Your Sunday Brunch Special. Extempore: Knowing Beforehand What Ye Should Say, Er, Pray

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.[1]

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.[2] (Have we all experienced the “talk in the prayer?”) I find the good Bishop’s argument about unity a powerful one.

[1] Joseph did sometimes plan sermon topics in advance. But the record is silent regarding prayers in those settings.
[2] 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.


  1. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    I’ve always considered that a thoughtful “amen” at the end of the prayer is my way of joining with the congregational collective in assenting to the words of the prayer. Overly simplistic — yes. Something like a straight up-or-down vote in Congress, only nobody ever really votes no, they just don’t really mean it.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the occasional General Conference pray-er sneak a small notecard out of the suit pocket for guidance during the prayer. Particularly so for those who speak English secondarily and have likely been ironing out a few words or phrases ahead of time.

  2. Meldrum the Less says:

    Because of the developments within my family I find myself in both LDS and evangelical meetings on a regular basis and it is hard not to make comparisons. I can’t speak to what is happening in your ward, but if a humble objective seeker after genuine religious experiences were to attend the meetings I attend, the evangelicals kick our asses when it comes to prayer. I don’t know the difference between formuliac and vain repetitions.

    Also once a month generally on the first Sunday we do have extemporaneous speakers and most would better serve the cause of truth and righteousness if they kept their seats and kept the mouths shut. Just saying..

  3. whizzbang says:

    One of my pet peeves in the Church is when someone gets up to pray and they think it’s their time to give a talk, which it isn’t. So, they give this little speech and then pray. We have a guy in our ward who can’t pray unless he is given warning a week in advance, because he writes out these prayers. I told him once, in a nice way, to just give the prayer and forget writing them out and he got all offended and upset and so I was like well if that is your reaction then I am not going to ask you to pray again

  4. Sharee Hughes says:

    When I graduated from Church College of Hawaii many moons ago (before it became BYU-Hawaii), I gave the benediction at the graduation exercises, which I wrote beforehand. My prayer was a sonnet..The fact that t was pre-written, and was in a particular rhyme and rhythm, did not make it any less sincere than if I had given if extemporaneously. And I don’t think anyone minded that it was short.

  5. Must be in the air – I wrote about this the other day too. I think there’s purpose to the Lord’s instruction to us in how to pray, and something beautiful that happens to us when we follow that pattern. Joseph invited people to carefully consider and write blessings they’d like to receive, and I’ve done that too. In fact, this year is my “year of miracles” and I’m praying for many unbelievable things because I feel prompted to do so. The only danger I see in a Mormon Book of Common Prayer is that it’s not composed by the individual praying to fit his/her circumstances, whether that composition is earlier or on the spot. It’s the practice of composing prayer to the Almighty that I think creates the opportunity for the relationship. It would lose something if it were always someone else’s words we prayed, since the point is to commune with God personally.

  6. Bill,

    It’s too much effort. To key a Mormon BCP into the liturgical calendar would mean updating every year and I’m too lazy. Instead, I suggest people download an almanac to iCal etc. via and thereby follow the Christian year (perhaps using Sunday to include LDS readings).

    I think written prayers are wonderful. Mormon extemporaneity is rife with vain repetition.

  7. During the last Gospel Doctrine Old Testament year, I posted some lessons from an old Seminary manual when the old chapters matched up to the current lessons. The lessons in that manual always included what it called “suggestive prayer” — a model prayer that showed how the lesson topic could be brought into daily life by the way the prayer asked for divine help to understand and use the principles taught. I don’t know whether the intent back in 1930-whatever was that the model prayers actually be read as the class prayer, or whether they were published in the nature of personal meditation. In either case, I thought they were well done, and if offered sincerely would be genuine prayer.

    (Then there was the woman who googled for help with her lesson on Sunday morning, landed on one of those posts, and took time from her severely constricted preparation time to ream me out for writing down a prayer, because didn’t I know that was one of the signs of the devil’s church, and in her LDS church prayers were always spontaneous, so why didn’t I take my loathsome, apostate self out to the desert and blah blah blah.)

  8. Ardis, cool! Uh, not the reaming bit.

  9. Oh, I remember that, Ardis. That was amusing in a rather memorable way.

    I’ve been looking through old copies of Der Stern, the Church’s publication for the German-speaking Church (in the process of collecting and posting on Keepapitchinin the notices for the Saints who died in the service of their Kaiser and Fatherland).

    Der Stern regularly posted written prayers. I saw one from Charles W. Penrose, a member of the First Presidency. Some of the prayers are very touching, particularly as the war progresses and the Saints lost more and more servicemen. One member from the far eastern lands of the German Empire wrote in a combination testimony-prayer: “Because our Zions-Brothers [the missionaries] have been called away, we feel lonely, but we will not and may not lose hope….[We are heirs…Christ] is himself the Heir, he himself said: ‘Abba, dear Father.’…Is this not the great hope, that in these difficult times we have been given the strength to continue to live, to continue to endure…”

  10. Ronan is completely right that contemporary Mormon prayer practice is rife with vain repetition. But we’re not introspective enough to criticize ourselves for it and make a change. Instead, we are satisfied with criticizing and condemning the “vain repetitions” we perceive in the prayer practices of other creedal Christians, especially Catholics and Anglicans (or other high church denominations).

    But consider the Pope’s recent explanation of the repetition of pre-written, liturgical prayers. First, he acknowledges the main problem inherent in liturgical or memorized prayer (which, incidentally, are also an issue that arises with extemporaneous prayer) so no Mormon can accuse him of being ignorant of or unresponsive to this concern. “The other false form of prayer the Lord warns us against is the chatter, the verbiage, that smothers the spirit. We are all familiar with the danger of reciting habitual formulas while our mind is somewhere else entirely.” With regard to memorized or pre-written recited liturgical prayers, he then gives the following explanation of their value:

    Praying actualizes and deepens our communion of being with God. Our praying can and should arise above all from our heart, from our needs, our hopes, our joys, our sufferings, from our shame over sin, and from our gratitude for the good. It can and should be a wholly personal prayer. But we also constantly need to make use of those prayers that express in words the encounter with God experienced both by the Church as a whole and by individual members of the Church. For without these aids to prayer, our own praying and our image of God become subjective and end up reflecting ourselves more than then living God. In the formulaic prayers that arose first from the faith of Israel and then from the faith of praying members of the Church, we get to know God and ourselves as well. They are a “school of prayer” that transforms and opens up our life. . . . Normally, thought precedes word; it seeks and formulates the word. But praying the Psalms and liturgical prayer in general is exactly the other way round: The word, the voice, goes ahead of us, and our mind must adapt to it. For on our own we human beings do not “know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26) — we are too removed from God, he is too mysterious and too great for us. And so God has come to our aid: He himself provides the words of our prayer and teaches us to pray. Through the prayers that come from him, he enables us to set out toward him; by praying together with the brothers and sisters he has given us, we gradually come to know him and draw closer to him.

    (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, London: Bloomsbury, 2007, pp. 129-131.)

    The Pope then goes into a lengthy exposition on The Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father” as he refers to it, the Vater Unser in German). For example, “[w]hen we pray the Our Father, we are praying to God with words given by God,” and “when we pray the Our Father, Jesus’ promise regarding the true worshipers, those who adore the Father ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23), is fulfilled in us.” (Ibid., 131).

  11. Thanks John.

  12. Attending an interfaith group discussion for the first time, a Presbyterian gave the prayer. The few mormons in the group, me included, cringed a little when she stopped, seemingly mid-prayer, and asked if anyone had anything to add. After some silence, the Jewish woman there added a special Hebrew prayer. More silence and the first woman closed the prayer. I’ve been thinking for the last week or two about the next time this group meets and whether I’ll be brave enough to add to the prayer. It seemed really weird and wrong at first, but it’s starting to feel like a great way to have a true group prayer – especially considering the interfaith nature of the group. Any thoughts?

  13. And I realized that I might have been unclear. I was attending the interfaith group for the first time. The Presbyterian was the one who started the group.

  14. As a missionary, I had a similar experience. A family invited us to pray in a kind of round where we all contributed. I was a little nonplussed at first, but I found I enjoyed it. (They later joined.)

  15. Thanks Amy T. Interesting.

  16. Am I to understand Mormon youth don’t grow up with the fine art of the popcorn prayer? I kind of envy them then.

  17. I suppose that rote prayers are likely to illicit rote answers, rote “revelations.” Prayers are meant to be communication, individual or collective. Communication is unpredictable and open ended. I’m not interested in the kind of unity that follows everyone communicating the same words – in fact, I find the idea both mortifying and terrifying. A hill of ants is united, but that hardly makes it a model. Haven’t we got enough impulse towards feeling that conformity means unity? We are already a church that does not pray together, why take it farther? I have zero interest in attending such a church. It is one thing to acknowledge that similar circumstances will inspire similar or identical prayers. It is another to assume that one prayer suits all similar occasions.

    jes – I think that’s very interesting.

  18. Sharee Hughes says:

    Every time I hear people talking about “vain repetition,” I wonder about my personal prayers. There are many people and circumstances that I pray about every time, both in my morning an evening prayers and even in between prayers. My prayers are sincere, but when I pray for the same things, I use the same words, or close to it. I have friends with health problems that I include in all my prayers. I have some family members who have strayed and I pray for them. Is it considered vain repetition because I use pretty much the same words when I am praying for the same things each time?

  19. Thomas, your cautionary word is noted. I don’t propose a Mormonism reinvented in an Anglican image. But isn’t the singing of hymns said to be a prayer? Would it violate your sense of creeping normalization if, say, a visiting GA sent out a prayer prior to a stake conference, invited people to think of or even use the words in their private devotions and then actually offered this prayer? Just a thought. Not a petition. (grin)

  20. Thomas, what about the Pope’s point that reciting liturgical prayers (by which he generally means the Psalms, which is how they were also used by the people who wrote them down) helps us to conform our mind and will to God rather than creating a God out of our own image through communication that is too oriented toward ourselves?

  21. In extemporaneous prayer, formulae might provide certain functions for us that make for a hybrid between frozen/prepared text, and speaking in tongues. As not all can think on their feet, let them press [Play] and lather, rinse, repeat. That said, the loss of “Prayer Meetings” is tragic, especially for women.

    Perhaps public invocations and benedictions are a more pedestrian exercises about picking a representative one-way voice for the congregation than more intimate settings like family, couple, companionship, apartment, &c. prayer where we pause to ponder and seek a response.

  22. WVS, I would hate that, and fortunately I don’t think it would ever be done. *g*

    John, I would say that we learn who God is, grace to grace, on an individual basis, and that a fixed idea of God is more dangerous than not believing in God, at all. Of course, revelation comes to us through, and is limited by, our subjectivity, hence the need for humility and, as far as we are able, caring more about what is so than what we wish to be so. The Catholics have creeds, more power to them, and if the point was to nail ourselves to creeds, fixed prayers would be a great way to help out with that project.

  23. And beyond that, don’t we have a sufficient volume of correlated material? Really, do we have to add our prayers to this, too? I cry uncle. :)

  24. The practice of public prayer is both a public performance and a communication with God. I have a very hard time being spontaneous while awkwardly trying to do both at the same time, so I often revert to the formulas. I think if I took time to write prayers beforehand they would be less formulaic and I would be able to balance the practice’s duality in a way that’s consistent with my spontaneously felt feelings. They would take on the ‘essence’ of spontaneity.

    (Then again, even “spontaneity” has a formula, or else it could not be recognized as such).

  25. As the scriptures say “the song of the righteous is a prayer,” A prayer can be a vain repetition without being written. Many written prayers can be quite beautiful, and express our desires, but the meanings I associate with written prayers or hymns is much more personal than what I think when someone prays in public.

  26. jcd, Andre, nice insights.

  27. A teacher I deeply respected once shared that she was in the habit of writing out her personal prayers each night. Time consuming? Yes. But she found that it better focused her thoughts and helped her avoid vain repetitions and focus instead on the task at hand. I’ve always thought that was interesting.

  28. J. Stapley says:

    I think that the case of dedicatory prayers is worth particular attention.

    Primary children recited the Lord’s Prayer well into the twentieth century.

  29. I recall Terry Waite mentioning how important reciting the prayers he had memorized was to his sanity when he was an imprisoned hostage. This has impacted how I view prayer.

    I think we should study the prayers that we already have and memorize many of them. If we have the passionate words of Jesus or King Benjamin or Joseph Smith imprinted in our brains and hearts then we are more likely to know how to pray. Sometimes when I’m not in the mood for a nighttime prayer I recite the little verse I learned as a child. It helps me get back to childlike humility.

    Reading prayers at times when a meeting isn’t so riveting or during the sacrament service makes me remember why I’m really there. It makes the time worshipful.

    Also, we should think about what the prayer is for. This will help to get to the point and be meaningful to the situation. When I am teaching or conducting I listen very carefully for the invocation of a blessing for me and appreciate it everytime.

    Lastly, if I’m inclined to judge a prayer or let my mind wander, it’s helpful to keep my head down and finish with my own addendum.

    Very important topic, where all answers are correct (except for an additional Mormon BCP).

  30. Great thoughts, all. J., that’s interesting about the Primary. We used to repeat all sorts of things in Primary, but the Lord’s Prayer was not one of them.

  31. Thomas Parkin says:

    It seems to me there is a conflation of things that might be confusing. ‘The song dah dah dah is a prayer unto me, and will be answered etc.’ This is God waxing poetic to make his point. For one thing, the song will be answered, like a prayer will be answered. One might have used a simile instead: The song of the heart is _like_ a prayer unto me. But when one’s poetic juices get flowing a simile rarely does the trick. In a similar way, a walk in the forest might also be a prayer unto him, as might a particularly spiritual minded commute. But, of course, a song is not meant to be the _exact_ thing that a prayer before a congregation is. And, similarly, a Temple Dedication is not the same thing as a prayer for a congregation. (In like manner, T.S. Eliot was not actually rat’s feet over broken glass, though the comparison is revealing and apt.) I’m not against recitation in some contexts, but to substitute recitations for prayers.

    One more thing about a prayer being a public performance. Well, it does feel that way at times, but ideally ought not, I’d think. I think ideally when one prays for a congregation one should be mindful of what God might be want requested for that congregation, what the congregation wants for itself, and what the prayer giver his(her)self wants for the congregation. With those things in mind, thoughts will come, before or during the prayer. And if they don’t come, you can make it a very short prayer, and there is very little performance about it, I’d think.

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