Using "Thou" in Prayer

Written by Drew on October 22nd, 2007

Since I was a child I have listened to the reverent and solemn speech of men who lead prayer using pronouns like “Thee,” “Thine,” “Thou,” and “Thy.” The masters of this shibboleth argue that these words lend prayer the majestic and eloquent language that God deserves. Some even insist that they are the only pronouns suitable for divine antecedents.

But “thees” and “thous” have circulated out of the English language and have been relegated to studies of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. For some reason, we have preserved them for our prayers. Like last summer’s vegetables, we’ve canned them for the winter, when we will take them off the shelf for special occasions.

I don’t use them. I opt instead for the second-person pronouns of my mother tongue, common words like “you” and “your.” Don’t get me wrong. This choice was not made out of disdain for those who use “thou” (I’m not even sure it was a conscious decision.). I just prefer to speak to the Father using words I’m comfortable with. Does that make me irreverent? And what about those who use that noble language? Should we be critical?

First, I think it is easy to trace this usage to the popular translations of the Bible that have been used through the ages. The King James Bible, arguably most influential English translation in history and still on the bestseller list, employs these pronouns in 6,542 verses. It should be pointed out that the KJV does not make a distinction between God and ordinary men with these words as we do today. Every time it refers to the second person singular, whether the subject is human or divine, the translators used the pronouns in question.

The American Standard Version, which appeared at the turn of the twentieth century, beats that by exactly twenty verses, showing occurrences in 6,562 verses.

But as language evolved and as new translations appeared on the market, translators began to minimize “thees” and “thous” in newer editions of the Bible. The Revised Standard Version, which came out in the middle of the twentieth century, uses the language in only 1,468 verses. Finally, versions like the New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the English Standard Version dropped these words altogether. There must be a connection between the speech we use in prayer and the translation of the Bible that we use. This might explain why “thou” is more common in older generations that are familiar with the KJV and ASV.

The next logical question is, “Why did the English translations drop these pronouns?” They were dropped when the words fell out of common usage. Languages evolve; words change. And that is what happened to “thou.”

The English language once had different singular and plural second-person pronouns. “Thou” was singular, and “ye” was plural. At some point the singular second-person pronoun dropped out of circulation. Language expert Mignon Fogarty explains what may have happened.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, at some point in the 14th Century, the plural form—you—started being used to address one person as a way to show respect. They point out that once the word you started being used that way, the use was likely to spread because it’s always safer to show respect than not to.

So the etymology tells us that, strictly speaking, “you” was regarded as a more respectable way to address another person than “thou.” This runs counter to some who argue that “thou” is more reverent than “you.” Linguistically, this is not true.

Should we be critical of those who use “thou” in prayer? Methinks thou dost protest too much.

My good friend Mel Futrell has given the best rationale I have heard for using the archaic second-person pronouns in prayer. Actually, his statement is based on a letter he received from Dr. Ward Allen, author of Translating for King James and a one-time professor of English at Auburn University. The letter, a response to Mel’s question on pronouns in prayer, reads,

When we step into church, we are stepping out of time. We step into eternity…English which is not everyday, street, commercial English is an aid towards putting aside the world. You ask: “Is there a recognized, solemn form of language to be used in reference to God? You may drop the word recognized. You and your congregation may recognize the forms, no longer current, but which you have inherited from tradition.

His point is that we, the churches of Christ, recognize these pronouns as solemn and dignified. As Mel points out, who would prefer Tillit S. Teddlie’s “Worthy Art Thou” to read “Worthy Are You”? (Shades Mountain Messenger, February 15, 2004).

One last point. Those who are going employ solemn language in prayer should know how to use it. “Thou” is the subject (e.g., “Why hast thou forsaken me?”). “Thee” is the object (e.g., “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.”). “Thy” is the possessive when the word that follows begins with a consonant (e.g., “Thy kingdom come.”). “Thine” is the possessive when the word that follows begins with a vowel (e.g., “Thine is the kingdom.”).

 

9 Comments so far ↓

  1. Kevin W. Rhodes says:

    Wow! Drew, you sure did take the hinges off the door on that one! I guess my own age explains why I tend to use both, sometimes unconciously. I have seen the havoc wreaked by those who attempt to require the archaic forms in prayer. I am thankful that their number is dissipating. We surely want to uphold all reverence for God that we can, but to attempt to enforce something on the basis of a manmade tradition is folly itself.

  2. Uncle Rick says:

    Drew, I am constantly amazed at your insightfulness. It shows many hours of study and prayerful contemplation. Many, many years ago I approached Bro. Bobby Duncan regarding the use of “thee’s and thous” and his explanation made me much more comfortable with my own conscious choice not to use that language in my prayer. His answer in a nutshell was that God never imposed such restrictions on man and for man to impose and attempt to enforce these restrictions on each other would be wrong. I have been at times chastised for my decision but I continue to use the language that I am comfortable with. One cannot prove with the Bible that it is requied. I, like you, do it for no rebellous reasons and would never insist or request that anyone stop using that language in their own prayers. Thank you for your insight and diligent study.

  3. theophilus says:

    I know that language evolves, yet I often do protest. I appreciate what you have said in this post, and I agree. I have made similar arguments to those who have insisted on using “holy language” in prayer, and I pray using modern language. However, I struggle with many modern-day changes that are being made. For example, I simply cannot yet use a plural pronoun with a singular subject in order to be “politically correct.” I rebel at “When a person does their best,” etc. Moreover, I refuse to refer to the year as 2007 C.E. or 1500 B.C.E. Perhaps I will be forced to acquiesce at some time, but not now.

  4. Drew Kizer says:

    I’m with you on both counts, Theophilus.

    It’s interesting to watch linguistic evolution in the process. The Feminist Movement started pressing the plural pronoun over a general “he.” The atheists want to change “B.C.” and “A.D.,” clear historical indications of the Savior, into “B.C.E.” and “C.E.”

  5. almcfaughn says:

    Drew,

    As always, a great job.

    You presented something here that causes many to get “up in arms,” but that, really, is just a personal decision.

    I almost always use “modern” language (“your” and “you”) in prayer, and that is especially true in my private prayer life. I think God wants to hear what is on my heart, and I “think” in the modern language…so that is the way I address Him.

    Thanks for the insightful article.

    Adam

  6. Kevin W. Rhodes says:

    I’m in agreement with Theophilus as well!

  7. Matthew says:

    This is one of the best works on this idea I have ever read. I have made a copy of it for the future. People will state a desire for one or the other. Great work.

  8. culturalnomad says:

    Greetings from Hong Kong. I just stumbled on this by accident while looking for something else.

    I too grew up using the KJV and praying with “thees” and “thous.” (Fortunately, I learned to use them properly.) I didn’t know the history of how and why normal English usage switched to “you”, but I switched usage for my prayers after I got to thinking about the fact that in most languages that use a different form to show respect, it is often the plural form of the pronoun — but we were using the original plural form to address each other and the original singular form to address God!

    And I largely quit using the KJV because I need to communicate Biblical truth to people for whom English is a second or third language. So why put up an additional barrier to communication?

  9. Drew Kizer says:

    Thanks for the comment, culturalnomad. It’s good to hear from someone who obviously deals with language issues on a daily basis. I was really interested in your rationale for modernizing your prayer language–it seems to corroborate what I was saying.

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