Using Thee,Thou, and Thy When We Pray

In 2017, I had the chance to meet the president of the Paris France Temple. 

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I asked him a single question. His answer changed my perspective on prayer.  But before I tell you the question and answer, it's time for a grammar lesson. 

Pronouns have three points of view: 1st Person, 2nd Person, and 3rd Person. 
1st Person = I
2nd Person = you
3rd Person = he/she/it

Pronouns can be singular or plural.
1st Person Singular = I
1st Person Plural = we
2nd Person Singular = you
2nd Person Plural = you
(In New Mexico it's y'all, in Utah it's you guys, in Texas it's all y'all)
3rd Person Singular = he/she/it
3rd Person Plural = they

Pronouns are divided into four cases: Subjects, Objects, Possessive, and Reflexive.
Subjects = I, we, you, he/she/it, they
Objects = me, us, you, him/her/it, them
Possessive Adjective (describing a noun) = my, our, your, his/her/its, their
Possessive Pronoun (replacing a noun) = mine, ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs
Reflexive = myself, ourselves, himself/herself/itself, themselves

Are you noticing that one pronoun is showing up more often than all the rest?  That's right, it's the pronoun YOU. 

2nd Person subject (singular) = you
2nd Person subject (plural) = you
2nd Person object (singular) = you
2nd Person object (plural) = you

So if a teacher were to walk into a classroom and say, "I'm going to give you an 'A'." 
The students wouldn't know whether to cheer or be jealous of that Hermoine wannabe.

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But it hasn't always been this way.  

Centuries ago, Old English distinguished between singular & plural and subject & object 2nd person pronouns.  

2nd Person subject (singular) = thou
2nd Person subject (plural) = ye
2nd Person object (singular) = thee
2nd Person object (plural) = you 

In the 14th Century if a teacher walked into the classroom and said, "I am going to give you an 'A'," the class would have immediately erupted in cheering.  (Did they have grades in the 1300's?  Focus, Heather, focus!) 

What happened?  Did you take thee, thou, and ye out behind the tree in the playground and beat them up? 

According to George Fox, one of the founders of the Quaker religion, yes. Yes you did. 

According to Merriam-Webster the story goes like this: 

When Old English was finally ready to start "adulting," the words ye and you started to take on a singular form.  But only if the the person it was referring to was someone of high social standing. 


Alice in Wonderland gets it.  

Thee and thou were downgraded to be used when referring to someone of a lower social standing, like a servant. 

George Fox didn't like this trend.  He thought it enforced unwanted social distinctions.  So the Quakers continued to use thee and thou with everybody, no matter their social standing. 

Yeah, that didn't go over very well. 

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George Fox got so upset about it that in 1660 he wrote a 200-page book about the use of the word you.  You might understand why the book is 200 pages when you read the title. 

A Battle-door for Teachers & Professors to Learn Singular & Plural You to Many, and Thou to One, Singular One, Thou, Plural Many, You


Note: Battle-door means a wooden bat shaped like a tennis racket but here is a metaphor to mean a primer.  

In the book he makes this point (I'm paraphrasing it into modern English)
They'll say thee and thou to God and Christ but beat us up and endanger our lives if we say it to them?
He then claims that proud men say to Quakers
What! You ill-bred clown, do you Thou me?
But alas, you won.  And now we have no distinction between singular or plural 2nd person pronouns.

At least in English.  But if you know French, German, Italian, or a whole host of other languages, you know that many languages still distinguish between a single you and a plural you

What you probably also know is that the plural form is usually considered to be the singular polite form. 

Let's use French as an example. 
2nd Person (singular) = tu
2nd Person (plural) = vous
2nd Person (singular, polite) = vous

Note: I'm not going to explain the difference between tu, te, toi, and tien because frankly I don't understand it yet.

In French, speakers use the word tu when they are talking to someone they know intimately.  If they have a more formal relationship with the person, they use the word vous.

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Do you think I've forgotten to tell you about the question I asked the Paris Temple president?  I haven't.  Hang on, I'm almost there.

For almost half a century, I have believed that thee and thou is the formal version of you.  We use it to address our Heavenly Father to show that He is way up in heaven and we are way down here on earth.  He's big; I'm little.  He's great; I'm not so great.  Yet when I went to church in France, I noticed that people prayed to God using tu instead of vous.  

I'm embarrassed to admit that this is where my American-centric views of Mormonism created a prejudice.  I thought that since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in America where we speak English, the French just didn't know better and thought it was okay to use an informal (read: less reverent) tu when speaking to Heavenly Father. 

Imagine my surprise when I attended the temple in Paris and discovered that the "official" way to address Heavenly Father was with the informal tu.   So now I'm totally confused.  Why is it that in English we pray using a formal you and the French don't? 

And that is what I asked the president of the Paris Temple. 

Let's just say his face answered the question before his words did.  He gave me a look that was something like
What the heck are you talking about?!?  
But being the temple president he said something much kinder. 
Because God is our Father. 
You see, there's something I haven't told you yet about the words thee and thou.  As it was being used on people with lower social standing, it was still used on people with whom the speaker had an intimate relationship with, including God.  What George Fox was trying to point out was how ironic it was that people were willing to use thee and thou on God, but didn't want it used on themselves. 

So my English-speaking fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, let me ask you this:

Why should we use thee, thou, and thine when we pray? 

Here's a line from the LDS Bible Dictionary under the definition of PRAYER.

As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part [Emphasis added].


The next sentence seems especially important.

Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship [Emphasis added].


In 1993, President Dallin H. Oaks said:
"We should address prayers to our Heavenly Father in words which speakers of that language associate with love and respect and reverence and closeness." [Emphasis added].

Am I suggesting that we stop using thee, thou, thy, and thine when we pray?  No, the opposite actually.  I suggest we make MORE of an effort to use these words.  But not in an attempt to use archaic flowery language to be "heard of men, and to be praised for their wisdom." (Alma 38:13.)  I also suggest that we don't do like what I did in France and judge others who use you and your when they pray.  It's hard to believe that a loving Father in Heaven would say, "I'd like to answer your prayer but you didn't address me correctly, so too bad!" 

My suggestion is that we pray using thee, thou, thy, and thine to remind us of the relationship we have with God.  We are CLOSE to Him because we are His children.  Whether we say thee or tu, we are speaking to our Father.  It's when we forget that relationship we have difficulties with prayer, not when we use the wrong word. 
The Purpose of Prayer
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For those who are confused as to how to use thee, thou, thy, thine, and thyself  here's a quick guide: 

2nd Person Subject = Thou.
You went to the store. 
Thou went to the store.

2nd Person Object = Thee
I will give the book to you.
I will give the book to thee.

2nd Person Possessive Adjective (before a noun) = Thy
Is that your iPhone?
Is that thy iPhone?

2nd Person Possessive Pronoun (replacing a noun) = Thine
That red water bottle is yours. 
That red water bottle is thine. 

2nd Person Reflexive Pronoun = Thyself
You can wash the car yourself. 
Thou can wash the car thyself.

Not an official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

  

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