In hindsight, Elder J. Devn Cornish of the Seventy may better appreciate how General Custer felt in the presence of way too many Indians.
After Elder Cornish strode to the pulpit during October 2011 General Conference, he uttered a sentence about prayer that likely had little support from the 21,000 in attendance at the Conference Center. That’s because Elder Cornish was taking a stand against an increasingly popular LDS practice when he said: “Remember that we have been counseled to avoid repetitions, including using the name of the Father too often as we pray.”
The repetition of the name of the Father in LDS prayers appears to have become the rule rather than the exception at all levels of church meetings. As a youth, I don’t remember this being the case. Young people of my era were instructed not to repeat the name of the Father in prayers: “Use the name of Deity carefully. Address the Father by name but once—at the beginning; and then close in the name of Jesus Christ.” (General MIA Committee of the church, in the Church News, Feb. 7, 1970)
Elder Cornish might have hoped that his counsel on the increasing overuse of the Father’s name would stem the tide. In fact, he gave it extra emphasis by attaching a long footnote in the printed version, the only footnote in his talk. The footnote refers readers to directives by church leaders against repeating the name of Deity in prayers.
One source Elder Cornish cited in his footnote was a former president of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Francis M. Lyman:
“Sometimes our habits may control us more strongly than the Spirit of the Lord, so we should consider these things. Offer short prayers, and avoid vain repetitions, particularly the repetition of the name of Deity . . . There is no prayer so great and important that it is necessary to use more than once the name of the Son of God and of the Father.” (Italics added.)
Another source cited by Elder Cornish was the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: “Jesus used simple, expressive language in his prayers, avoiding vain repetitions and flowery phrases. . . . Unnecessary repetition of God’s name is avoided . . .”
Elder Cornish might also have had in mind Bishop Keith B. McMullin’s counsel from the January 2003 Ensign: “Overusing the names of Deity [is] not in keeping with the pattern of prayer taught by the Master.”
Faithful members have had more than six years to consider Elder Cornish's counsel. So how are we doing? In the Sunday sessions of April 2017 general conference, all four members who prayed repeated the name of the Father at least twice; the final benediction had five repetitions. Although not in harmony with instructions of church leaders, those offering the prayers weren’t exactly the first to do so in general conference. Fifty-five years earlier, for example, in the October 1962 Sunday morning session, the Father’s name was repeated three times in the invocation and four times in the benediction.
For me, the crowning moments in this trend occurred in January and February 2013 at LDS Business College devotionals in Salt Lake City. In the January devotional, at which Elder O. Vincent Haleck of the Seventy spoke, the invocation was offered by a male student. He began with the traditional, “Our Heavenly Father,” paused for a few seconds and said, “Father . . .” Why would he do that? Did he feel “Our Heavenly Father” was too formal? Things got worse three weeks later. In another LDSBC devotional, the invocation began with “Heavenly Father,” a pause, “Father,” a sentence, and another “Father.” In other words, in just one sentence of actual prayer, a student had addressed the Father three times.
Why are we now hearing members these days prolifically repeat the word ‘Father’ in their prayers? I have a theory. It’s because God keeps hearing the same prayers over and over, and so the old gentleman begins to doze off as we pray. It takes a “Father” repeated now and then to snap Him back to attention. I could be wrong on this.
Another prayer practice that repeats the name of the Father and makes me even more uncomfortable is the often-heard declaration “Father, we love thee.” Not only does its repetition of the name “Father” bother me, I also feel suspicious toward most public declarations of love. For example, when a husband arises in testimony meeting and expresses love and appreciation for his wife, two thoughts enter my mind. First: “Boy, he must have done something really bad, and he’s trying to make up for it.” Second: “When this fellow gets home from work, I wonder if he plops in front of the TV and never changes a diaper or helps with the housework, so he figures his words of praise will mollify her for a while.”
Similarly, when I hear “Father, we love thee,” in prayers, I wonder if God might be looking down and thinking, “Hey, if you love me so much, maybe you ought to try following the counsel of my servants and stop repeating my name in your prayers.” And depending on who is praying, he might add, “And while you’re at it, try turning off the TV and give your poor wife a break from changing those #&@#! diapers.”
I believe that many members repeat the name of the Father in their prayers merely because it has become the norm. We Mormons tend to be a bit monkey see, monkey do. For me, however, it would be grandstanding. If I said Father this and Father that, I’d be trying to impress everyone with my apparent closeness to the Father and would, in effect, be turning the lectern into a Rameumptom. I’d be afraid that something attached to the ceiling, such as a chandelier, might break loose and fall on my head.
Because I disagree with church leaders fairly often, I’m pleased as punch that I can actually support them on this issue. Nevertheless, I recognize that I’m in the minority and that the practice won’t change unless the church issues a firm and specific directive. In the meantime, however, there is nothing to prevent bishops from reminding their wards of the counsel of Elder Cornish and others. And if a bishop felt very strongly on the subject, he might even warn ward members that any prayers that overuse the name of the Father will result in a member of the bishopric arising and whacking the guilty party upside the head with a rolled-up newspaper.
As a former longtime journalist who has watched newspapers struggle, I would certainly welcome this new use for the printed copy.