Prayer is a Topic of the Day
Preaching in Mormonism during the 19th century was mostly an on-the-spot moment of preparation, following New Testament dictum that the Holy Spirit would give the words as they were needed. Gradually, that meme was broken. We still hear the extemporaneous sermon, and there is a bit of romance in it, but in large public gatherings, sermons are often preplanned at least and most often, pre-written. I frequently enjoy both. Can God inspire the preacher who prepares his sermons before the event? Of course.
But one area where we rarely deviate from the extemporaneous standard is prayer. Indeed, for Mormons, the spontaneous prayer is seen as a virtue. When prayers are offered in groups, there is no script (though such prayers often become formulaic). The occasions where this virtue is transgressed are obvious to most Latter-day Saints: ordinance prayers, temple dedications and yes, at times, prayers in general conference. The latter are remarkable enough that they usually get a mention on blogs, etc.
Is there something to be said for the written prayer? Prayers written well in advance? And perhaps distributed long prior to the event? And maybe even reused? In much of Protestant worship, personal spontaneous prayer is lauded, as I think it should be. Though I believe there may be a place for a kind of private programed devotion (think Catholic Rosary, say). Early Mormon practice followed Protestant example in public meetings: the minister or congregation leader did the praying. Minutes of early Latter-day Saint gatherings are mostly marked by this feature. Joseph Smith offered prayers in general conference meetings, sometimes after preaching a long sermon. Those prayers, like the sermons that preceded them, were spontaneous.
Is there an advantage to having prewritten prayers? Does this violate our sensibilities about “vain repetitions?” I give you the penultimate (in terms of establishment) Anglican Archbishop of Dublin:
. . . in the case of the extemporaneous prayer delivered by the minister, it is likely, though understood, not to be so understood by the people as to be adopted as their own address to the Most High, but rather as an address to themselves by their minister. And, accordingly, it generally is very much of the character of a sermon thrown into the form of a prayer; and more of an address to the congregation, than a petition offered up jointly by them . . . That precomposed forms are not contrary to Scripture; that they were used in the primitive Churches; that they are more likely to be judiciously framed than extermporary compositions, these, and other such arguments, I do not disparage or discard as inconclusive: but far more . . . that all of them together, has one and obvious simple reason, that our Lords’s especial blessing and favorable reception of petitions is bestowed on theose, who assembling in his name, shall agree . . . respecting the petitions offered up; which is plainly impossible, in most instances at least, if the hearers have to learn what the prayer is, at the moment it is being uttered.
Can a Mormon Book of Common Prayer be conceived of? Is it an evil or a good? At least in Whately’s view, spontaneous public prayer crossed the boundary between sermon and prayer, and therefore is perhaps neither supplication nor instruction. (Have we all experienced the “talk in the prayer?”) I find the good Bishop’s argument about unity a powerful one.
 Joseph did sometimes plan sermon topics in advance. But the record is silent regarding prayers in those settings.
 Whately: A Letter to a Clergyman of the Diocese of Dublin on Religious Meetings and his book The Parish Pastor; Carol Poster, “Richard Whately and the Didactic Sermon,” in A New History of the Sermon (Brill, 2010). Whately was arguing for, at least in part, the virtues of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. I’ve found the BCP to be useful at times in my own worship and wish RJH would get me a Mormon Version For The Year. If you’re up for a little work on your own check out RJH’s thing here. Ronan: Mormon BCP iPhone app.