Changing the Sacrament Prayers: an example of the role of human agency in revelation.

This LDSLiving article popped up in my twitter feed yesterday. The church has revised the French version of the sacrament prayer. I don’t know enough French to really have an informed opinion, but based on my knowledge of Spanish, and my spotty knowledge of Latin, it seems to me like the change is from a word meaning willing, in the sense of willing, or wanting to do something to one that means willing in the sense of available, or disposed to do something. The idea is to more closely match the English version. (And, incidentally, this also aligns more closely with the official Spanish version, which uses “son dispuestos.”)

I would be curious to know the process that led to this change. The change was announced over the First Presidency’s signatures, which suggests either that the First Presidency made the decision, or at least that somebody in the translation department brought to the First Presidency for approval. Who brought the issue to the attention of the decision maker? What were the discussions like? What kind of information did they rely on in making the decision? 

The LDSLiving article makes a lot out of the word “willing.” And I agree that that word carries significant meaning in the sacrament. For one thing, willingness is a state of the heart, and its emphasis in the sacrament emphasizes that the sacrifice that God desires of us is that of a repentant heart. It also makes the sacrament prayer a merciful relief from the strict letter of the commandments that we all say we keep but don’t–at least not perfectly. In one sense, we are all condemned by the commandments we fail to obey and baptismal covenant we fail to keep, but we are saved weekly as we come with broken hearts to the Lord’s table, where we offer our failed efforts to keep the commandments, and he accepts them, saving us from our failure to obey, instead requiring only that we be willing to obey.

So there is much meaning in the word willing. But there was this statement in the LDSLiving article that I found curious:

Of all the words that could have been used in this sacred ordinance, words like “wanting,” “inclined,” “disposed” and countless others, the Lord revealed the word “willing” in this sacred prayer. (Emphasis added).

The assumption seems to be that God himself composed the sacrament prayers. But does LDS scripture actually say that? God revealed the sacrament prayers in the sense that they are in the Book of Mormon and God revealed the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, but that does not necessarily mean that he authored them, because the Book of Mormon, though it was revealed by God, claims to have been authored by human beings in the distant past.

40020sacramentWe use the prayer we use because it was included in the articles and covenants of the church, now section 20, but, as I’ve written about before (here and here), section 20 got the prayers from Moroni 4 & 5. And Moroni doesn’t say that God revealed those prayers word-for-word. He says only that that was the “manner” that the Elders and priests used when they administered the sacrament.

You can compare those words to the words of Jesus in 3 Nephi 18 and pretty readily see that Jesus’s words in 3 Nephi 18 are the likely source for the prayers in Moroni 4 & 5. But there are several possibly significant differences. And significantly, Jesus is not recorded as giving a set prayer to the disciples. I think it unlikely, given what we have recorded in the Book of Mormon, that Jesus himself directly composed the sacrament prayers that Moroni recorded. The scriptures don’t give us enough information to have a solid answer, but as I’ve suggested before (here, here, and here), I think the best explanation is that the disciples used extemporaneous prayers after Jesus’ visit that gradually settled into the words for the sacrament prayers recorded approximately three centuries later by Moroni.

Does this matter? In one sense, no, it doesn’t. The prayers are just as meaningful as we participate on Sunday, regardless of their ultimate origin. But here are some of the reasons why I like to think of the prayers this way:

First, it makes me think of the disciples as real people rather than as characters in a story. As Michael Austin has written about before (here, and to a lesser extent, here), real people are more complicated than characters in stories, and if we believe the Book of Mormon is a story of real people, then we should not expect them to act like characters in stories all the time. It is theoretically possible that God intervened miraculously to preserve the prayers without any changes over three centuries, but unlikely. That’s just not the way people work. Language itself is always constantly changing.

Second, the idea of Jesus giving the inspiration of the prayers to the disciples through his own example, but leaving it to them to use their agency to work out how they would express that inspiration in their own language seems right to me. That, in my experience, is how revelation works. It is cooperation between pure divine knowledge directly revealed an unspeakable form, and human agency that must work to try to translate that spiritual knowledge into language. Paul describes pure spiritual communication as “groanings that cannot be uttered.” When Jesus prayed with the Nephites, “so great and marvelous were the words which he prayed that they cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man.” Etc.

The “language” of heaven is not language at all, and even putting it into language itself is an act of translation, which is always imperfect, and always requires effort and choice (agency) on the part of the translator. God “propounds to [us] themes of music,” but we must each “show forth our powers in adorning this theme, each with [our] own thoughts and devices, if [we] will.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, p. 15 (Christopher Tolkien, ed., Houghton Mifflin 2d ed. 2001). Just as the “noble and great ones” all sang together the song of creation in the beginning, God expects us to use our efforts and our agency to sing with him the song of redeeming love here in mortality.

So revelation is not dictation. It is a combined effort between us and God that demands our that we use our agency to make choices in that process. And in fact, this recent change seems to be just an illustration of that principle: because the human language with which we express revelation is imperfect and imprecise, the translation is never really “finished,” and we may find ourselves compelled to tweak it from time to time in our never-ended effort to get it right.

Comments

  1. “it seems to me like the change is from a word meaning “disposed” or “available” to one that more closely means “willing.”

    “The Spanish version currently has “dispuestos” where English has “willing;” will the church change it from “son dispuestos” (are disposed, available) to “quieren” (will to, want to)?”

    I believe you have it backwards. The former word was “Veulent” which is a conjugated form of “Vouloir” which means “to want”. The same exact meaning as “querer” in Spanish.

    The new version is “sont disposés”. This is a much closer to “Willing” than before.

  2. It seems in the time I wrote the comment you caught the error and fixed it above…

  3. Yep. Somebody else pointed it out also. Thanks, though.

  4. Bro. B. says:

    Interesting post JKC. I’m also curious about the circumstances behind the change. And I agree with your points in your paragraphs “First…” and “Second…” But I would take the opposite opinion on the comparison with the Spanish version (I too am a Spanish speaker with very limited French knowledge). Seems that If they were to change the Spanish “son disponibles” to some conjugation of “querer” (to want) that would be more a change to the feeling of the old French “veulent” (which the article says is a subjunctive form of “to want” but more like a burning desire) if we’re sticking to the Latin roots of both languages. IOW seems like they’re bringing the French version more in line with the Spanish. Curious to hear French speakers’ take on this change.

  5. Bro. B. says:

    ditto Bryan. JKC, you are fast on the draw.

  6. I find the claim by LDSLiving not just curious but downright anglocentric. I mean, sure, English has become a lingua franca, and it’s probably the only one in which all the prophets of the restoration were fluent, but why would God care so much about the nuances of just one of the thousands of distinct languages spoken on Earth?

  7. Martine says:

    Peterllc
    See Elder Oaks talk on the language of prayer and his reasoning for the use of “thee” and “thou” in English. Which is the exact opposite of the reason missionaries gave me when I investigated the church in French-speaking Belgium in 1970. ” He’s our Father; we use the familiar form to feel close to Him.”

  8. DeborahW says:

    In English we’re used to a strict, word-for-word recitation or reading of the prayers, and perhaps that’s true of other oral languages too. I’m hard of hearing and use ASL interpreters at church. Members of my ward have memorized the ASL translation of the prayers that’s available on lds.org, and they carefully reproduce each sign to interpret the prayers for me. But when I was in Salt Lake I visited a Deaf ward there and I was very surprised to see lots of linguistic variation–the meaning of the prayer was conveyed, but the linguistic form was quite different. Definitely made me think about the importance of sticking to the form.

  9. “why would God care so much about the nuances”

    He answered that question in the 19th section of the Doctrine and Covenants.

  10. I don’t want to give that website my click, so don’t know what background they gave for the change. The full account from the Church itself says that the new French triple, with a number of improvements in text as well as the study helps that we’ve had in English for decades, will be available first online and later on paper, this summer. It seems likely that special attention has been drawn to the sacrament prayer in the general publicity, because it is the chief alteration that will be noticeable to French-speaking Saints. In other words, it wan’t some stand-alone Big Deal alteration in isolation.

    The rest of your description of their coverage sounds like typical LDSLiving glurge/spin of what would otherwise be a straightforward announcement.

    I’m counting the days until I can get the new triple on paper. Always exciting to see developments related to one’s mission language or country!

  11. He answered that question in the 19th section of the Doctrine and Covenants.

    Actually, the question was “why would God care so much about the nuances of just one of the thousands of distinct languages spoken on Earth?”, which D&C 19 doesn’t address.

    Always exciting to see developments related to one’s mission language or country!

    Agreed.

  12. jstricklan says:

    “The assumption seems to be that God himself composed the sacrament prayers. But does LDS scripture actually say that? God revealed the sacrament prayers in the sense that they are in the Book of Mormon and God revealed the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith, but that does not necessarily mean that he authored them, because the Book of Mormon, though it was revealed by God, claims to have been authored by human beings in the distant past.”

    What’s funny about this whole conversation is that it seems to assume that the revealed language of the Book of Mormon is English, not Nephite (or Reformed Egyptian, more precisely). Beyond your very cogent points about all revelation being translation from the language of heaven, we are talking about a translation here. For all we know, the prayer by the Savior in 3 Ne. and the prayer in Moroni are identical in the original but got translated into English differently — or they could be completely different, and we’d never know. One of the interesting (and possibly significant) differences between the Book of Mormon is that we don’t have the original text, as has been elaborately explored by Grant Hardy and probably a few dozen much more learned scholars than I.

    It is confusing for what I assume is a Book of Mormon historicist-literalist to claim that we can read this much into the actual English phrasing of “willing.” Not surprising (inasmuch as it is commonly practiced, even by general authorities) but nonetheless confusing.

  13. It is not uncommon that changes to sacrament prayers occur, when scriptures are retranslated. Sometimes the changes are far more substantive. The old Finnish edition translated ‘willing’ as ‘valmiit’ which basically means ‘ready’.

  14. Amanda in Paris says:

    Ardis hit the nail on the head. This is just the most visible (audible?) of the latest changes made to the French version. My friends often send in grammatical corrections and say that even though the translation has gotten better since it’s first missionary-translated version, there’s still progress to be made.

    It’s a jarring change though. It surprises me each week.

  15. jstricklan says:

    The Russian edition of the Book of Mormon underwent substantial translation changes a few years ago, informed by a close reading by some local members and professional translators. (The new translation is substantially improved.) I learned Russian in the old BoM translation, and in my memory, there were slight differences between the Book of Mormon and D&C prayers, but I can’t recall what they were. The BoM and D&C prayers are now identical. They both use the term готовы, probably best translated as “prepared” or maybe “ready for action” for the term in question.

    Amanda, out of curiosity, is there any aesthetic difference (other than the change being jarring)? Does it sound more beautiful one way or another?

  16. Maryanne says:

    While most of the revelation I have received in my life has been eirher yes or no, I did once receive a whole paragraph in very specific words. So my experience teaches me that God could give it either way, letting up put it into words or providing it whole.

  17. As a French speaker I was pleased with the change as it resonates much more closely with the doctrinal intent of the English phrasing. I am so happy to see the Church providing the full scriptural experience in French though there was already a new Triple delivered about a decade ago around the time they put them online for LDS.org so this was a surprising update.

    To jstricklan’s comment that the Russian translation in Moroni and the D&C are now identical this is an interesting phenomenon because the prayers differ in English by one word “hath” in the BofM vs “has” in the D&C. Subtle difference that probably does not translate in most languages as the same word is also used in both in the French translation.

  18. Ardis: Thanks for providing more context. As a non-French speaker I’m at a disadvantage.

    ppc and peterllc: I fail to see the relevance of D&C 19 to Peter’s question. I agree with peter that we should be careful in attributing every piece of word choice to a divine mandate. That’s not the same as saying that the words are meaningless. A certain word choice may be one of several possibilities that would have been acceptable to God, and we can still draw meaning from that choice. We just need to be careful about attributing that meaning to divine intent.

  19. jstricklan: Thanks for your comments. A few points in response:

    1) I agree with you that it is important to keep in mind that the English version is itself a translation. It’s the closest thing we have to the ur-text, but it still isn’t the ur-text. I think the unavailability of the original, and the claim that the translation was miraculous, really means that we ought to treat the English text as if it were the original for most purposes, but still remember that there’s a text behind the text.

    2. This is very minor and really does not matter, but I think you were actually closer to the truth with “Nephite” than with “reformed Egyptian” as the language of the Book of Mormon. I think we’re too casual with calling “reformed Egyptian” a language. Moroni uses the phrase “reformed Eqyptian,” in chapter 9 of Mormon, but only to refer to the “characters” he uses to write, not the language itself. As for the language, he says only that “none other people knoweth our language.” There’s a difference between the language and the writing system. I can use the Latin alphabet to write in English, or I can use Tengwar to write in English, but English written in Tengwar is still English, not Quenya, and not even “reformed Quenya.” Though it would not be unreasonable to describe a mode of Tengwar developed specifically for English as “reformed Tengwar.” As a more general point, I think it’s a mistake to think of the records that became the Book of Mormon as being originally written in a single language. By the time Mormon came around, I would expect the language to look significantly different from whatever Nephi used. Modern English today and English 1000 years ago look very different.

    3. By “a Book of Mormon historicist-literalist” I’m not sure if you mean to describe me or the author of the other article, but in any case, I sort of both agree and disagree with you that it is improper to read meaning into a specific English word choice. Like I said in my comment above to peterllc, I think we can both acknowledge that a particular word choice is not necessarily divinely mandated (the product of human agency, to pick up on my point in the OP), and still read meaning into that particular choice regardless. But I agree with you that we should be cautious about doing so.

  20. I’m waiting for Elder Bednar to redefine the word “willing” for us.

  21. Amanda: Thanks for sharing. It nice to have a view from somebody in the trenches so to speak. I would be curious on your reaction to it. You say that it is jarring, which I can understand, but does it change the ordinance in any way for you? Open new and different understandings? Close down old ones? I’m curious.

  22. Loki: Good point. The current BofM and D&C versions are not identical. Has vs. hath is a pretty insubstantial change, but they’re not identical. For that matter, the D&C version is not identical to the handbook version that we actually use. Water vs. wine.

  23. jstricklan says:

    JKC, thanks again for a lot of thought-provoking! Wonderful post.

    On (3), I was definitely referring to the author of the original article with my inelegant “historicist-literalist” phrasing — which was intended to suggest a not very careful application Protestant Biblical historical-literalism to the Book of Mormon. There are a variety of other methods to take the Book of Mormon seriously, ranging from inspired-but-not-historical to historical-but-come-on-these-were-people (more like what I hear you saying, if I’m not mistaken, or like Michael Austin advocates.)

    I think your point in (1) is definitely true and is more like what I was trying to get at, although I would not advantage the English version as much as it looks like you might, based on the same human filter in the revelation process that you are very interestingly covering in your post. (Based on what the Bible is, for example, I balance the human-perfect scale a little more toward the human.)

    I disagree some with you on (2), though, but I hope you’ll correct me if I’m off base. I haven’t read my Nibley enough to be confident, but it seems to me that if reformed Egyptian is anything like original Egyptian, the writing system need not reflect Nephite at all. Like Chinese characters, it would be a pictoral writing system largely divorced from the author’s spoken language. Clues about grammar might still be found, but would be far less conclusive than syllabic or alphabetic writing system. Therefore, it’s possible that the characters for “willing” in both prayers are either consistent with each other or inconsistent, but we still wouldn’t know what words Jesus had used, because the Nephite of Mormon’s day and the Nephite of 400 years before would presumably be quite different — particularly without an alphabet to keep it anchored. (Just see what’s happened between us and Shakespeare, and we DO have an alphabet, as well as mass literacy!) That’s all before we get to Joseph’s translation, which clearly has used a lot of the KJV language as a filter, which is among other evidence suggesting that he had a heavy hand in creating the phrasing.

    So, the upshot for me is that, without making a move like you do that there’s a special divine dispensation for the English version — an argument I’d like to see spelled out before I accept — there’s no reason to think the English words themselves are all that special. (Contrast the provenance of the Book of Mormon with the Koran, for example, which has a much stronger claim on that point.)

  24. Spot on Ardis! (And wonderful post, JKC — I completely agree and wholly endorse the Silmarillion perspective as well.)

    This same thing happened to the German sacrament prayers about 15 years ago without all the fanfare and mysticism from LDSLiving or anyone else, for that matter (that I can recall). Many of us who served missions before the new German translation of the Book of Mormon was released at that time, meaning we were using the old Luschin translation of the Triple Combination in our missions, have the “old” sacrament prayer memorized and can get thrown for a bit of a loop when visiting church in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland and hear the new wording. Meanwhile, those in our parents’ generation (baby boomers) who served German-speaking missions before the Luschin translation also had different wording from their particular translation.

    (And there was no lack of people in that generation who were grumpy that their wording for the sacrament prayers had been replaced by the Luschin wording, which has now been replaced by the new translation currently in use. They would wax long in Sunday School from time to time about their preference for the “old” translation as opposed to the Luschin translation. But luckily there was no LDSLiving and no such waxing long and mystically on the supposedly profound meaning behind a simple change in translation in such a widely disseminated resource.)

  25. john: thanks for sharing the German perspective. That’s interesting.

    jstricklan: I think we’re largely saying the same thing about writing systems not necessarily being language, even though they are related. As far as giving the English translation special preference, I think that makes sense for a couple of reasons. One is the assumption that the Book’s divine origin story gives it a degree of reliability. I think that should not mean that we assume every word has some kind of divine approval. Another is simply expediency. It’s been a long time since I read Nibley, but I think that’s basically the argument he makes: we don’t have anything behind the English text, it’s all too speculative to really say anything reliable about it, so we should just treat the revealed English text as our closest approximation. A related, but slightly different reason is like Mike explains in his Canon as Context post, the Book of Mormon should be read primarily in the context of it reception and primary audience. In short, I’m somewhere in the middle between “there’s nothing special about the English text” and “God is the author of the English text.”

  26. I’m somewhere in the middle between “there’s nothing special about the English text” and “God is the author of the English text.”

    Since the Book of Mormon appeared out of nowhere in English, that’s obviously going to be the starting point for the translations in all the other languages, and I’m glad the Church is at pains to improve them. My concern is that we be careful about the lessons we draw from the fact that the BoM first appeared in English. I mean, if God is the author of the text in the manner that LDSLiving suggests, the similarities to the language and style of the King James Bible are pretty weird.

  27. With respect to the new French edition, I know nothing of myself and simply appreciate Ardis’ observations (including the “typical LDSLiving glurge/spin” phrase).

    With respect to the English, I am bemused by some people’s insistence on “translation of an ancient record” as the foundational myth, but “God is the author” view when actually working with the text. I find these logically inconsistent, yet held in tandem by a surprising number of Mormons.

    (Not that it matters for this discussion, but I hold to neither, but view the Book of Mormon as a collection of “sacred stories” told with a purpose, and find that I don’t care whether the stories are 2000 years old or 200 years old. Except that there are parts that are very difficult to understand without assuming the use of 19th century vocabulary and concepts. But there are several ways to get there.)

  28. Frank De France says:

    I’m in a mid-size ward in southern France and nothing’s changed; we still use the same version as before the supposed change. Haven’t heard any announcements or discussion etc about this.

  29. christiankimball, I completely agree that it is strange to accept the Book of Mormon’s origin story as a translation of an authentically ancient record but then treat as though God wrote it. The more seriously we take the claims that Joseph Smith made about the Book’s origin the more we have to recognize the role of human beings in creating it instead of treating as God’s own original composition.

  30. Frank De France: Interesting!

  31. jstricklan says:

    christiankimball (and JKC in your response): That’s basically what I was trying to say but it took me about 500% more words. So my apologies and my thanks. :D

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