When I was young, I learned that great respect was owed to those who held the office of bishop. As a sign of that respect, we always addressed our bishops as “Bishop Christensen” or “Bishop Calder.” We never called our bishop “Mr.” or by his first name, as we did in speaking to others. With the bishop, we always used an honored title.
The words we use in speaking to someone can identify the nature of our relationship to that person. They can also remind the speaker and listener of the responsibilities they owe one another in that relationship. The form of address can also serve as a mark of respect or affection.
So it is with the language of prayer. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches its members to use special language in addressing prayers to our Father in Heaven.
When we go to worship in a temple or a church, we put aside our working clothes and dress ourselves in something better. This change of clothing is a mark of respect. Similarly, when we address our Heavenly Father, we should put aside our working words and clothe our prayers in special language of reverence and respect. In offering prayers, members of our Church do not address our Heavenly Father with the same words we use in speaking to a fellow worker, to an employer, or to a merchant in the marketplace. We use special words that have been sanctified by use in inspired communications, words that have been recommended to us and modeled for us by those we sustain as prophets and inspired teachers.
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) said, “In all our prayers, it is well to use the pronouns thee, thou, thy, and thine instead of you, your, and yours inasmuch as they have come to indicate respect.”1 Numerous other Church leaders have given the same counsel.2
The special language of prayer serves an important purpose. We know this because of modern revelations and because of the teachings and examples of modern prophets. The way we pray is important.
The words thee, thou, thy, and thine occur throughout the prayers the prophets of the Lord have revealed for use in our day.
A revelation given in 1830, the year the Church was organized, directs that the elder or priest who administers the sacrament “shall kneel … and call upon the Father in solemn prayer, saying:
“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ” (D&C 20:76–77, 79).
The prayer offered at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in 1836 is another model that illustrates the language of prayer used by the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“And now, Holy Father, we ask thee to assist us, thy people, with thy grace, in calling our solemn assembly, …
“That thy glory may rest down upon thy people, and upon this thy house, which we now dedicate to thee, that it may be sanctified and consecrated to be holy, and that thy holy presence may be continually in this house” (D&C 109:10, 12).
This prophetic model of the language of prayer has been faithfully followed in all of the sacred petitions by which the prophets have dedicated temples to the Lord.
To cite more recent examples, we are all aware that the prayers offered at general conferences of the Church always use the special language of prayer we have learned from the examples of modern prophets and teachers.
We have scriptural record of three beautiful translated prayers the Savior offered during His earthly ministry. They are models for all of us. Notable in each of these prayers are the words thee, thou, thy, and thine instead of you, your, and yours (see Matt. 6:9; 3 Ne. 13:9; John 17:1, 3; 3 Ne. 19:20–21).
The special language of prayer that Latter-day Saints use has sometimes been explained by reference to the history of the English language. But the history of English usage is not the point.
Scholarship can contradict mortal explanations, but it cannot rescind divine commands or inspired counsel. In our day the words thee, thou, 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.
I hope this counsel that we use special language in our prayers will not be misunderstood.
Literary excellence is not our desire. We do not advocate flowery and wordy prayers. We wish to follow the Savior’s teaching, “When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matt. 6:7; see also 3 Ne. 13:7). Our prayers should be simple, direct, and sincere.
We are especially anxious that our position on special language in prayers not cause some to be reluctant to pray in our Church meetings or in other settings where their prayers are heard. We have particular concern for converts and others who have not yet had experience in using these words.
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 wording.
When one of our daughters was about three years old, she did something that always delighted her parents. When we called her name, she would usually answer by saying, “Here me is.” This childish reply was among the sweetest things her parents heard. But when she was grown, we expected her to use appropriate language when she spoke, and of course she did. As the Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11).
The same is true of prayer. Our earliest efforts will be heard with joy by our Heavenly Father, however they are phrased. They will be heard in the same way by loving members of our Church. But as we gain experience as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we need to become more mature in all of our efforts, including our prayers.
Those who wish to show respect will take the time to learn the special language of prayer. Persons spend many hours mastering communication skills in other mediums, such as poetry or prose, vocal or instrumental music, and even the language of access to computers. The manner of addressing our Heavenly Father in prayer is at least as important as these.
The language of prayer is easier and sweeter to learn than any other tongue. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “It is a great thing to inquire at the hands of God, or to come into His presence.”3 The special language of prayer reminds us of the greatness of that privilege. I pray that all of us will be more sensitive to the importance of using this reverent and loving language as we offer our public and private prayers.
In addition to Elder Oaks’s ideas, try these suggestions:
Say the Lord’s name slowly and reverently when you finish saying a prayer. Praying in the name of Jesus Christ is an important part of prayer. Closing your prayers slowly will remind you of that.
Remember the difference between public and private prayers. In public prayers, like in seminary or at church, you are expressing to Heavenly Father the desires and gratitude of everyone there. Save personal requests for your personal prayers.
Avoid “vain repetitions.” Jesus taught: “When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen, for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (3 Ne. 13:7). If you’re not careful, it’s easy to get into a rut of saying the same things the same way in your prayers. Instead, be sincere when you pray, and think about what you are saying.