to explain that thou-thee-thy, words which in common English finished at the lowest end of the spectrum—actually connoting coarse familiarity and rudeness—, are also identified as reverential religious forms? Simply because, already centuries earlier, they got secluded within their separate, sacred semantic field. The same word can have very different values according to its realm of use.
The earliest Old English (Anglo-Saxon) scriptural translations, such as those by the Venerable Bede and by Aldhelm in the 8th century, addressed Deity with the normal T-forms of their time (back then with the initial letter þ—the so-called thorn-letter). For example:
Fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofonum, si þin nama gehalgod.
(= Father our, thou that art in heaven, be thy name hallowed.)
It was simply logical: the singular T-forms were used to address one person, while plural V-forms were reserved to address several. No doubt this habit was already present in the earliest oral preaching when Christianity spread westwards.
The T-forms thus became ingrained in scriptural readings and quotations, in prayers and hymns, long before the T-V distinction became generalized in societal relations. Having attained such formulaic value in the closed religious realm, these forms escaped the later T-V distinction that developed in common language. It was therefore normal that they transferred into the more complete Bible translations—Wycliffe’s (1380), Tyndale’s (1526) and the King James version (KJV, 1611). It is also possible that Wycliffe and Tyndale sought to preserve the singular and plural distinction that they found in their sources (Latin, Greek, Hebrew)—a distinction which you alone, used for both singular and plural persons by Late Middle English and in Early Modern English, could not make.
Codified in the KJV, the T-forms remained the standard for addressing God, further reinforced by the Book of Common Prayer (1662). Thus, in a strange twist of language development, the more deferential form you was not used to address God, while what became less respectful in common language, thou-thee-thy, remained reverent in the religious realm (and was also kept alive in some rhetoric literature and poetry for archaic effect). The main reason for the T-forms to finally stand out as unique “religious language,” was their slow disappearance in common language. Thus these forms were not especially created to address Deity, but are isolated remnants of ordinary language use.
Whatever the history of the T-forms, in our Mormon sphere it is the present lingual experience, based on relentless identical input, that irrevocably ties to them the connotation of respectfully addressing Deity. Elder Dallin H. Oaks phrased it as follows, stressing that the very obsolescence of those words makes them apt at expressing something unique:
In our day the English words thou, thee, thy, and thine are suitable for the language of prayer, not because of how they were used anciently but because they are currently obsolete in common English discourse. Being unused in everyday communications, they are now available as a distinctive form of address in English, appropriate to symbolize respect, closeness, and reverence for the one being addressed.
Of course, in that ancient religious sphere, thou-thee-thy are not reserved distinctively for God. These words continue to be used, in KJV-language, for any single person being addressed. The examples are plentiful in the Bible—Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife. — Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off. — Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Even Lucifer is addressed that way: Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.
The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants use these pronouns similarly and abundantly to address single persons. Moreover, in various LDS hymns, admonishments and counsel are directed to you, individual person, with thou-thee-thy: Cast thy burden upon the Lord and he shall sustain thee (# 110); Be thou humble in thy weakness, and the Lord thy God shall lead thee (# 130); School thy feelings, o my brother (# 336), etc. This usage is part of the same lingual realm. It sounds “natural” for those who grew up hearing or singing those texts.
Capitalization or not?
The use of capitals—Thou-Thee-Thy—helps to enhance deference in the written forms, but makes no difference in oral use. The Church has long followed the Chicago Manual of Style, with lower-case pronouns referring to Deity. The present editions of the standard works still follow that pattern. However, more recently, the Style Guide for Publications of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3rd ed. (1998; printing of November 2006, p. 22), instructs to capitalize second and third person pronouns referring to Deity (Thou, Thee, Him, His…). In Elder Nelson’s recent talk, quoted at the beginning, it was printed that way. Will this change also be applied in future editions of the standard works? At the same time, the Style Guide asks to keep the relative pronouns in lowercase (who, whom, and whose).
The tendency, worldwide, also in other languages, is to lowercase all pronouns pertaining to Deity. The Associated Press Stylebook requires it, the Chicago Manual of Style, the Wikipedia Manual of Style, the Catholic News Service guidelines, etc. The basic rule is that capital letters should not be used for anything other than proper names. Capitalizing pronouns and determiners always raises questions as to the application limits, such as for the first person object Me (is it not inappropriate for God to capitalize himself when speaking?), for relative pronouns (doesn’t who have the same value as he?), and for possessive determiners (e.g. my God or My God, our God or Our God, in theory depending on who speaks, but linguistically ambiguous, and with trinitarian controversies when Jesus speaks)… It also requires lingual insight to apply capitalization correctly, such as in Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus Whom thou persecutest. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?
And still a reverent “you” for the divine
There is one peculiar Mormon context where also you and your appropriately and reverently address the divine, because of the plural need, as we sing in one of our major hymns, written by Eliza R. Snow:
O my Father, thou that dwellest
In the high and glorious place,
When shall I regain thy presence
And again behold thy face? …
I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
We now come to the four questions raised from other angles.
1 – How should we speak to God in other languages?
Can the Mormon “prayer counsel” for English apply to other languages? How do General Conference translators transpose in another language that “in our prayers we use the respectful pronouns Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine instead of You, Your, and Yours“? To what extent are there equivalents?
Let’s look at French. Just as in English, the earliest French prayer texts and scriptural translations show that tu, te, toi, ton were the normal singular forms to address God. That tradition became ingrained in formulaic liturgy. The first French full Bible translations in the 13th century use the T- and V-forms logically to distinguish singular and plural. However, contrary to English, the French T-forms remained unchanged in familiar language use. Tu, te, toi, ton did not become archaic like thou, thee, thy in English. Therefore they could not be hallowed as “special forms” later on. Students of French learn they should never address a superior, a teacher, or even an equal adult with tu. Francophones remain very sensitive to the correct social use of tu or vous. So how to address God? As in the oldest texts with tu? Or respectfully with vous, according to more recent social rules?
The matter became controversial in the 17th century. Under the influence of the T-V distinction, some French Bible editions and prayer books shifted to vous and votre in addressing God. Such was the case in most Catholic Bible editions, with the argument of greater reverence. However, the French Protestants kept the T-forms in their Scriptures and prayers. This disparity became one of the symbols for the deep divide between the churches. The Catholics accused the Protestants of irreverence. The Protestants showed that the Catholics paid homage to the devil by having God speak reverently to him with a V-form.
However, in the 19th century French Catholic Bible editions started to shift back to tu, te, toi, ton, as linguists and exegetes confirmed the original distinction as purely numeral and showed the textual ambiguities resulting from the sole use of vous for both singular and plural. Moreover, the use of vous, originally a plural pronoun, raised doctrinal issues: could it be misunderstood as praying to a polytheistic Being? The whole concept of the Trinity and the character of the Persons got involved. It was safer to clearly pray to one God, thus better return to the T-forms. To justify the shift back, some invented the rule that the original tu was actually a super-reverential form, a level higher than vous.
In Mormon tradition in French, the use of the T-forms prevails, since nearly all Bible translations follow that pattern, including the version adopted as standard by the Church.
Scores of other languages follow the same pattern—German, Spanish, Farsi, Serbo-Croatian, Urdu … They use, to address God, the same informal, familiar T-forms that are still being used to speak to children or very close friends. There are no special pronouns to “protect the formal, proper language of prayer.”
What does that imply for reverence? Of course, none will pretend that the lack of special pronouns reserved for God makes the prayers of these people less humble or less respectful. It’s all in the tone, the intention, the spirit… This also shows that the use of thou-thee-thy in English is purely conventional. Conversely, one can ramble through a prayer with thou and thee, mumble stereotype sentences, and finish off with a breakneck inthenameofjesuschristamen.
Only very few languages in the Indo-European group use V-forms to address Deity. In Dutch, my mother tongue, the normal preference is given to U, which is a V-form, comparable to the English you. Portuguese, as far as I know, also uses a similar V-form, though its pronominal system is complex, with diatopical variations in Brazil and in Portugal. These V-forms are not uniquely religious either, just regular ones used for polite speaking. As to Eastern languages, such as Korean and Japanese with sensitive honorifics, how do they use pronouns to address Deity? Are there any “special ones,” solely reserved for God?
2 – Limited English: how to cope with the “proper language of prayer”?
Elder Dallin H. Oaks expressed the following concern in the talk quoted above:
We are especially anxious that our position on special language in prayers in English not cause some to be reluctant to pray in our Church meetings or in other settings where their prayers are heard.
How true! If that is already a concern for some Anglophones, imagine what it means for the tens of thousands of non-Anglophone Mormons who attend English-speaking wards and branches and who have only a limited knowledge of English. Though I am reasonably fluent in English, and have heard thousands of thoutheeing prayers in English over several decades, I am most reluctant to pray in English in front of an Anglophone audience. When I have to do it anyway, I am compelled to concentrate on the forms I’m supposed to use, not on the prayer itself. At the same time, I try to circumvent: instead of We thank thee for the Gospel thou hast restored, I can move to We are grateful for the restored Gospel. But such techniques require pre-operational strategic thinking, which undercuts naturalness in praying.
Indeed, thoutheeing is not as easy as sometimes presented. In 1976 Don E. Norton devoted an Ensign-article to “the language of formal prayer.” An experienced Anglophone Mormon will have no or few problems with the following exercise, but the hurdles for others are real. Replace by the proper forms where applicable:
– We are thankful to you for all the blessings you give us.
– We are thankful that you restored the gospel through Joseph Smith.
– We thank you for all that you have done for us.
– We thank you that you do help us daily.
– You help us and you protect us always.
– We ask you that you will bless the sick in our ward.
– We ask you that your hand will protect us.
– You know our needs and we ask you that you keep watch over us.
– We know you are helping us with your blessings.
– We pray that you may always watch over us.
– Will you now bless this food.
With only you and your, and common verbal forms without any change, it remains feasible to pray “normally” with a limited knowledge of English. It should also be noted that all those sentences above, with you and your, can be said with due reverence, without the special forms. It’s all in the tone and in the spirit. Trying to use thou-thee-thy, along with forms like dost and hast, without proper lingual command, is not conducive to saying a natural prayer. Is it wilst or wilt? Thy hand or thine hand? Restorest or restoredest? Moreover, while listening, will not experienced Anglophones in the audience automatically focus on the lingual errors heard? Happily not so our Heavenly Father. Elder Oaks confirms:
I am sure that our Heavenly Father, who loves all of his children, hears and answers all prayers, however phrased. If he is offended in connection with prayers, it is likely to be by their absence, not their phraseology.
The reminder is most welcome. Are we fully tolerant when someone prays with you and your? Or could the repeated emphasis on the “correct prayer form” trigger negative reactions if one errs? How sad it would be if a foreign child, or a young convert, asked to pray in an English-speaking class, would be mocked or criticized for errors made.
If “the formal, proper language of prayer” is to be used correctly, should not some appropriate instruction be devoted to it, geared toward converts and members with limited English?
3 – Public or private: Does this affect our lingual interaction with Deity?
For public prayer, we usually adopt, when called upon, a voice of quiet restraint. We speak in behalf of the group who listens to us. Social rules, tradition, and circumstances determine content and style. It can go from the quick prayer to bless the food to the most ornate dedicatory prayer. In any of these circumstances it is normal for experienced, Anglophone Latter-day Saints to pray with thou-thee-thy. No doubt many of these members address God the same way in private prayer—at least in normal conditions and in the steadfast relation they have built with him, especially if from their infancy on they only have heard praying with T-forms and if constancy is their life mark.
However, for average mortals, private prayer is often a battleground. We pray in despair. We pray in rebellion. We pray frantically in an agonizing process of repentance. We pray with anger at God’s apparent lack of intervention in unjust tragedies. Sometimes praying mingles with self-reflection, turns into an alter-ego dialogue, as thoughts and emotions roam, engaging God and self indistinctively. Prayer reflects the moods and levels of our faith—disbelief that anyone listens, desire to be listened to, a sprouting of the tiny seed, anticipation, hope. Or, at some other end, reaching profound intimacy, even camaraderie—speaking with God like a friend speaks with a friend.
It would make an interesting study of the language of prayer to analyze, if possible, to what extent Mormons, used to thoutheeing in their public prayers, shift to the more conversational, normal you when praying privately, intensely, pouring out their heart, their gratitude or their anxiety. In this deeply personal contact-seeking with the Lord, are they still using thou and thee? Moreover, it is not easy to transfer to T-forms earnest, but more colloquial sentences such as What can you do for us now? Why couldn’t you have prevented this? Why did you let this happen? Why aren’t you listening?
Even the strongest do not escape such moments. President Hugh B. Brown told of his struggles in dire circumstances and his frequent, anxious cry in response: Father, are you there? It’s difficult to imagine a Father, art thou there? to sound natural in such situations. If thoutheeing enhances reverence, it also creates distance.
4 – Relation to other churches: What are possible implications?
As members of the Church, we accept the counsel given to use the KJV and abide by thou-thee-thy. Inevitably, the matter then raises a question as to our relation with other churches. Our use of thou-thee-thy is one element that contributes to the difference between us and many, if not most Christian churches today, as well as other religions. For these outsiders, our formal language of prayer may evoke the realm of old-generation Quakers, or of a dwindling group of rigorous, fundamentalist preachers. Together with pockets of staunch evangelicals, Anglophone Mormons may end up as the last major group to thouthee God. Perhaps this is a good thing, to stress our uniqueness that way. Perhaps it is not, if rapprochement with mainstream Christianity is deemed important. If we join in prayer with others, they may find our language and manners archaic and bombastic, and we may find theirs irreverent.
As to our missionary work among Anglophone Christians, those who have been exposed to the KJV constitute a shrinking pool. Most Christians have become unfamiliar with its language. Their conversion to Mormonism thus requires them to give up their familiar, easily readable Scriptures, as well as a prayer form they have grown up with.
Indeed, it seems that most Christian churches have now moved away from the T-words in English. Since the middle of the 20th century, new Bible translations, sponsored by various Bible societies and interdenominational councils, have modernized the biblical language, thus also modifying thou-thee-thy to you and your. In order to better understand our fellow Christians, I believe it is informative to summarize their main arguments, which are linguistic, social and scriptural:
a – Linguistically, languages never stop evolving. Words disappear from use or take on different meanings. New words enter to express old concepts. Structures alter. Pronunciation shifts inexorably. That way Old English became, after a few centuries, mostly incomprehensible: Fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofonum… In contrast, the 17th century KJV-version was “modern” at the time, written in “Early Modern English” (which still drew much from medieval French). As such it continued to have a major lingual impact up to the 19th century, especially in Anglican, Calvinistic, Puritan, or Quaker realms, where The Book was continually read and quoted. But since the middle of the 19th century societal changes deeply affected language use also in those realms. Nowadays the KJV contains hundreds of words and structures that, for most people, have become obsolete in form or in meaning. Certain structures offend current grammatical rules. Some are, strictly speaking, now disrespectful, like in Our Father, which art in heaven. The relative pronoun which, indeed, now only applies to objects. The KJV does not meet current readability standards for average readers. Moreover, four or five hundred years from now, our own, present English will sound archaic. The distance from the KJV will have doubled, making it even more difficult to comprehend. Therefore even the new Bible editions of now will need to be revised over time.
b – The social argument stems from the linguistic. According to modernizers, current language use broadens the appeal for the gospel message. As Christian missionary efforts are geared towards younger generations, and to the millions of less literate persons and non-native English speakers, the argument is that comprehension of the message should not be hampered by a 17th century lexicon and style, nor should Christianity be experienced as an elitist and archaic religion. Edwin H. Palmer, spokesman for the New International Version of the Bible, argued:
Do not give them a loaf of bread, covered with an inedible, impenetrable crust, fossilized by three and a half centuries. Give them the word of God as fresh and warm and clear as the Holy Spirit gave it to the authors of the Bible … For any preacher or theologian who loves God’s Word to allow that Word to go on being misunderstood because of the veneration of an archaic, not-understood version of four centuries ago is inexcusable, and almost unconscionable. (quoted in D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea For Realism, Grand rapids: Baker, 1979, p. 102).
The debates on Bible versions have been fierce. Before the “modern” viewpoint became generalized in Christian churches during the second half of the 20th century, opposition had to be convinced. Plenty of examples of verses can be given to sustain arguments in both directions. New translations miss a few of the fine distinctions that the KJV-language is able to make (if one knows how to discern them), while the KJV is far from perfect itself and will continue to distance itself from contemporary readers.
c – The scriptural argument deals with correct translation. The KJV was the product of its time, translated with only a narrow access to sources, controversial expansions, and the limited scholarship of a few individuals. Its first editions are said to be riddled with errors, which later editions tried to correct. Since the 20th century, the discovery of older sources and the use of advanced research techniques, supported by interdenominational teams of experts, have been able to better assess the oldest sources available. For our thou-thee-thy topic, the introduction to the New International Version of the Bible mentions:
As for the traditional pronouns “thou,” “thee” and “thine” in reference to the Deity, the translators judged that to use these archaisms, along with the old verb forms such as “doest,” “wouldest” and “hadst” would violate accuracy in translation. Neither Hebrew, Aramaic nor Greek uses special pronouns for the persons of the Godhead.
Such are the main arguments by modernizers. Over the years their viewpoint won by weighing: if in new translations something is lost, so much more is gained. Sales of new Bible translations have soared, bringing God’s word to millions who would never have taken the step to the KJV. But “KJV-only” tendencies remain, usually evangelical and fundamentalist, which continue to draw the rebuttal of others. Some churches, like the Seventh Day Adventists, have no official preference and leave it to the members to use a version which they like and comprehend best.
Though Mormon viewpoints toward Bible choice had been diverse and sometimes even quite liberal (see Phil Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible), in the 1950s a number of Church leaders adopted a clear stance in the KJV-debate. Apostle J. Rueben Clark published his Why the King James Version in 1956—a staunch defense of the KJV. In his Answers to Gospel Questions (vol. 2, 1958, p. 17), President Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
The changing of the wording of the Bible to meet the popular language of our day, has, in the opinion of the writer and his brethren, been a great loss in the building of faith and spirituality in the minds and hearts of the people.
Apparently, the new Bible versions were sensed as a betrayal of values, as a capitulation to modernity. While a peculiar liturgical language, just like Latin for Old Catholics, biblical Hebrew for Jews, or classical Sanskrit for Hindus, not only exudes a charm, but stresses coherence and reinforces unity. For people raised within the sphere of such language, it retains the essence of intimate childhood memories, tied to the earliest experiences of religiosity. The archaic terms, moreover, evoke the savor of the ancient world where it all started. President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed what many feel: “I love the King James Version of the Bible. I love the lift of the language, the depth and the height of its words, and the strength and the grace of its expressions.” There is no doubt that many Anglophone members, even young people, especially if they were raised in the Church, can identify with that statement.
What could further have prompted the Mormon rejection of modernized versions? Distrust of “higher Biblical criticism” as well as isolation may have played a role: Had Mormon experts been involved early on in Bible societies and interdenominational councils, perhaps reactions would have been different. Textual changes, decided by outsiders, carry risks of doctrinal mismatches. In 1992, a statement of the First Presidency affirmed: “While other Bible versions may be easier to read than the King James Version, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the King James Version in preference to other English translations.” There is little doubt that the use of different Bible versions in the church would reveal small differences with possible doctrinal implications.
Probably most decisive for retaining the KJV is this close relation of our other standard works—Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price—with the KJV-language and style. That relation stems quite naturally from the context of Joseph Smith’s religious world in the 1830s, where the KJV was the main source of literary experience and its language utterly familiar. Joseph rendered God’s words in the religious idiom of his time and his environment. But it made, more than a century later, any acceptance of modern Bible versions a matter with far-reaching implications, considering the other standard works. At present, in that same context, the gigantic efforts of the Church to produce correlated Scriptures with indexes, cross-references, footnotes, Bible dictionary, topical guide, etc., all tied to the KJV, make the idea of lingual modernization all the more remote.
Since then the repeated admonitions to continue to use the KJV and apply the formal style of prayer confirm the Mormon position taken in the 1950s.
The point here is not to debate the choice of the KJV or of modern translations, only to draw attention to the growing distance between us and other Christian churches in terms of religious language.
( Note, however, that in other languages Mormons habitually use more modern Bible translations, depending on local decisions and availability. Moreover, to my knowledge at least in Dutch and in French, the new translations of the Book of Mormon, made in the 1990s, deliberately modernized the language compared to the old translations which contained more outdated words. True, a major reason for the retranslations was to guarantee closeness to the original English, and therefore transpose it as literally and as coherently as possible. Even so, the translators replaced archaic words and expressions, found in previous translations of the Book of Mormon, by modern ones, for more fluency and readability. The principle that keeps the English Scriptures intact and its charm unspoiled has not been followed in other languages. Converts from decades ago still regret that the new Book of Mormon lost the charm of the religious language in which they were led into Mormonism and which for so many years nourished their scriptural reading. I admit that I share those feelings. In church classes I still use my old Dutch Book of Mormon. But I wonder: Am I just driven by selfish nostalgia that trumps concern for incoming generations? How mature is my religiosity if it needs the impulse of peculiar prose?)
Thou-thee-thy is becoming one of the elements that affirms Mormon peculiarity. However, it only applies to the English-speaking part of the Church. It does not work in most other languages, where no thou-thee-thy equivalent exist, and where, moreover, the Church uses more modern Bible translations and also modernized language in the other standard works. Could this difference contribute to some cultural discrepancy between Anglophone Mormonism and the rest of the world? Probably not yet now, but it’s worthy of a reflection in the broader perspective of further archaicization of scriptural English and of further internationalization of the Church.
An interesting phenomenon in this international Mormon context, which I observed in church lessons in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, is the use of different Bible versions (and of old and recent versions of our other standard works) among the audience. It triggers attention-grabbing discussions, as members point to differences when Scriptures are read aloud, often leading to fascinating lingual comparisons and sometimes to helpful doctrinal clarifications, because of the choices the different versions offer. This textual diversity seems, overall, to deepen insights in scriptural translations and to make it easier to interpret God’s word in the framework of restored doctrines. Indeed, detachment from literalism allows for adjustments. Joseph Smith’s approach to the KJV, which led to the Inspired Version, was not different.
As to English, if the Millennium is still centuries away and if the Church continues to protect the lingual invariability of the standard works, the same is likely to happen as in other religions with untouchable scriptures. As English will further evolve, the time will come that KJV-language will have to be studied painstakingly, just like biblical Hebrew or classical Sanskrit, in order to be able to read the sacred writings. Will all members, whatever their mother tongue, be encouraged to do the same, in order to belong to the circle of believers competent to read God’s word in its original format? The scenario is utopian, but history is there to show what has happened in other world religions. Whether this development is desirable or not is a debatable question. Venerable religions like Judaism and Hinduism draw a major part of their uniqueness and generational continuity from their sacred language and, educationally, from the prolonged initiation to its understanding. But would such a sphere harmonize with a lively religion actively reaching out to the rest of the world in so many other languages than English?