Nourish and Strengthen

September 3, 2009 | 22 comments
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If you’re interested in an oral-formulaic theory of Mormon prayer, or if you want to observe a formula in its natural habitat, a good place to start would be Sunday dinner, or rather just a few minutes before. If you listen to a modest sample of mealtime prayers, you might get the impression that asking for food to “nourish and strengthen (our bodies)” is a common Mormon prayer formula. Documenting that impression is a bit tricky, however, since Mormon prayers are almost never recorded, and Mormons aren’t the only ones to use that phrase. Is it a true formula, or just an ordinary English pleonasm? A bit of quick searching turns up some interesting things.

First, Google: “nourish and strengthen our bodies” turns up 19,800 hits. Four of the top six are Mormon blogs. Another three have something to do with the lyrics of a band called “Sons of Provo.” Other religious traditions and nutrition sites round out the list. The same types of sites turn up on the next page. For just “nourish and strengthen,” two Mormon sites appear, including an ironic Guide to Stuff Mormons Like at the top of the list.

Second, LDS.org: “nourish and strengthen our bodies” generates only two hits. One is a short story, where the phrase is supposed to be reminiscent of the protagonist’s father’s manner of prayer. The other is a Q&A that calls the phrase a typical part of Mormon prayers.

Third, LDS.org: “nourish and strengthen” turns up eleven hits. In addition to the previous two, the phrase is used several times in a metaphorical sense relating to spiritual nourishment by Lavina Fielding (1977), Loren Dunn (1983), and Henry Eyring (1997), among others.

Fourth, LDS.org: “nourish,” “strengthen” yields 489 hits. Glancing over the list, what is being nourished and strengthened appears most often to be faith, not bodies.

Fifth, Google Books: “nourish and strengthen our bodies” would appear at first glance to be anything but a Mormon formula, with only a few hits among the 85 books that turn up. There are several nineteenth-century devotional and historical works from Britain and New England, but no obviously Mormon sources. In the first half of the 20th century, the phrase occurs in two literary works with Mormon settings: Richard Scowcroft’s Children of the Covenant and Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua. Apart from an Especially for Youth note that the formula is typical of Mormon prayers, later Mormon hits are also from literary works with Mormon settings. It’s noteworthy that the use of the phrase in Mormon-themed literary works occurs in the context of direct quotations where it functions as a marker of oral authenticity.

Sixth, Google Books: “nourish and strengthen” finds considerable history of the phrase in English from at least the eighteenth century, in both nutritional and devotional contexts.

Seventh, LDS.org, scriptures: The only hit for “nourish,” “strengthen” within the standard works is 1 Nephi 17:3, following the story of Lehi’s family being provided food, and the women being given miraculous strength:

And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did provide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness.

If formulas are the essence of both myth and ritual, it would be nice to think of “nourish and strengthen” as a ritual formula that encapsulates the entire story of Nephi and his family, and that the scriptural verse anchors the formula in Mormon prayers. Alas, I doubt that many Mormons think of the story from 1 Nephi when we pray.

What the casual search doesn’t turn up are any examples of a Mormon praying for food to “nourish and strengthen” his or her body in a normal mealtime prayer. We find instead only self-conscious, literary, or devotional usage. Does this mean that “nourish and strengthen our bodies” is not a Mormon formula? Far from it. Instead, this exercise traces out what I think is the normal life of oral formulas. The formula itself is spoken thousands of times every day, but it remains nearly invisible to research based on textual evidence, because the typical oral usage is almost never recorded. Instead what we find are:

  1. Humorous, ironic, and self-conscious usages, or comments on the stereotypical nature of the formula. If we cannot observe the oral formula directly, we can at least perceive that Mormons understand it to be formulaic.
  2. Literary reworking of the formula, especially in direct quotations meant to represent typical Mormon speech patterns. A skilled author will first take words from a Mormon mouth before he or she puts words there.
  3. Devotional usage, usually in a metaphorical or extended sense. Speakers build their discourses out of the language that they share (or assume they share) with their audience. If they assume that everyone has heard of food “nourishing and strengthening our bodies,” then that linguistic formula can become a constructive element of their speech.

Of the three types of indirect evidence for oral formulas, the literary and self-conscious treatments are the most easily perceived, while devotional usage is the most sophisticated, I think. Devotional use plays with convention and uses the common formula in fresh ways. Consider the following from an Ensign article by Henry Eyring:

We need help from the Spirit to speak the words which will nourish and which will strengthen….If the full requirements of [new converts’] membership are explained clearly and with love, if the opportunity to serve in the Church is extended wisely and their performance in that service judged with charity and nurtured with patient encouragement, they will be strengthened by the companionship of the Holy Ghost and then they will be nurtured by power beyond our own.

Note how it is words that nourish here, with the implied, silent contrast between food and doctrine, body and soul (in an article entitled “Feed my Lambs”). Eyring also uses the phonetically similar and synonymous nurture to call attention to how the typical usage of “nourish and strengthen” has been extended. Note especially the skilled use of the conventional mealtime prayer formula to signal that long-time church members (those most likely to use or recognize the formula) are the primary intended audience.

So let’s hold on to “nourish and strengthen.” Formulaic meal blessings are a small price to pay for a rhetorical tool that is capable of considerable subtlety.

22 Responses to Nourish and Strengthen

  1. BHodges on September 3, 2009 at 9:24 am

    I’ve often referred to the 1 Ne. scripture as my nourish and strengthen proof-text of choice.

  2. Zionssuburb on September 3, 2009 at 9:33 am

    I love the ‘Sons of Provo’ song… here are lyrics to the chorus:

    Nourish and strengthen our bodies and do us the good that we need,
    To carry us through the rest of this day.
    Nourish and strengthen our bodies, our mealtime creed
    Be it casserole or Jell-o, bless it!
    Oooh, these things we pray.

    Notice, their use of ‘mealtime creed’

  3. Dave on September 3, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Fine post, Jonathan. Food for thought.

    I wonder if there is any way for “spontaneous” prayers that are repeated once or several times per day in almost identical circumstances from becoming formulaic or at least employing the same set of reliable, time-tested phrases. The LDS Church does employ set prayers — same wording every week — in the similar ritual setting of blessing the sacrament. Maybe set prayers for blessing the food at family meals wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

  4. Alison Moore Smith on September 3, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Zionssuburb beat me. Being a huge Sons of Provo fan, I know we have to sing it.

  5. Kent Larsen on September 3, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Just in case it isn’t clear to readers, “Sons of Provo” is an LDS film “mocumentary” about a fictional boy-band named Everclean (kind of like ‘Spinal Tap’). The references in Google are therefore LDS references.

  6. Mike Parker on September 3, 2009 at 10:45 am

    The phrase “nourish and strengthen” only appears once in General Conference from 1897 to 2009, in an address by Elder Don B. Colton in April 1934:

    “I have rejoiced in the exercises of this conference. There is an ancient Arabian proverb which reads something like this: ‘If thou hast two loaves of bread, sell one quickly and buy a rose. Something beautiful is as essential to the welfare of man as is bread.’ So I thought today, and also yesterday, particularly while listening not only to the inspired remarks but to the excellent music, that the spirit of all those who come to these conferences is being fed—fed with food as essential to the soul as that which is needed to nourish and strengthen the body.”

  7. Mike Parker on September 3, 2009 at 10:49 am

    It also appears only once in the Journal of Discourses, in an address by Orson Hyde, 19 January 1873 (JD 15:303):

    “I discern but a small portion of the people of this ward collected together on the present occasion. I do not express myself thus with the idea of finding fault with them for their nonattendance at meeting. I only wonder how so many of you were enabled to come together at this time and I almost wonder how I got here myself without being stuck in the mud. However, we are here to wait upon the Lord, that we may renew our strength, and certainly in these times of wonders we have as much occasion for food adapted to our immortal spirits, to strengthen and invigorate them, as we have for food to nourish and strengthen the body. We may be more sensible of the want of food for the body than we are of the want of food for the mind, but still a lack of the latter preys upon the interior man as much as a lack of the former disqualifies us for the discharge of those arduous duties which pertain to our mortal organization.”

  8. Kent Larsen on September 3, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Fascinating, Jonathan. Your analysis is very helpful. Now I have to figure out how to incorporate and reference your ideas in the definition of “Nourish and Strengthen” on Mormon Terms.

    Don’t worry, I will give credit where credit is due.

    BTW, I do love your selection of corpa to search. I have a few others I search also that may be helpful — the HBLL’s digital Mormon collection is very useful for this kind of thing, and BYU also has a searchable collection of Conference Talks and the Journal of Discourses.

    I also understand that BYU Linguistic professor Mark Davies has a Mormon corpus he put together. (I learned about it in the comments to my analysis of the ‘Mormonness’ of the word “Celestialized” — see Is ‘Celestialized’ a Mormon word? on A Motley Vision).

  9. John Gwynn on September 3, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Besides your interesting analysis, I have wondered exactly what we expect the Lord to do with our request. Are we seeking something additional beyond what the food being eaten would normally do? Perhaps the contents of the meal are not in the group of foods that would “nourish and strengthen” (such as a fast food hamburger) without Divine intervention. Or, is it possible that the need of those praying or hearing the prayer have a health issue whose relief is actually the intent of the prayer?

  10. Hunter on September 3, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Slightly off-topic, but as I was reading through the results of all your many Google and LDS.org searches, I thought how much I love teh interwebs. Thanks for this fun post.

  11. Kevin Barney on September 3, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Very interesting. I’ve long been interested in the oral formulaic nature of our prayer practice. I used to imagine that I would do field work, like a modern-day Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who schlepped their primitive recording equipment around Serbo-Croatia. But I figured people would have a problem with me recording all those prayers, so I gave up on the idea.

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 3, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    May I suggest that one reason the phrase has enduring currency is because it echoes a passage we learn in the temple, one that is not spoken away from the place where it is used in its formulaic role.

    To be nourished is to be healthy, the opposite of malnutrition.

    To be strengthened is to have the energy to “run and not be weary, to walk and not faint”, to “thrust in our sickles with our might.”

    Mormonism may be almost unique among Christian religions in emphasizing the importance of physical health and strength as an aspect of an eternal body that will be resurrected and restored, made part of us for eternity. Mormons are even criticized by some religious groups for our belief in the importance of expending our strength in righteous works. When we ask God to “nourish and strengthen our bodies”, we are asking God to enable us to do all the things that He wants us to do here in mortality, for the benefit of ourselves and our families and neighbors. It transforms our ordinary meals into a sacramental experience, reaffirming our covenant to dedicate our time, talents and means to the work of God and the building of God’s kingdom on earth. It is a mirror of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which focuses on the body and blood (strength) of the Savior, and instead focuses on the righteousness that we can accomplish with our own bodies and blood.

  13. Observer on September 3, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Raymond, Is that what you consciously think of when you hear that phrase or say those words yourself? I think it is an unconscious and usually thoughtless/checklist aspect for most of the people I hear pray. It probably means they are accustomed to praying. I like your deliberate, conscious approach and description of a prayer’s sacralizing effect on an ordinary meal, but I don’t think it is very common. If it is in the Swenson house, I want to come over for dinner.

  14. Jonathan Green on September 3, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Kevin, couldn’t you use your iPhone for that, and pretend to be reading Dialogue during sacrament meeting?

    Thanks to all for the helpful comments. Kent, I’ll file “Sons of Provo” with the ironic citations. Mike P., thanks for the additional references. Raymond, there’s a very interesting connection I hadn’t thought of.

    Dave, I think we have to distinguish between “formulaic = set prayers” and “prayers that make use of formulas.” The first will strike many people as verboten, while the second can range from trite and repetitive to subtle and inventive. Since repetitive is easy–how many different things are there to say about mashed potatoes?–repetitive usually wins, but it doesn’t have to.

    John Gwynn, I’d guess that for us, the blessing on the food is more about what we do than what God might do.

  15. T. Greer on September 3, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    This is why I say, “bless this food that it may better our health.”

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 3, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    My wife is an excellent cook, so it is generally worthwhile eating at the Swenson house, regardless of what is said in the blessing on the food.

    My recollection is that a short article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies noted that a passage in the Book of Mormon appears to reflect the old Jewish practice of giving thanks to God when one is full, rather than before eating the meal, placing the emphasis on gratitude for a blessing already received rather than asking for an additional one.

    This implies that our practice is not mandatory, and indeed I am not aware of a specific passage of scripture enjoining us to pray over our meals, but it is more an opportunity to pray with our families when they have been induced to sit down with us. It does not have soteriological value per se apart from simply being a prayer, but it is an opportunity to reflect on all of our blessings and our deepest needs.

  17. Kent G. Budge on September 3, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    I’ve felt a little differently about this since being diagnosed not long ago with diabetes. In all seriousness, my stock phrase has become “bless this food that it will not spike my blood glucose.” And I mean it, every time.

  18. Jim F. on September 3, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Threadjack: I have no problem with praying over meals (though as Raymond points out, #16, the Jewish custom of asking permission at the beginning of the meal and thanking at the end makes more sense), but why do we ask for a blessing on the food? Thanks, of course. Many people say “grace,” i.e., thanks, over their food; it is an appropriate custom. Recognition of God’s goodness toward us, sure. Acknowledgment of our share in the violence that provides us with what we eat, I hope. But what is the point of saying “Please bless this food”?

    Are we asking God to change its physical character so that we don’t have to eat responsibly? I assume not. Are we asking for protection against possible pathogens or harmful chemicals in our food? Perhaps, but harm from food consumption is relatively rare. It is certainly rarer than other dangers that we face every day without asking for a special blessing.

  19. Kent Larsen on September 4, 2009 at 10:06 am

    Jim F., you mean “harm from food consumption is relatively rare” in the U.S. In many other parts of the world this is not so true.

  20. Brian Duffin on September 4, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    I prefer to pray in the following manner before partaking of food purchased from Wal-Mart:

    Please bless this homogenized milk, irradiated meat and processed food that contain preservatives and other special chemicals designed to enhance our eating experience–including the food coloring–that they may not harm us overly much or rob us of the needed nutrients already lacking in this meal. Amen.

  21. Brian Duffin on September 4, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Alternately, when we eat with my in-laws, my children enjoy saying the Catholic version of grace where we all hold hands. At the end of the prayer, we lower our hands and the children exclaim with exuberant voices and smiles on their faces, “Amen!” The kids love it. :-)

  22. Daniel on September 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Nourish and strengthen, like so many little catch-phrases, have become programmatic and rote. The meaning has been squeezed out of them long ago by their overuse. But then that could be said of praying itself. What practical difference does it make to say “nourish and strengthen”? If you don’t say it, are those Cheerios going to turn subtly toxic? The same with prayer. If you fail to pray over your meal at all, will you stop being “blessed”? In my experience, the answer is an obvious “No”. It felt strange to me to cease praying over meals years ago, but I haven’t croaked yet, and I discovered that the strange feeling came from not knowing when the meal “started”. It was like a starter’s pistol for a race. Literally! With six siblings, it really was a race for the food! You snooze, you lose! But since we have given up praying over meals, everything is much more relaxed and we just eat. Very pleasant.