From the earliest days of primary, latter-day saints are taught that the proper pronouns to use while praying are “thee,” “thou,” “thy,” and “thine,” and that the common “you,” “your,” etc. are disrespectful and should be avoided. When we turn to the scriptures, we see that “thee” and “thou” are used freely, and we come to associate the words with religious settings and appeals to deity.
I spent my childhood growing up in Europe, and I attended a nice little ward in francophone Belgium. In French, there are two 2nd person pronouns, “tu,” and “vous,” the first used singularly to those with whom you are well acquainted or are similar in age or younger than you; the second is used plurally (think “ya’ll”) or singularly to those with whom you are not well acquainted or who are clearly in a superior social position (boss, teacher, etc.)
With “vous” being the pronoun associated with respect, one would naturally assume that it would be the preferred pronoun to use in prayer, but that is not the case. “Tu” is the proper pronoun to speak to God with, the rationale being that it denotes closeness and familiarity.
The paradox stuck out like a sore thumb for me. In English, I was supposed to pray using words that were distant and reverential, yet in French I was supposed to pray using the same words I used with my schoolyard buddies.
Much later, I came across the New International Version of the Bible. I was aware that it didn’t use “thee” or “thou”, and the introduction explains:
As for the traditional pronouns “thou” “thee” and “thine” in reference to the Deity, the translators judged that to use these archaisms, along with the old verb forms such as “doest”, “wouldest” and “hadst” would violate accuracy in translation. Neither Hebrew, Aramaic nor Greek uses special pronouns for the persons of the Godhead.
From my readings of Shakespeare, I knew that “thee” and “thou” were part of the vernacular of the Elizabethan age. “You,” “Your,” and “Ye” were also part of the common man’s vocabulary (and also appear in our scriptures) but they referred to a plural second person (again, “ya’ll”). So thou/thee was singular, you/ye was plural. As Christianity was defining itself as a monotheistic faith, it would seem entirely appropriate that they would use the singular pronoun in reference to God.
Flash forward to our modern times, and the words aren’t used the same way. You/your has come be to used for either singular OR plural second person, and thee/thou (and “ye” for that matter) has been phased out completely. Conversely, in French, “vous” was originally exclusively a reference to a plural second person, now has come to be used either for plural or a respectful singular. Thus is would make sense that “tu” was the traditional prayer pronoun: it was the one congruent with monotheism.
The grammar of our scriptures is a relic of ages long gone, yet modern readings of old texts tend to project the biases of the modern settings into how the text is interpreted: We note that Jesus never uses “you” when speaking to his father, and we follow suit. Thus, through time, the words “thee” and “thou” morph into a elements that have far different lexical impact than they did originally.
This isn’t a bad thing, words change all the time. Now, “thee” and “thou” have indeed come to signify a sense of dignity, properness, and respect, and, that being in line with the attitudes we wish to have when praying, they are appropriate to use in our modern setting.
Dallin H. Oaks eloquently confirmed this, when in his 1993 talk entitled “The Language of Prayer,” he said:
“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.”
Aware of the historical disconnect and the archaic translation, I was very refreshed to hear from a General Authority that we do not use “thee/thou” because we’re following some scriptural precedent or historical example, but rather because that is how our current and modern interpretation of these old words has defined them.
I recently took a humanities class (at BYU) where we read “Confessions of Augustine,” an important piece of the Early Roman Christian era. In it, Augustine begins each chapter with a prayer. The pronouns in the prayer were all translated as “you” and “your.” One student in the class raised his hand and asked the professor how Augustine could have the audacity to be so disrespectful in his prayers, and why couldn’t he use “thee” and “thou” like he’s supposed to. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I wish I could have quoted another segment of Dallin H. Oaks’ talk, where he said:
“We should also remember that our position on special prayer language in English is based on modern revelations and the teachings and examples of modern prophets. It is not part of the teachings known and accepted by our brothers and sisters of other Christian and Jewish faiths. When leaders or members of other churches or synagogues phrase their prayers in the familiar forms of you or your, this does not signify a lack of reverence or respect in their belief and practice but only a preference for the more modern language. Significantly, this modern language is frequently the language used in the scriptural translations with which they are most familiar.”
So, I’m fine with one and all using “thee” and “thou” in prayers, as long as we understand and acknowledge why it is we do it. For newer members or children who can’t quite get it, I’m sure God won’t invalidate their prayers if they say “you.” And as for me, if the “thees” and “thous” get tiresome, I can always just pray in French.