In English, LDS prayer language is distinct from everyday speech. We reserve a special vocabulary for communing with the Lord that reflects the language of the Kings James Bible. In place of more common words like you and your, prayers use the more archaic terms like thee and thine.
What’s interesting is, in other languages like French and Spanish, prayers are said with familiar forms of these words (the equivalent of you in English).
So where did the English prayer tradition come from?
From a linguistic perspective, the answer is found in the history of the English language. Words like thee, thou, thy, and thine used to be the familiar terms one would use when addressing loved ones. As time moved on, the language of the older generation began to sound stiff and outdated—formal—as newer patterns were adopted by the rising generations. This is why today we aren’t still using thee, thou, thy, and thine in normal everyday speech.
However, religious language, including the language of prayers, behaves differently from the common vernacular. Because of the sacred nature and significance of religious language, it is slower to change than day-to-day speech. This has resulted in leaving behind the formal-sounding relic of thee, thou, thy, and thine in prayer speech even though the original intent of prayer was to convey a close relationship with deity.
But that isn’t the entire explanation. As Latter-day Saints, we also have modern revelation to look to as we consider why English speakers use phrases that feel formal to address the Lord. In a 1993 address, Elder Oaks explained:
In our day the English words thee, thou, thy, and thine are suitable for the language of prayer, not because of how they were used anciently but because they are currently obsolete in common English discourse. Being unused in everyday communications, they are now available as a distinctive form of address in English, appropriate to symbolize respect, closeness, and reverence for the one being addressed.
In other words, since these ancient English words are only used in prayer today, we can define them ourselves to signify our relationship with the Savior—a relationship of love, respect, and reverence.
But this is easier said than done, and today, some individuals are still moving away from words like thee, thou, thy, and thine. This is no doubt motivated by a lingering sense of distance felt in the formal English. Thus, in order to feel closer and more connected to the Lord in prayer, some people opt for language they feel most comfortable with: you and your.
In either case, the objective of prayer isn't to get hung up on the words. Joseph B. Wirthlin reminded, “Do you want to commune with the Infinite? Then approach Him with reverence and humility. Don’t worry so much about whether your words are polished or not. Worry instead about speaking from your heart.” The focus of prayer is to have a heartfelt conversation with God where we can express our gratitude and sincere desires in a way that is meaningful to us, whether that’s with thee and thine or you and your.
Which way to pray works for you? Do you pray using traditional terms, or more familiar terms? Take the poll to let us know, and tell us why in the comments.