Vain Repetitions

I grew up a very good little Mormon boy. At one point I went through a stage where I took very seriously the scriptural injunction against “vain repetiitons,” well known from Matthew 6:7:

“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”

This was not a problem in private prayer, but I had a devil of a time trying to avoid stock phrases in public prayers. I had spent my entire life blessing the food “that it may nourish and strengthen our bodies,” as had my family members, and over the course of time we eat a lot of meals and therefore give a lot of blessings. And when put on the spot publicly, it was very difficult to come up with completely different ways of pronouncing a blessing on the food. This is just one example of the difficulties I encountered on this little quest of mine. I used to struggle with this, until a couple of realizations helped me to mellow out and not stress so much about repeating phrases in public prayers.

First, read with a little historical context, Jesus was probably referring to a specific pagan practice of his day, and not to the use of stock phrases that so concerned me as a boy. Here is the comment I wrote on the expression “use not vain repetitions” in Footnotes:

battalogesete babble, speak without thinking. The word is rare elsewhere, and may possibly be a hybrid form rendering ARAM ‘mr btlt “talk idly.” The context here suggests the word was used with reference to pagan practices of lengthy repetition in prayer, such as is illustrated in Acts 19:34, where it is reported that the people prayed for about two hours repeating the words “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.”

The second insight is one that came slowly to me from various areas of study, and it has to do with the use of oral formulaic language in extemporaneous composition. My first exposure to this idea was as a young classics student at BYU, and had to do with the common use of formulae in Homeric epic. Consider, for example, the following from Illiad III:67-75 (Lattimore’s translation):

Now though, if you wish me to fight it out and do battle
make the rest of the Trojans sit down, and all the Achaians,
and set me in the middle with Menelaos the warlike
to fight together for the sake of Helen and all her possessions.
That one of us who wins and is proved stronger, let him
take the possessions fairly and the woman, and lead her homeward.
But the rest of you, having cut your oaths of faith and friendship
dwell, you in Troy where the soil is rich, while those others return home
to horse-pasturing Argos, and Achaia the land of fair women.

Although eventually written down, this epic poetry was originally orally composed in the meter of epic, dactylic hexameter. The italicized phrases are examples of Homeric formulae, stock phrases that are used repeatedly throughout the epic. Since they fit particular parts of the metric line, the reuse of such phrases allows the poet quickly and easily to compose his poem according to its metrical requirements.

This basic insight of forumlarity also helps us to understand Hebrew poetry, which was written not in meter in the same sense as Homeric epic, but using various patterns of parallelism. In ancient near eastern cultures, there was a common stock of repeating word pairs, which could be used by the poet as the basic building blocks of different synonymous lines. Consider, for example, the repeated use of the word pair earth//world (‘erets//tebel) in the following examples:

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1)

for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and he hath set the world upon them. (1 Samuel 2:8)

Who hath given him a charge over the earth?
or who hath disposed the whole world? (Job 34:13)

Their line is gone out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:4)

Let all the earth fear the Lord:
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. (Psalm 33:8)

A the lightnings lightened
B the world;
B the earth
A trembled and shook. (Psalm 77:18)

(For further details, see my article “Poetic Diction and Parallel Word Pairs in the Book of Mormon,” JBMS 4/2.

Eventually, it occurred to me that these insights have application to our practice of public prayer, which is essentially an extermporaneous oral performance, much like the ancient singer of tales composing oral poetry around the campfire.

If the bishop forgot to call someone to give a prayer, and calls you from the pulpit, and assuming that you have some experience with Mormon prayer practice, do you hyperventilate? I don’t; I don’t give it a second thought. I walk to the pulpit and give the prayer, relatively effortlessly. But it is a different story if the bishop calls you from the pulpit to give a talk; you freak out over that. Why is it any different?

The answer is that in our tradition we have an entire stock of oral formulaic phrases that allows us quickly and easily to compose prayers on the spot. Each prayer is unique in its own right and speaks to the particular situation, but it is filled out by oral formulae. (In fact, I once thought it would be interesting to do some “field work” demonstrating this point, but I decided that recording people’s prayers would perhaps be perceived as a little too intrusive.)

So the next time you are giving the closing prayer and you want to pray “that we may return to our homes in safety,” don’t sweat it. The sentiment is genuine, and the fact that we have a certain stock vocabulary of prayer is not a bad thing. Without it, offering public prayers would be extremely traumatic for us and very difficult, which would interfere with the purpose of such prayers in the first place.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    BTW, I think it was Calvin Grondahl (oe perhaps Pat Bagley) who did a great comic panel that would serve as a useful illustration to this post. (If it is on the web, I don’t know how to find it.) It shows bored heavenly employees at a “Prayer Monitoring Substation,” watching thousands of video monitors showing a wide variety of people, from GAs to little children, giving their prayers, all using the same familiar phrases.

  2. Nice post, Kevin. The vain repetitions issue once collided with a church activity I participated in. In commemoration of Enos, a group of youth in my ward accepted a challenge to pray for 20 minutes (I think) three times a day. Try combining that with a strict mental insistence on repeating any phrase or idea… Yeesh. Even in private prayer, there are limits to originality. At some point in the activity, I started using part of my time each day to tell God jokes…

  3. Mike Ash says:

    Great post, Kevin. Very informative.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Holy smokes, JNS, 20 minutes three times a day? That’s brutal.

    Of course, you can take the idea of formulae to extremes. On our mission, we gave so many prayers that we had a running joke, offering “prayer no. 75” or “Prayer no. 123.”

  5. I heard an opening Sacrament prayer that went something like this: “Heavenly Father, we have gathered here to worhip Thee and remember Thy Son’s sacrifice by partaking of the Sacrament – Please bless us in our efforts. In Christ’s name. Amen”

  6. JNS (#2), How does God respond to your jokes? Does he ever tell you any back? Would He be available to interview for my dissertation on Mormon Humor? (and does he have an executive secretary who could help me set that up?)

    Kevin, I have experienced this dilemma as well. My way out of it was thinking about the “vain” part of “vain repetitions” rather than the “repitition” part. I think when it becomes so rote that you are not thinking about what you are saying then your prayers are “in vain” — because they are not stirring you to any personal action. Just my two cents. Nice post.

  7. Great post. Thanks for the linguistic insight.

    FWIW, it helped me to realize that if you do something “in vain” it means that nothing happened as result of your effort – it had no effect. If your prayers have no effect, then they fit the idle talk description in the original post. So, if they have no effect AND are mindless repetitions they would constitute “thoughtless babbling”. I like it.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I love that prayer, daylan!

  9. Glenn, good stuff. I stopped telling jokes in my prayers a long time ago. But does God ever tell jokes? Yikes. Sometimes I think we’re all living one of His.

    Sounds like an interesting dissertation topic. How are you approaching it?

  10. JNS, I thought it was interesting at first, too. I have all but buried it at this point and moved on to other things, although I still dust it off from time to time with the thought that maybe I’ll finish. If you want to take this offline I’d be happy to tell you more about it, but there really are not too many things more un-interesting than explaining the mechanics of humor. I assume you have my email address from this post.

  11. This “vain repetition” thing is something I am trying to help my kids with, but they have a few phrases that, if they are not said every night, they have to start over and make sure it gets said before they will go to sleep (so I guess it still has meaning to them, although I can pretty much predict when they are going to say it, how they are going to say it, where they are going to pause, and breathe, and yawn, etc.) The cutest phrase is “bless us that we’ll have good dreams and thoughts, and not bad dreams and thoughts.” They cover their bases, my kids.

  12. i begin and end every prayer with the line “lord, help me avoid repetitions.” i have found that it helps, especially if i throw it in a couple times in the middle. at first it was hard to remember to pray for this, but now i don’t even have to think about it. i think it’s working.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Totally adorable, Glenn.

  14. Peter LLC says:

    My way out of it was thinking about the “vain” part of “vain repetitions” rather than the “repitition” part.

    I think you are on to something here. The scriptures are filled with repetitions like “thus saith the Lord,” “and it came to pass,” etc. I see no particular reason to hold myself or others to a standard higher than that for divinely approved texts.

  15. As a convert the whole idea of shunning repetitive prayers was appealing to me. I was raised in a Lutheran church where the Sunday service involved repeating the same phrases. It’s easy to get to the point where they don’t carry much meaning.

    As a child I said a prayer silently in my head every night. The same prayer. But I remember meaning it as I recited it silently before going to sleep each night. I felt like it was keeping me safe. The prayer:

    Now I lay me down to sleep
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep
    If I should die before I wake
    I pray the Lord my soul to take.

    I think I’d usually add something about forgiving me for my sins.

  16. I think we use the same stock phrases to construct testimonies that we bear publicly.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point, claire; the same principles apply to testimony bearing as well.

  18. Speaking of vain repetitions, did anyone hear the clip of the traffic reporter in Utah who closed her segment with, “and we’re grateful for this wonderful day and we humbly say these things in the name of Thy Son …, Amen.”

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  20. Norbert says:

    Very interesting. I wonder if the language patterns of prayers and testimonies develops in other languages with the same frequency? Or is the repetition of certain ideas and phrases solidified by general conference, etc.?

  21. A couple months ago, my four year old asked if he could mix up the order of his prayer. When I told him that’d be fine (thinking how great it was he was putting thought into it and not using vain repititions), he began “Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen, thank you for…”

    Daylan, that person can come pray in my ward anytime!

    Seriously, though, I’ve read BRM and a few other apostles talk about short prayers to open and close meetings. But the 70’s at General Conference go on forever. Does anyone know why that is? The benediction in April’s Sunday afternoon session was longer than Pres. Hinckley’s closing remarks.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Joe B., my understanding is that the benediction was intentionally long to make up for the shortness of the GBH remarks, to try to clock the whole thing as closely to two hours as possible (for local TV broadcast reasons).

  23. Glenn, please let us know when your dissertation is finished so we can get a copy. Remember the short compilation Davis Bitton did over 20 years ago? Wit and Whimsy or Wisdom, maybe? Delightful, but way too short. Humor is so endemic to the human condition I cannot believe it is not of God. I do share humor in my prayers, laugh in my prayers and feel the Lord’s pleasure–at least that I am not always pleading, arguing, complaining or in tears.

  24. I suppose that the ultimate avoidance of vain repetitions might be captured in a reporter’s account of an interview he did of Mother Theresa at one point (I forget where I read this, so I’m going from memory):

    Reporter: When you pray, what do you say to God?
    Mother Theresa: Nothing. I just listen.
    Reporter: What does God say to you?
    Mother Theresa: Nothing. God just listens, too. And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.

  25. I don’t want to take this thread too far off topic, but how does everyone here feel about using “thee, thou, thy, and thine” in prayers? I have mixed feelings. I feel like my prayers can feel more personal and natural if I pray in common language. I feel like the formal language can set up a dichotomy between religious expression and other experiences of everyday life. But we have been instructed to use the more formal terms, at least in public prayer. And I have to admit that the formal language adds an element of solemnity and reverent tradition to prayer.

    I have no mixed feelings about avoiding other artifacts of Jacobean English in prayers. (Is it “givest” or “giveth” or “hast given” . . .?)

  26. Kevin Barney says:

    I have mixed feelings on that subject as well, CE. Basically, I use the Jacobean language in public prayer and not at all in private prayer.

    To help with the basics of Jacobean language, here is a little primer on early modern English from my Footnotes project.

  27. Came across this Pat Bagley cartoon:


  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Awesome; thanks, Justin. A post like this needs a cartoon illustration to drive the point home.

  29. Jothegrill says:

    RE: 25 I noticed that in spanish the terms used in place of thee and thy are the more familiar terms, those you would use with a close friend, someone you know well. I understand that in the past, use of thee and thy conveyed love and admiration, not the distant respect they do now. I say you should pray however you feel closer to God.

  30. FWIW, I often speak more informally when I pray privately, but I use the honorific terms when I pray vocally for a public group.

  31. The use of the archaic pronouns is widely misunderstood. Because they are unused today other than in highly formal and ritualized speech patterns, they have taken on an air of formality that can seem distancing. But the use of thee, thine, thou, etc. was not so formal when it was still a part of common usage. You would only say “thee” to someone either very close to you or someone of a lower rank. Everyone else was “you.” This is why monarchs were referred to as “your majesty” instead of “thy majesty.” To say thou is similar to saying “tu” in Spanish, as Jothegrill points out.

    I used to feel uncomfortable about using the archaic pronouns because I thought they were formal. Once I learned what they really mean and started using them that way, I was okay using them.

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