Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Surely God Understands Modern English

Would it be too much to ask that, as a Church, we move to addressing God in common English that everyone can be comfortable with, instead of trying to sound like Englishmen of the 17th century? I've never really understood the affinity our Church has to this archaic dialect of English that everyone else happily jettisoned a couple of centuries ago along with blood-letting and witch burning (ok, someone forgot to send that memo to Salem).

Growing up, there were many times when I was in non-LDS homes where prayers would be offered before meals. Without exception, all of these prayers sounded very similar to how normal people spoke every day. They never used the fancy-pancy King James English that we, as Mormons, use in our prayers that no one else understands. Hopefully God understands this and doesn't just keep wondering if he's hearing stray prayers from the past echoing throughout the eternities.

To be honest, I've never been really comfortable speaking in King James English, even as a life-long member. It's old, awkward, and follows grammatical rules that people aren't familiar with. The more you understand the proper use of King James English, the more you notice just how few people actually get it right. It's even more strange that the only part of King James English that we use are the personal pronouns (Thee, Thou, etc).

In serving a mission on a Spanish-speaking country I quickly realized something very interesting about their prayers. In Spanish (and other languages?) members of the LDS Church pray to God in the most common, familial form, as if God was their best friend, just like my childhood neighbor Protestants in the USA. And, strangely, it's believed by members that God listens and understands these friendly, 'common language' prayers.

From the Wikipedia listing for 'Thou' we find the following information:
In a deliberately archaic style, the possessive forms are used as the genitive before words beginning with a vowel sound (for example, thine eyes) similar to how an is used instead of a in an eye. This practice is followed irregularly in the King James Bible but is more regular in earlier literature, such as the Middle English texts of Geoffrey Chaucer. Otherwise, "my" and "thy" is attributive (my/thy goods) and "mine" and "thine" are predicative (they are mine/thine). Shakespeare pokes fun at this custom with an archaic plural for eyes when the character Bottom says "mine eyen" in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Did you get that? Right.

I feel comfortable making the general statement that when a dialect is old and archaic enough to be made fun of by Shakespeare, it's time to move on. While unkind to point out, the only people that would miss this, will themselves be missed very shortly, and the rest will just heave a big sigh of relief. If we want a personal, accessible God, let's address Him accordingly, as most of our non-US Brothers and Sisters have the pleasure of doing.

I'm going to kick this suggestion up to The Brethren. Keepest your fingers crossed.


  1. The men whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators have consistently taught and urged English-speaking members of our Church to phrase their petitions to the Almighty in the special language of prayer. President Spencer W. Kimball 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.” (Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 201.) Numerous other Church leaders have given the same counsel. (See Stephen L Richards, in Conference Report, Oct. 1951, p. 175; Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 12; and L. Tom Perry, Ensign, Nov. 1983, p. 13.)

    Scholarship can contradict mortal explanations, but it cannot rescind divine commands or inspired counsel. In our day the English 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.

    Dallin H. Oaks, “The Language of Prayer,” Ensign, May 1993, 15

  2. Thee Dallin H. thy credibility tarnished for future utterings only or wilt thou be plagued retroactively? Things that make thee go...HMMMMM!

  3. We could move to Latin like the Catholic Church or better yet Ancient Greek or Aramaic to be more in line with what the saviour spoke. Perhaps then we could overcome the translation errors of the Bible altogether.

  4. J. Peter - I only see one position here. You can argue that God requires archaic and 'unused' words to address him with respect. In holding this position you then also must hold, out of logic, that all those members (Spanish speakers, etc) that use the common and familiar pronouns to address God are saying less-respectful prayers. Is it really your position that God is preferential to being addressed by archaic words only in English? It's a position that I do not see. This is a cultural thing, unique to English-speaking Mormons, a decreasing percentage of Mormons worldwide.

    These references that you provide on using these pronouns become less, and less common (your last was from 1993), as the Church increases its international footprint and we realize that this is such a uniquely-English issue. I guarantee that the above articles that you quote never appeared in the Spanish equivalent of the Ensign, the 'Liahona.' Why? Because no one outside of the US and the UK would understand what they were even talking about.

  5. I just couldn't stay out of this one, though I tried. I too have always found this practice peculiar. Does anyone really think the prayer counts less if you don't throw in a "thee" or a "thou"? That is almost as crazy as saying that a man's prayer counts more than a woman's. Does your God not answer your prayers when you talk like a normal person? Is talking that way really your best effort at showing respect toward your creator? That is pretty weak in my humble, but correct, opinion. As a father, I much prefer to be called Daddy than I do "father" or "sir". What if your child called you thee or thou? What does that say about your personal relationship with your child? Not much in my opinion. The God I believe in knows what is in my heart so I couldn't fool him with the misuse of King James English, even if I tried. God knows if you respect him. You can pull as many references from the Ensign as you want but you won't convince me that my personal relationship with God isn't respectful just because I don’t refer to him as “thee”. Don't take yourself so seriously people!

  6. Ah, possibly the solution to this problem is simply that we need to work on our ability to speak in tongues. I just recently met a young man on my flight home who claimed quite confidently that he had the gift of tongues. Coincidentally, one of his close friends happens to have the gift of interpreting tongues. Certainly if I follow the prophet I'll gain these gifts some day, right?

  7. Monomo - I'd say that this is a marked departure from your typical tow-the-line response. It seems that even you might be coming around ;-)

  8. M&M - Speaking in tongues was very popular in the early LDS church, but from reading accounts from this time, it seems that it got fairly out of hand. So, we've politely corrected the definition of speaking in tongues. It's now just learning a new foreign language. Simple.