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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.