Mormon prayer and Mormon art

August 19, 2009 | 18 comments
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If you want to find a unique Mormon tradition of verbal art, you should listen to Mormons pray. Opening or closing meetings and blessing meals are situations where the creation of art seems all but inevitable.

  • Public prayers are public performances, including an audience and its attendant expectations.
  • Prayers are part of a lived tradition. The expression of public prayer is trained from earliest childhood and is a daily to weekly event for many Mormons.
  • While private prayer can be idiosyncratic and intimately personal, public prayer is marked by several characteristic linguistic features, including specific syntax and diction (2. sg. verbs in –st, thou/thee/thy/thine, amen), and use of irregular but characteristic rhythmic patterns.
  • Praying publicly is a matter of anxiety over word choice and manner of speech, due in part to the nature of the situation (performance before an attentive audience, along with a heightened sense of sacral significance of the speech), and due in part to occasional official reminders to use appropriate language.
  • At the same time, official instructions to strive for plainness of speech make recourse to existing poetic conventions for ornamental effect untenable. A prayer sonnet, coming from someone who knew better, would be sacrilegious. Mormon prayers cannot be perceived as consciously poetic, and therefore must be distinct from recognizably artistic verbal arts and external literary traditions.
  • Public prayers are supposed to be composed at the moment of performance. The injunction against vain repetition and rote prayer places great weight on invention and prevents the canonization of set pieces. We speak as the spirit directs, or as the muse.
  • There is at the same time an understanding that conventions and traditions of Mormon prayer do not affect a prayer’s validity. The characteristics of Mormon prayer are therefore surplus features of language, or, we might say, artistic. They demonstrate acquisition and mastery of a complex verbal art.
  • There is also awareness of aesthetics, of good and bad in art, and the borders of good taste. There is a dividing line between rhythm and sing-song, between poetic convention and giving thanks for moisture and precipitation during a hurricane, between a fitting tone and an affected ‘special voice.’

In other words, Mormon prayer as an art form resembles nothing so much as the compositions or performances of the singers of epic tales, at least as envisioned in the oral-formulaic theory of Milman Parry and Albert Lord. In their formulation, which was both highly influential and heavily criticized over the course of the 20th century, the epics of Homer and similar works of art are literate renditions of master poets’ spontaneous verbal compositions. The Iliad, by this account, was not recited from memory or invented from whole cloth, but retold and reworked within a given narrative and metrical framework by drawing on a large number of stock formulas.

There are good reasons to doubt that Homer worked precisely in that fashion, but it does describe Mormon prayers fairly well. When we pray, there are certain narrative conventions that must be met (asking, thanking, appropriate opening and closing), traditions of tone and rhythm, and an obligation for variety. To satisfy these constraints, Mormon prayers draw on formulas, phrases expressing a particular idea or theme, such as the various epithets for deity (note the preference for phrases involving father and heaven rather than the unmarked God). Formulas can be rote and trite (see precipitation and hurricanes), but they can also be as vigorous and fresh and variable as Homer’s Greek.

But the Ur-text of Mormon verbal art is probably the sacramental prayers, the only texts that must be repeated verbatim, and that are heard weekly by all Mormons in attendance at Sunday meetings. The sacramental prayers are exempla of the use of formulas, rhythm, diction, and sound patterns to render the themes of a prayer as verbal art.

  • Common formulas that find their way into other prayers and other forms of Mormon speech and art include eternal father, we ask thee, in the name of thy son (note the spread of this last one into the semantically inappropriate location at the end of testimonies). An obvious and consciously poetic rendition of these phrases can be found in W. W. Phelps’s hymn “O God, the Eternal Father,” but they appear in many other forms as well.
  • The rhythm of the lines is irregular but notable, for example in a line of iambic feet followed by a line of anapests:

    to bless and sanctify this water
    to the souls of all those who partake of it

  • The syntax is highly complex, with each prayer consisting of a single complex sentence containing infinitival clauses, relative clauses, and unspecified dependant clauses (introduced by only that rather than so that or in order that).
  • Another feature of the syntax is verbal doubling: bless and sanctify, remember and witness, remember and keep (these latter two verbs in parallel being disjoined by intervening clauses). Rather than specifying the meaning of a verb with an adverb or a more specific synonym, the verbal pairs uses the second verb to move the combined sense from the general to the more specific.
  • The acoustic effects are also quite striking, for example with the use of long /o:/ to tie together souls and its deictic pronoun those in the souls of all those.
  • Or note the use of long /i:/ to tie together a significant combination of words: not just the pronominal he/we/thee but also eat, eternal, Jesus, and (with diverging stress) body.
  • In bless and sanctify this bread to the souls, we have a double alliteration.
  • Note in the “Blessing on the Bread” how the few /m/ sounds in the first five lines, occurring only in the two words remembrance and name, are echoed in the second half of the prayer with nine /m/ sounds, ending of course with the final amen: them, name, remember him, commandments, them, may, them, Amen.
  • The pair of sacramental prayers have additional importance in their similarity to one another, for it shows that the same formulas can be shifted around within identical poetic structures as needed.

Prayer is a key component in Mormon belief that all people might be prophets through the seeking and reception of personal revelation. Similarly, it is through the Mormon tradition of prayer that all the people can be poets.

18 Responses to Mormon prayer and Mormon art

  1. John Hamilton on August 19, 2009 at 10:10 am

    When we are speaking to God, and not the audience, it should be natural that we want to use our best language. For the same reason we dress in our best cloths on Sunday to show God, and not others in the ward, that we honor Him. You’re talking to the Creator of the universe, people! Trite or common speech is simply not appropriate.

    Sacrament prayers, on the other hand are more for the audience. They must be general in nature so as to encompass all the needs of the people who are about to re-take a covenant with God. They are poetic in nature (but not overly so) so as to be pleasing to the ear and help us focus on spiritual things. Same with music. The tone reinforces the message. Haven’t seen these prayers broken apart and analyzed like this before, but I always sensed some art to them.

    We have to strike a balance between art and honor to God and personal humility. We don’t wear tuxedos to church because that would be too showy and draw attention to ourselves and not the Lord. Likewise, too “flowery” speech in prayers goes beyond respect and draws attention to our pitiful selves rather than the All-Powerful Creator.

    Just my thoughts. Amen.

  2. Vader on August 19, 2009 at 11:54 am

    The pair of sacramental prayers have additional importance in their similarity to one another, for it shows that the same formulas can be shifted around within identical poetic structures as needed.

    The differences are doctrinally significant. The prayer on the bread speaks of commandments; that on the water does not. The prayer on the water mentions a sacrifice (“which was shed for them”) while there is no such explicit mention in the prayer on the bread.

    I believe the first prayer, on the bread, is focused on the sovereignty of God (His justice); the second on His grace.

    And that “which was shed for them” is the most important phrase in either prayer, both doctrinally and dramatically.

  3. queuno on August 19, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    What if the sacrament prayers weren’t prescribed in scripture?

    Would their pattern be completely different if we, left to our devices and a mere checklist of concepts to make sure get covered, got to make them up on our own (like an invocation, for instance)?

  4. TOR on August 19, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Usually most discussions I’ve heard about the prescription of Sacramental prayers end with the conclusion that repeating them verbatim is what keeps the doctrine pure and protects it from undue embellishment. That conclusion implies that left to our own interpretation of the ordinance, speaking of the church collectively (but also individually), we would eventually corrupt its meaning.

    But plenty of other ordinances and prayers (eg, priesthood blessings, baby blessings, confirmations, ordinations) seem to survive just fine as a checklist of concepts (done by the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood, in the name of the Savior, etc).

    I would imagine, all things being equal, we would hear the same sort of variation in Sacrament prayers as we do with any of the other blessings. Perhaps the Bishop would still be tasked with insuring the certain concepts were still covered to one degree or another (although that would yield some confusing moments to young priests: “can you do it once more with that level of humility, but try to draw a clearer connection between the physical symbols and the Atonement?”)…

  5. Jonathan Green on August 19, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Queuno, I would guess that if the wording were not prescribed, then those allowed to officiate would have to be much more highly trained and controlled, and probably limited to something like one person per congregation. A parallel might be found in temple workers, who are selected much more carefully and trained more thoroughly than the group of people who are permitted to recite sacrament prayers.

  6. Ardis Parshall on August 19, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    I can think of nothing to say, except that i really enjoyed this, especially your pointing out the rhythms and sound patterns in the sacrament prayers. Thank you.

  7. Hunter on August 19, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Mormon public prayers as performance? Yes. As art? Not so much. They are too limited by the social conventions (including time constraints) to be art. Kinda like the blowback against calling Twitter messages a literary form. I think the Mormon public prayer is best understood as a social interaction, and less as an art form.

    But as others said, I enjoyed this post. Thanks.

  8. Jonathan Green on August 19, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    But Hunter, we certainly have prayers that are much longer than some well-known poems (see Alison’s post below). More seriously, when is art not limited by social conventions? (There’s a long debate on what precisely constitutes ‘art’ that I’m avoiding.)

    I’ll admit that I wouldn’t want to argue too vigorously for the artfulness of most specimens of prayer. On the other hand, I do think we should take a much closer look at public prayer as the foundation for characteristically Mormon art, for the reasons I set forth in the post: it’s unique to us, it’s incredibly widespread, it’s hard to study (we all hear the General Conference prayers, but they don’t appear in the Ensign), and there are all these constraints on the social interaction of prayer that turn it into something like Homer in miniature.

  9. Kew on August 19, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Excellent analysis. Thank you very much. I now feel inspired to continue my quest to rid my prayers of the trite phrases, such as nourish and strengthen.

  10. Jonathan Green on August 19, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    No, hold on to ‘nourish and strengthen’! It’s a classic part of the Mormon formulary. Your job is not to eradicate it, but to find new and interesting uses for it. Split it across two clauses. Modify it with interesting adjectives. Find new subjects or objects for it. The possibilities are endless, and interesting.

  11. Sara on August 19, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    I always love how we often pray to Devonly Father, as was pointed out to after a prayer was said one sacrement – followed by snorts of laughter as we ponder how often we had been ‘guilty’ of running words together.

  12. lucius beebe on August 19, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    nice work.
    speaking of ‘nourish and strengthen': ironic to hear so many blessings over food that clearly causes cancer, obesity; this are full of preservatives and chemicals. it’s one thing to multiply loaves and fishes but to ask for garbage to nourish and strengthen is asking for quite a miracle.

  13. reader Rachel on August 19, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    At meals alone with my kids, if I’m praying, I often say the Lord’s Prayer. It’s beautiful and perfect, each phrase a sermon I need as much as my daily bread. They don’t have it memorized to recite, but bits of phrases and ideas from it sometimes pop up in their prayers.

  14. Adam Greenwood on August 20, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Shoot, now I’m going to get all analytical next Sunday.

  15. Hunter on August 20, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Jonathan Green: I wasn’t arguing that art isn’t ever limited by social constraints. I’m arguing that the Mormon formulaic (i.e., socially constrained) public prayer is not “art,” to wit:

    “Dear HF
    We thank thee for this day.
    We thank thee for the gift of thy Son.
    We thank thee for this opportunity to come and renew our covenants.
    We thank thee for the freedom to worship in this blessed land of ours.
    We thank thee for the leaders of the church.
    We ask thee to continue to inspire them with the inspiration they need.
    We ask for thy Spirit to be with us here in this meeting and to be with us the rest of this day.
    In the name of . . . Amen.”

    This type of Mormon public prayer is a convention. And hence, its repetition is, at best, a performance. Show me what I’m missing, because heaven knows that I’d like to witness a little art in Sacrament Meeting, instead of the usual pharasaic/Zoramite repetition of phrases. Please.

  16. Jonathan Green on August 20, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Hunter, thanks for the example. If you dug up that text on a clay tablet in cuneiform, you might look at the language use and decide that you had reached a tipping point where ritual language is also poetic. You might argue based on the arrangement of lines approximately in order of length, or from the mentioning of the father-son-spirit triad in traditional order but disjoined by several clauses, or from the ring structure of ‘thank for day…rest of this day’, or from the subtle allusion to sacral myths (birth of Christ, Crucifixion) with reference to popular custom (gift giving), or from the conjoining of religious covenant and national legal foundations (renew our covenants…freedom to worship).

    Do note that these arguments may be a bit tendentious. My point is that what we mean by ‘poetry’ or verbal art outside of the modern traditions we’re familiar with is broad enough, and the features of Mormon prayer are unusual enough, that an outside observer might decide that the characteristic Mormon art form are our public prayers.

  17. Russell Arben Fox on August 21, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Fabulous post, Jonathan. Many thanks for the time you put into it.

    One thing that is probably included in your point above about public prayers being a “lived tradition,” but which might deserve a little more emphasis, is that public prayers on one potentially rather important way in which we place ourselves in the midst of our family lineage and heritage. There are phrases that I use in my prayers–such as “bless us with our needs and our righteous desires”–that probably have long been used by millions of Saints, but which I learned most specifically from my maternal grandfather, and whose face and tone of voice I can still call up in my memory when I say those words. I’ve become, through my speech, a carrier of his legacy of faith.

    I also found your comment about the white upper- and middle-class English-speaking American Mormon (because, of course, that is what this post is basically talking about) tendency to choose some variation of “father” over “God.” The same thing would go for the lack of references to “Jesus” in our prayers, as opposed to the more formal “Jesus Christ” or, even more commonly I think, the third person “the Savior” or “the Redeemer.” As I’ve said before in other contexts, our collective distaste for things smacking of most kinds of evangelical Protestantism goes overboard, sometimes.

  18. Jonathan Green on August 21, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Russell, you bring up a very interesting point that I ended up not discussing in my post, which is how Mormon speech patterns are also affected by taboos (avoiding the appearance of allusion to temple liturgy) and boundary marking (avoiding similarity to what are perceived as religiously foreign).

    I don’t think white, American, middle- and upper-class are the best categories in this case. Instead, I’d suggest something like the degree to which someone is steeped in or identifies with Mormon culture as it existed before, say 1970 (which was predominantly white and American). So a lifelong church attender raised in Arizona stands a good chance of having picked up a Mormon manner of prayer, I would guess, while a recent convert would have to make a conscious choice to adopt it, or not. Think of it as the verbal equivalent of wearing a white shirt to church. (I disagree with the class restriction, however; I’d guess that the linguistic features of Mormon prayers are equally or more prevalent among rural congregations, for example.)