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.