The Language of Prayer

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Back when I was an active member of the church in 1993 I attended a General Conference and heard the talk by Dallin H. Oaks, a Mormon Apostle titled The Language of Prayer.  I remember the experience of listening to the talk vividly.  It was probably the first time in my life that I knew for certain that a leader of the Mormon Church was wrong…so wrong I was embarrassed for him. I’m sure I sat there with my jaw on the ground the entire 10-20 minutes.

At the time, I was teaching English and had become somewhat of a student of Linguistics.  Having also spent my mission years in Brazil, I also knew the foundational elements of Latin languages and I knew this talk was so garbled it would be impossible to even translate into other languages!

There were many little moments in my past when I had small glimpses into reality and knew with a deep conviction that the church’s concept or teaching about something was off-base.  This was one of them.  The following analysis of that talk was not written by me.  It was posted on a website for former Mormons by a slightly well-known former Mormon, Tal Bachman.  I just agree with his review and so I post it here:

Dallin Oaks’ “Language of Prayer” talk.

There are so many internal contradictions and problems with this talk, that a full critique of it would be a couple of times the length of the original talk. But since a few people asked me last week for a few comments after this talk came up on a thread that I started, here are a few.

It is easy to imagine that addressing the Creator of the universe, the embodiment of all righteousness and perfection, should impel us to use language different from that which we use to talk to goldfish or prison inmates. It is all the more significant, then, what a hash Elder Oaks makes of his defense of it.

For example, he writes:

>> The special language of prayer follows different forms in different languages, but the principle is always the same. We should address prayers to our Heavenly Father in words which speakers of that language associate with love and respect and reverence and closeness. The application of this principle will, of course, vary according to the nature of a particular language, including the forms that were used when the scriptures were translated into that language. Some languages have intimate or familiar pronouns and verbs used only in addressing family and very close friends. Other languages have honorific forms of address that signify great respect, such as words used only when speaking to a king or other person of high rank. Both of these kinds of special words are appropriately used in offering prayers in other languages because they communicate the desired feelings of love, respect, reverence, or closeness.

Question: How does it make sense to say that the “special language of prayer follows different forms in different languages, but the principle is always the same”? What principle? Oaks says that in prayer, “some languages have intimate or familiar pronouns…other languages have ‘honorific forms’” but that “BOTH…ARE APPROPRIATELY USED”. Huh? Familiar forms of address, versus formal forms, are opposites. What “principle” could erase the very distinction on which his entire talk depends for its point? This is totally bizarre. If it is true that different languages use either the formal or informal in addressing God, and then he says that that’s appropriate, on what grounds is he arguing that in English, we shouldn’t use “you”? WHAT PRINCIPLE?

Oaks writes that “thou” and “thee”, etc., constitute “dignified” language. But then he writes this:

>>The special language of prayer that Latter-day Saints use in English has sometimes been explained by reference to the history of the English language. It has been suggested that thee, thou, thy, and thine are simply holdovers from forms of address once used to signify respect for persons of higher rank. But more careful scholarship shows that the words we now use in the language of prayer were once commonly used by persons of rank IN ADDRESSING PERSONS OF INFERIOR POSITION…These same English words were also used in communications between persons in an intimate relationship.” (That is, they constituted the informal form).

So, according to Elder Oaks, we should use “thou” because it is more “dignified”, AND, according to Elder Oaks, “thou” is NOT more dignified, because (as most people interested in English know), it actually IS the now obsolete informal, intimate form of address – exactly the one people did use to address golfish and criminals with, 500 years ago. How does this make sense? Oaks says in effect, “‘thou’ is formal” AND “‘thou’ is informal”.

How does Oaks get around this obstacle to his argument? Very easily. He simply ends up declaring, as though hopefully to make the conundrums he gets himself into in this talk magically, instantly vanish:

>>But the history of English usage is not the point.

Previously in this talk, Oaks notes that the meanings of words change over time, as though to insinuate that “thou” had. But it isn’t that “thou” has “changed meanings”; it is that it has been totally obsolete – hasn’t been used – in “standard English” (hereafter “SE”) for going on half a millenium. Even by the time of Shakespeare and the KJV it was falling out of use in SE, and I know for a fact that some linguists believe that the only reason Shakespeare used it so often in his plays (whereas contemporaries like Ben Jonson used it rarely) was that he (supposedly) hailed from Warwickshire, where it was still a part of the dialect.

(And by the way, my wife is from Lancashire; and if you went there right now and talked to people over fifty [as I have a few times] who still speak in dialectic, you would hear them quite frequently use the INFORMAL “thou” and “thee” to their grandchildren, farm animals like goats and pigs, and grocery boys. It never has been – and is still not, where it is used – the “reverent”, “dignified”, or “formal” form, not in regional dialects, nor in SE).

Anyway, it is easy to wonder if for Oaks, “the history of English usage” has ceased to be the point only because “the history of English usage” completely destroys the weird arguments he keeps trying to make. How can “usage” and its “history” NOT be the point, when his whole talk is about 500 year old words that he wants us to keep using, on grounds that they are “dignified”, even though, as he also admits, they aren’t? How can ANY discussion of a word’s meaning, nuances, etc., completely divorce itself from the history of that word? Oaks doesn’t really answer this question. But why should he have to? He’s an apostle, and even though his talk contains numerous internal inconsistencies, that he is an apostle should be all that is required for us to not notice, I supppose.

So far, Oaks has argued that “thou” should be used because it is “dignified”, even though as he explains, it wasn’t ever actually “dignified” at all; insinuated then that it might be appropriate just because the meaning has changed, even though it hasn’t where still used in regional dialect, and in fact has dropped entirely from SE.

And in seeming (subconscious?) recognition of his increasingly embarrassing position, he finally concedes that, okay, “thou” might be obsolete – but that THAT is precisely why we SHOULD use it for “the language of prayer”! (He says, “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”.)

Confession: I don’t understand. Why does “obsolete” mean “more sacred”? Would Dallin Oaks insist that we all start listening to the MoTab on wax cylinders or vinyl LP’s, or wear burlap robes to church instead of navy business suits with red silk ties?

Oaks’ position seems to come down to this: SE currently lacks a formal “you”, since “you” now is used in both formal and informal settings. But, deity must be addressed, in English, using formal speech (though he doesn’t explain why all other languages should use the informal, as the church insists they do). So, the obsolete “thou” can be appropriated to this end, despite the fact it was always – and is still, where used – the informal form.

This might be okay, except that THE CHURCH ITSELF translates ALL references to Deity, in its scriptures, its manuals, its conference talks (even Oaks’!), everything, into the INFORMAL form of address of every language of which I am aware. German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, every other language with two forms of address, I believe – the church itself always uses the INFORMAL! On what grounds, in the end, does Oaks argue that “right” requires English speakers to try essentially to create out of nothing, like Kwanzaa, and use, a formal form of address, while “right” ALSO requires virtually all non-English Mormons to do EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE? Again, “what principle”? Why?

I think, in the end, the answer is – “because”. That’s always the ultimate answer in authoritarian organizations, whether we all realize it or not. “Because” – because Spencer Kimball said so, because Joseph said so, because we always have…but as each “because” (just as we have seen in Oaks’ own talk) evaporates under scrutiny, another “because” replaces it. And in the end, there is nothing else, except “because”. Because we said so. And when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done. And that should settle the matter for all faithful Latter-day Saints. The end.



Any discussion of Dallin Oaks’ version of the “language of prayer” might take into consideration the language of the KJV, since Mormon prayer language seems to be an effort to continue its form of speech. As well, while Oaks’ talk isn’t specifically about the KJV, Mormon defenses of its continued use often rely on the same kinds of arguments used by Oaks for defending obsolete language in prayer. And I feel pretty sure that Oaks’ would defend the continued use of the KJV as staunchly (and as unconvincingly) as he does “the language of prayer”. Just a few comments then for what they’re worth.

The first English translation of the Bible was done by John Wycliffe in the late 1300’s (don’t remember the exact year). It was revolutionary because it was a translation of the scriptures into the language of the common man; and as such, was a total karate kick in the face of the church. The church opposed Latin to English translations, at bottom, because it weakened their power – up until that time, the priests (obviously this is pre-church/state separation) had been the referees in the game of life, but the players themselves had little or no access to the “definitive” rule book, The Bible. All priestly opinions had to be accepted just on faith as being accurate expressions of what The Bible itself said. Human nature being what it is, it is difficult to imagine even the most saintly pope or priest (or prophet) never wielding such power to satisfy his own interests.

Wycliffe, with his English translation, helped to start changing this situation. Though with great faith in God, he aligned himself with reason, autonomy, and enlightenment, and against the dark forces of dogma and questionable, irresponsible religious authority claims. He once said that even if a hundred popes were to announce something, their opinions on faith shouldn’t be accepted unless they squared with holy writ. It is no wonder the church was so angry at him. Suddenly, they were being held accountable. Their power derived from their ability to be the final interpreters of a scripture withheld from the very people they sought power over (does that sound familiar?); even at the same time they claimed that scriptures were the only word of God, they reserved ALL RIGHT to INTERPRET that word of God; which in effect substituted them for that word of God itself, without acknowledging this was what was happening (and does THAT sound familiar?). Was it Brennan or Black who said the Constitution was “whatever we say it means”?

Wycliffe’s successor translator, William Tyndale, similarly wished for holy writ to be accessible to the common man. He once said to a priest, “ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost”. After he published his translation, one which broadly would come to serve as the template for future translations, including the KJV, he was pursued by the Catholic church, caught, and then burned at the stake. His crime? Facilitating access to religious information, a “crime” that the Mormon church would probably make, in essence, against the guy who smuggled Joseph’s “Kirtland Papers” (the Egyptian Grammar book) out of the archives, against the Tanners for publishing it, against Grant Palmer or Michael Quinn or anyone else who would dare reveal religious information and facilitate the holding accountable of men who make authority claims identical to (and identically as specious as) the Catholic popes and priests the church once derided in its endowment ceremony. “The truth”, in the end, does not matter – only “the church”. But since the church’s very claims to authority are based on claims about “the truth”, how can it fight against access to it, without legitimately arousing the gravest suspicion? Without suggesting it could not be what it claims to be?

In the story of the English bible, the Catholics are the bad guys. And Dallin Oaks, whether he knows it or not, seems to be on the side of the bad guys; he seems very much to agree with uber-Catholic Sir Thomas More, who once complained bitterly about the holy word of God being translated into the language of ploughboys – rather than left in the more exalted, reverential language of….Latin. (How stupid). (Just replace “Latin” with “KJV English”, which for many people, four hundred years later, seems about as incomprehensible as a Robert Burns poem written in Scottish dialect, and you have Oaks’ position). Oaks would have been criticizing Tyndale, Wycliffe, and the KJV translators if he’d lived several centuries ago. He can’t get around that, without disavowing his main position, which he hasn’t done, that I know of.

The protestant King James repudiated More’s/Oaks’ position by authorizing a new translation, one that would combine the best features of all then extant versions, to be written in the tongue of the common man – not some fake language which we’re supposed to pretend is “exalted”. The whole point of the King James Version of the Bible was to put it into common tongue – NOT keep it “exalted” or “obscure” or “archaic (although a few of Tyndale’s by then famous phrases, 80 years old by that time and already sounding a bit dated, were kept). The whole point was to make it comprehensible, so as to neutralize the claims of priests – and Mormon apostles – who in effect argue that the scriptures mean whatever they say they mean.

Because the KJV translators – whose project, oddly enough, Oaks reveres and loathes at the same time without realizing it – wanted the word of God totally comprehensible to everyone, I believe very strongly they would say he was every bit the religious bigot, upholder of superstition, and self-styled divine “authority” who actually INHIBITS the spread of the divine word by warring against its intelligibility, as were the Catholic friars who, well, “fried” John Wycliffe.

What’s even worse is that neither the Old Testament nor the New was originally written in anything other than plain language. The New Testament, for example, as is well known, wasn’t written in “formal, dignified Greek” at all, but in koine Greek, the Greek used by fishermen, prostitutes, and…Jewish tentmakers like Paul – the Greek, by the way, used by people whose native tongue wasn’t Greek at all, but Aramaic.

So, if Matthew and Paul and Luke et al didn’t use some archaic, pseudo-dignified form of speech in writing about the most sacred matters imaginable – Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection – and don’t even quote Jesus using anything other than common speech in addressing God, on what grounds can Dallin Oaks or anyone NOW claim that the scriptures (and our prayers) are so sacred as to merit warping in this way? It makes no sense. To endorse this warping is to insult the very KJV translators who the church claims were inspired to write what they did. They wrote in common speech. Any translation which doesn’t represent that fact is a slap at them, and reveals yet another example of a Mormon claim which undermines itself when seen in the light of other Mormon claims.

I mentioned Jesus using common language to address God. I’d like to ask Dallin Oaks who “the great exemplar” is, if not Jesus? Of course, he would say Jesus. So, if, as Oaks claims, we need some formal language with which to address God, why then does Jesus, the great exemplar, address God using the very intimate term “Abba”? (And according to some authorities, he would have done so all the time, not just where it is specified in NT text).

Abba does not, as is commonly suggested, translate exactly into “Daddy”, but it definitely is a familiar, intimate term, maybe something like “papa” – NOT “Your Royal Highness” or whatever it is that Oaks seems to think Jesus would want us to use.

Oaks might reply that he was entitled to use this term, since God was his literal father. I might then ask why Paul tells his congregations that the Spirit of God says that believers in Christ should worship God as “Abba”? (See, e.g., Gal. 4:6, Rom. 8:15). Aren’t the standard works THE standard for official church doctrine? That’s what Oaks would say – and in saying so, he would have just exploded his own weird thesis, for in it, prayer to and praise of God is explicitly exemplified, and recommended to be, in FAMILIAR language.

Further, I’d like to know (if we are to maintain the kind of “appropriate distance” to deity recommended by Oaks and before him, by McConkie), why Gordon B. Hinckley announced in public that “Jesus is my friend”?

If Oaks really wants to read the Bible in something like a faithful translation, he could try the RSV (forget what J. Reuben Clark said), or the NRSV, even the ESV which maintains the “virgin”/parthenos/alma/beutlah/Isaiah/Matthew deal for the born agains. Heck, even the NIV would be better than the KJV for accuracy. Maybe even better in my mind is Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the New Testament. THAT is near to what it would have sounded like to the contemporaries of its writers.

Let me try something out here, to conclude.

The church continues to insist on using “thees” and “thous” in prayer, because to replace them would raise the question of why the church is still then sticking with an archaic Bible translation which has been greatly superceded in accuracy and intelligibility by a number of others. But questions like this are bad.

They’re bad, because we might start to wonder, after digging more deeply into the various translations, if the KJV can’t be replaced because to do so might undermine the basis for many of Joseph’s teachings and doctrines, which were “riffs” or midrashic embellishments on particular KJV verses – which in some cases were mistranslations (unbeknownst to Joseph), or which were misunderstood by him due to ambiguity in the translation. But that can’t happen without calling into question the reliability of the charismatic Joseph, and thus the authority of his church.

Therefore, use of the KJV, and the use of KJV language for Mormon prayers, must be defended in whatever way possible – even in ways which make no sense, which are contradicted not only by the facts of history but by the scriptures themselves (as suggested above), and even by statements within the very talks of people trying to defend them – like Dallin Oaks’ “The Language of Prayer”.

Just as we might expect if the church were not run, in the end, by anything approximating Omniscience no matter how diluted by mortal minds, but by mortals whose access to omniscience is every bit as non-existent as our own, the church once again seems to find itself painted into a corner, any escape attempt from which – while maintaining church claims – must of necessity provoke the greatest violence on the rudimentary rules of logic, and the most basic respect for fact, truth, and reality.

I’ll give Oaks’ credit for this, though his talk is a carcrash – I don’t imagine anyone being able to do better defending the indefensible than he does. What else could we really expect? The thing, in the end, just isn’t defensible without ending up sounding like you’re creating your own version of the Nicene Creed. If the thing itself is nonsense, it is no wonder defenses of it are as well. How could they not be?

2 thoughts on “The Language of Prayer”

  1. It’s always so fascinating watching someone ties themselves into a knot! Alas, for the real life consequences all the knotting has done to the Mormons (and other religious people, I guess) out side of the exalted leadership circle. 😦

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