Notes on practice: Folding arms during prayer

A friend emailed me a great question about Latter-day Saint “prayer posture”: “why do we fold our arms instead of folding hands like many other Christians.” The following is a preliminary response.

First, I suspect that we started out following the prayer practice of the traditions of the converts to the early Restoration. There is some evidence of diversity in practice. For example, there is textual evidence for kneeling while praying in Joseph Smith’s revelations. And during the Kirtland holy season, there were prayers with uplifted hands, or in circles. There is not a lot of material to go from, however.

Bertha Manwaring, BYU MSS P 1 #18830

In Utah, we get a little more, including photography. For example, this image of Bertha Manwaring and presumably her daughters is a well known classic. And into the twentieth century we have a few images of public prayer, such as Junius Wells’ prayer at the Three Witnesses Monument in 1911 in Missouri, and the Cornerstone laying ceremony for the Church Admin Building in 1915.  No arm-folding (or anything else really) going on there.

Richmond, Missouri, The Three Witnesses Monument. AJ&- 3 shows Junius F. Wells offering prayer, with a group of people at the monument, November 22, 1911. LDS CHL, PH 725

Church Administration Building cornerstone-laying ceremony, 1915, LDS CHL, PH 1098

There is more research to be done here, both textually and in the image repositories. But what we do know is that there is a pedagogical shift with children. In response to Protestant Sunday Schools, we developed Sunday Schools and Primaries of our own. Managing a bunch of kids has never been easy, and some Protestants landed on folding your arms during prayer as a good standard of practice. For example one Protestant Sunday School in Glasgow in 1869 had “perfect silence…called for and obtained” The “all stood with folded arms and bowed head, and repeated, clause by clause, the Lord’s Prayer, following the voice of the superintendent.” [n1] I’ve seen some general school publications that have children line up with folded arms as well during this period.

It might surprise some people that our primary children also learned and recited the Lord’s Prayer, well into the twentieth century. And most people have forgotten the children generally received the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in Sunday School. Ardis has written about the history of “Sacrament Gems”—hymns or scriptures recited before the ceremony. In 1923, Elder David O. McKay, then General Sunday School Superintendent wrote suggestions for best practices, stating that “every Sunday-school superintendent desires to intensify and deepen the spirit of reverence in the Sunday-school” as they prepared for the sacrament. After a prelude or organ solo, “all with folded arms, bowed heads and closed eyes, should repeat the sacramental gem as recommended in the Juvenile Instructor.” [n2]

By 1952, we have this amazing image of prayer in the Riverside Ward (SLC) Primary on May 12, 1952:

Riverside Ward, SLC, May 12, 1952, Utah State Historical Society, MSS C 275

I think it is worth noting that while many people maintained folded arms for prayer after primary, it was hardly universal. Take for example this image of missionaries during the dedicatory prayer for the LTM (Language Training Mission, AKA MTC) in 1974. These are people who were in primary during the 1950s and would have learned to fold their arms. But there is a lot of hand folding going on:

Missionaries of the BYU Language Training Mission bow in prayer at the groundbreaking for the new Language Training Mission, BYU, UAP 2, Folder 323

Now I also think that it is worth highlighting that prayer practice has shifted in my lifetime. I recently spoke with some friends about how we always knelt for prayer before dinner when we were kids, and none of us do that now. I wonder if we are missing something. It is also worth noting that other Christians also fold their arms to pray, so it isn’t just a Mormon thing.

_______

  1. The Scottish Sabbath-School Teacher’s Magazine (December 1869), 41. See also p. 82.
  2. David O. McKay, “Suggestive Helps in Conducting a Sunday School,” Millennial Star (October 18, 1923), 659.

Comments

  1. darylgibsonrviewercom says:

    I’ve noticed in General Conference women are the only ones folding their arms while giving the prayer at the pulpit. Is this a Primary habit? Men generally grip the pulpit or fold their hands.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    If women do fold their arms more in that setting, I think that is a reasonable hypothesis–that women have performative experience with arm folding that men don’t have through leading sharing times in Primary.

  3. Jonathan, have you been able to uncover when and why the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer died out? I clearly remember reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Sunday School in the 1960’s.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Old Man, that would be very late. The latest examples I have in my files are from the 1910s.

  5. J, Somewhere seated in that audience of missionaries is a nineteen-year-old from Provo heading off to France.

  6. According to our family history documents from around 1890, our LDS family turned out their dining room chairs and the family prayed before meals on their knees with elbows on the chairs. I’ve been to other LDS homes with pioneer heritage where this is still practiced.

    On a other note, I heard that pretzels were given by German Monks centuries ago to children as treats for their studies. The shape was meant to represent arms folded in prayer. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

  7. imagineinspireinquire says:

    Thank you, Jonathan. How interesting!

  8. lastlemming says:

    In the short period (December 1964) during which I attended church and school in Richfield, the Lord’s Prayer was ubiquitous. It was not formally part of the church program, but it was recited in school in defiance of the Supreme Court. It’s usage by students carried over to church and it was what they recited when called on to give the opening or closing prayers in Primary or Sunday School. A good example of “be careful what you wish for.” (My Ithaca, NY school expressed its defiance by singing the fourth verse of My Country Tis of Thee. That did not warp anybody’s out-of-school prayers.)

  9. Count me as one who is perpetually bugged at this cultural shift of praying with our arms folded. Terrible body language . . .

  10. P.S. Like you, J., I have suspected that the shift to praying with folded arms is tied to singing certain Primary songs. After all, those songs clearly told us that to be reverent while we pray, well, we fold our arms! It’s obvious to me. And now I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one to hold this theory!

  11. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I would get questions about this practice often as a missionary. I would explain that we learned it as kids and it was just a continued habit. But when they asked why we were taught to fold our arms as kids, I told them that when everyone closes their eyes during prayer it helps the kids keep their hands to themselves. Good to have more context for my made-up story. Thanks.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    I”m old enough to remember sacrament in Junior Sunday School. I don’t recall my prayer practice, but I assume I folded arms.

  13. I remember the Junior Sunday School Superintendant (a woman) teaching the children to fold their arms before the sacrament gem, blessing, and passing of sacrament. She also reminded them to use their right hand to take the sacrament. This was in the 1970’s. I have assumed that men don’t fold their arms at the pulpit because their suit coats make it difficult. The tradition of children folding their arms when they leave sacrament meeting to use restroom or get a drink or be reprimanded has always bothered me. It’s not safe to walk with folded arms!

  14. Really interesting, J. I especially like the use of old photographs to tease out the history and practice. Folding arms is not the kind of thing I’d expect to find in a document search.

    I am interested in all the outside influences. My intuition is that there is a lot of copying, and intentionally differentiating, with an accidental flavor–who notices and says something pro or con at the right time. (I’m thinking of how we don’t use a cross, as another example.)

    Admittedly the strongest influence on my intuition is a negative example from our time in an in inner-city Ward where the Primary was taught differently because folded arms was a local gang sign.

  15. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for that comments, folks. The additional experiences are really informative.

    Christian, that is fascinating! So what you are saying is that we need a bunch of clean shaved gang members?

    And on pretzel-prayer connection, there is at least some discussion of it, though I’m not sure I would take Food and Wine as historically rigorous.

  16. keepapitchinin says:

    Read a 1971 letters this week from a Sunday School board member’s visit to a Junior Sunday School in Kaysville. She told the children that she had a message for them from the president of the Church, and asked if they knew what it was. “One four-year-old unwrapped his tightly folded arms, tentatively raised his chubby right hand, and answered when I called on him, ‘He wants us to fold our arms.’ Suddenly every pair of arms in the room folded. I told him that was a good try. However, I thought you probably knew the children already did a good job of folding their arms.” That’s how ingrained the habit was at that point!

    (NB: The “special message” was that President Smith loved the children.)

  17. J. Stapley says:

    Ardis, that there is a better illustration on arm folding pedagogy than I could ever imagine. Thanks for sharing that!

  18. On the issue of women folding their arms while giving prayers in Conference but men not doing it, I recently watched a ton of videos of prayers from the past couple of decades in General Conferences, and found that a few men giving prayers in Conference have also started folding their arms, but only since women started giving Conference prayers in 2013. I didn’t see any instances of men folding their arms prior to 2013, although I didn’t check systematically. (I was mostly looking at prayer length. If you’re interested: https://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2020/07/13/general-conference-prayer-length/)

  19. J. Stapley says:

    That was an epic study, Ziff, and I had forgotten your aside about folded-arms. Thanks for pointing that out. Good data!

  20. John Mansfield says:

    For a while I have wondered about our model of God as a lord. It was actually watching Studio Ghibli movies with my children that started that line of thought; there is displayed in those an appreciation for hierarchy and authority that comes more naturally even to Japanese leftists than to Americans of any stripe. From a biography of Dean Acheson, who was Acting Secretary of the Treasury in 1933, “Roosevelt struck Acheson as someone who thought he was ‘apart from mankind,’ not unlike the ‘Queen of Rumania’ and other continental monarchs. Remarking on FDR’s habit of patronizing and jollying subordinates, Acheson commented that it was ‘not gratifying to receive the easy greeting which milord might give a promising stable boy and pull one’s forelock in return.'”

    I am part of a society whose closest experience of bending the knee, bowing the head, or raising petitioning hands to a noble is when the bailiff calls out “All rise,” and His Honor walks into the courtroom. How do we who don’t reverence any people go about reverencing God? Perhaps in the manner of those feel a reverence for nature or art.

  21. Jack Hughes says:

    I always assumed folding arms for prayer had practical origins, that it was just something taught to children to keep their hands to themselves and keep their natural squirminess under control during a time of reverence. Growing up, neither or my parents folded their arms during prayers, but us kids were expected to. My dad typically clasped his hands together and rested his forehead on them, especially at the dinnertime prayer after a long day of physical work. I shed the habit of folding arms as a young adult, when it began to seem childish to me.

  22. My husband remembers kneeling at chairs by the table for meal prayers. He only did while fairly young, so ’70s maybe into early ’80s. My family never did.

    Often in sacrament meeting my husband would put an arm around my shoulders and we’d hold hands. When prayers happened we didn’t disentangle to fold our arms. It always felt a little scandalous to not do so when everyone around had folded into themselves. I guess that training from primary still picks at the psyche.

  23. I am fascinated with the history of folding arms while we pray. Thank you, J. The photos are wonderful!
    It saddens me the next generation does not kneel for family prayer as often as we have in the past. Gathering for mealtime as a family is being lost, which is disheartening. Where it happens is not important, but there is value in kneeling in family prayer. As a child, we knelt around the kitchen table. As a mother, our family knelt for morning and evening prayer. We also knelt in prayer by the side of beds. Perhaps the important thing is to pray. But I for one believe we add something when we kneel in prayer.

  24. J. Stapley says:

    John, that is a really interesting question. I think that you are right that there are fewer relationships structured to induce awe, and that has to play out in unsuspecting ways. My first thought was the period a couple of years ago when we made smiling back country Christuses:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2012/11/10/seeing-the-sites/

    The arm folding does really seem like a way to manage figity kids. I’d like to get some documentation for that idea. I suspects it exists.

  25. Truckers Atlas says:

    The real power move is keeping one’s eyes open.

    In all honesty, though, I am far less distracted with my eyes open than closed during a prayer.

  26. This was very interesting. I folded my arms for prayer reflexively up until a few years ago, when I discovered that folding my hands was infinitely more comfortable. Then I regretted all the years I spent doing it any other way.

  27. J. Stapley, thank you for the historical background on the pretzel-arms folded connection.

    There’s a really popular TED talk by Amy Cuddy about “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are”. According to her- our prayer posture creates humility, powerlessness, pacificity and depression. The “praise” posture of evangelicals and others (Hands up in the air- apart) creates a feeling of empowerment, confidence, and success.

    Mmmmm.

  28. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks. While fun, I recommend a skeptical posture towards Cuddy’s TED talk. There is a fair amount of critical response. Here is an accessible review:

    https://www.coyneoftherealm.com/2017/06/30/power-poseur-the-lure-of-lucrative-pseudoscience-and-the-crisis-of-untrustworthiness-of-psychology/

  29. Melinda S Graves says:

    My family of birth had kneeling prayers at dinner when i was much younger. Maybe that ended when a couple of my siblings stopped going to church. A few years ago, a few days before my dad died, I was with him and my mother helping to get him in bed for the night. He was pretty weak and needed a lot of help to get around. As I watched him struggling to kneel down to pray, this thought came to my mind, which I shared with my dad:Joseph Smith was lying in bed when the Angel Moroni appeared to him. That convinced him that he didn’t have to kneel to have it “count.” Seems to me that sometimes we worry too much about the wrong things. It doesn’t matter so much about how or when we pray, the point is to commune with God, feel his love, and receive guidance.

  30. Sherry Kilgore says:

    I second what Melinda has to say about prayer. The scriptures tell us that we can pray anytime, anywhere, audibly or silently in our hearts and minds. The most important thing is our communication with God, our Heavenly Father. However we can achieve that is what is of most value to our relationship with God. Folding hands or arms, bowing our head while standing, sitting or on our knees all shows our reverence toward our Heavenly Father and our desire to be humble before Him as we communicate with Him. We can focus more on what we wish to express to Him instead of what else is happening in our surroundings. It also helps us concentrate on the prayers of others as they are said in our congregations.

  31. Recited verse from Primary in Australia in the 1960s: “I close my eyes, and bow my head, and fold my arms, when prayer is said”. All the children made booklets with the text opposite cut out pictures illustrating the practice. I still have mine.

  32. It boggles my mind to read that so many church members had the tradition of kneeling in prayer before family dinner. I have never heard anything like that before. I asked my mom about this and she said that growing up her family kneeled before every family dinner into the mid 80s! It seems like such a large part of the daily experience of Mormonism, it makes me wonder what other faded cultural practices I am not aware of!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.