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Concert Prayer

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 19, 2010

Last November we had a post on concert recitations, the discontinued practice of having an entire Sunday School class memorize an assigned verse of scripture, then stand and recite that scripture in unison. In the discussion that followed, Maurine raised a question:

While working on the Hyrum Stake 100-year history, I ran into something similar to the hymn reading in concert that intrigues me. Primary minutes for 19 Mar 1904 show: “. . . Prayer in concert with the children by Pres. Jensen.” Why would the prayer be in concert? This is the only example I have right in front of me now, but I saw it notated several times.

I had no answer, and the practice was unfamiliar to other commenters. (I am sure that on another – probably earlier – post, a reader brought up a similar question, although I cannot now find it). Since then, I have run across a few items that shed light on the practice, although it isn’t in sharp focus for me yet.

The terms “concert prayer” and “praying in concert” are familiar in the wider Christian culture. In one sense, the terms mean simply being unified in the purpose of prayer with members of a prayer group or a congregation or some other body of believers: if many people are praying with the same purpose or with the same supplication or thanksgiving, the body is more unified and the prayers more effective. “Praying in concert” appears several times in the minutes of meetings reported in LDS church newspapers of the 1840s with exactly that meaning: a body of elders uniting in prayer, harmonizing their thoughts and petitions, in preparation for worship. Although we don’t use that phrase in modern speech, Latter-day Saints share the concept whenever someone asks that you “remember such-and-such in your prayers” or whenever a family, a ward, or the entire church, dedicates a fast to a particular purpose.

A second sense of “concert prayer” used in churches other than our own is that of all worshipers praying aloud at the same time, each offering praise or petition in his or her own words, without regard to the words being used by any other person except in the sense of being aware that all are praying. Because it is so foreign to our own practice, many Latter-day Saints could possibly find that “concert prayer” to be distracting, even irreverent. But to those who practice it, it is a joyful time, an exhilarating and uplifting experience to pray unselfconsciously and to be aware without eavesdropping that all around you are engaged in similar praise to God.

Neither of those practices, however, is what is meant by “concert prayer” among Latter-day Saints.

In a 1916 conference address, Pres. Anthon H. Lund described the process of concert prayer as used by Sunday School teachers with the children in their classes.

After the children have sung a hymn, their hearts are attuned for the second step, which is prayer. Here one of the boys or girls will volunteer to offer the prayer when the teacher calls on them to do so, and the boy or girl chosen to lead will utter a short sentence or a short phrase, which all repeat in concert, and then the next sentence will be given and repeated, and so on until the prayer is ended. Repeating the words spoken by the one offering the prayer secures attention, for all are alert to join I the prayers and to pronounce the words which the leader has spoken.

This is a form of prayer familiar to all temple attendants. Whether concert prayer became a standard feature of Sunday Schools because of its use there, or because it was common in general Christianity of the 19th century, I do not know. It is a form of prayer used at least as late as the 1950s, where it is discussed in answer to a question in The Instructor of August, 1952. That answer describes concert prayer even while it assumes that the practice is completely familiar to readers at that date:

Question: What about children praying in concert?

Answer: Perhaps the chief value in having a group of children repeat a phrase of the prayer being spoken by a child or the teacher, is that in saying as well as listening to the prayer it helps children sense the prayer form. If this learning as well as having prayer itself is your goal, the concert prayer has its place. If, however, the spiritual experience of prayer is your objective, quiet listening is the better form because it creates a more reverential atmosphere and the unbroken thoughts expressed are more easily understood.

I’ve also run across a textbook used in the Seminary program in the 1930s and ‘40s: Ezra C. Dalby, Land and leaders of Israel, Salt Lake City: Department of Education, 1933. Each chapter is arranged as the outline for a class period, complete with checklist at the beginning for an opening song and a prayer to be offered by a student.

After the lesson text and the list of questions covering the text is a “Suggestive Closing Prayer.” These prayers do not include the opening and closing phrases of LDS prayer. Otherwise, they read just like prayer – prayers that happen to drive home the point of that day’s lesson. The book doesn’t include instructions on how those “suggestive closing prayers” are to be used, so it is possible that they were intended simply as meditations. The book’s introduction, however, implies that these were prayers to be said in concert by the students, just as described by the Instructor answer above: “Associated with each lesson is song, prayer, scripture reading, and a concert prayer in which is embodied the main thought of the lesson.”

The purposes of concert recitations as set out by Karl G. Maeser in October Conference, 1900, could, by and large, be applicable to concert prayers as formerly practiced by the Saints:

A concert recitation harmonizes the minds of the pupils of the school, about in the same way as the singing does. It is a means of disciplining, harmonizing, and subduing the restless heterogeneous spirits of which a school is composed.

So … this is an unfinished post. I don’t yet know whether concert prayer was ever commonly used in adult worship in the wards, or when it faded out of use in the Sunday School, or why – but I know a little more now than I did when Maurine first raised the topic back in November.



10 Comments »

  1. Interesting post, Ardis.

    Did that seminary textbook from the 1930s really use the adjective “suggestive”? If so, we’ll have to get the language mavens to tell us when that word became a euphemism that you likely would not use to describe a prayer.

    This also conjured up an old memory of the practice of “lining out” hymns–never done in any church meeting I’ve ever attended, but a venerable practice, according to Wikipedia. I vaguely recall (like everything else) that Bill Cosby may have mentioned the practice in one of his stand-up comedy sketches.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 19, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  2. This was fascinating! I had no idea about any of this. As I’ve previously stated, my only experience has been about choral readings of scripture passages. That, and having a small child repeat back a prayer uttered by the parent. Thanks for this.

    This post also highlights, I think, the difference between you and me, Ardis. You read an interesting fact about, say, concert prayer, and you resolve to find out more information, you take down the info, and then organize what you find. As for me, I read a new fact and say, “Huh, that’d be interesting to find out more about that.” And then I remember something inane like the fact that there’s a new episode of The Office on tonight and I forget all about it, as well as my resolution to dig in and find out more.

    /sighs

    Comment by Hunter — February 19, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  3. Goodness, that’s fascinating. Is there any chance that the Sacrament Gem was an attempt to slowly wean us off this practice?

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — February 19, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

  4. MarkB., yup, “suggestive” it was — another warning to know how people of the past used a word before interpreting a document. I’d like to learn more about the lining-out of hymns, too, in our tradition. I know how it worked in general, but would like to find some specific point in Mormon history where it was done, and find out whether it was because there weren’t enough hymnals, or people couldn’t read, or it was just the tradition, or what.

    I’ll put that on my to-do list and win Hunter’s admiration again later! :) Thanks, Hunter — and enjoy The Office!

    Anne, Sacrament Gems became a feature of Sunday School in 1910, so concert prayers and Sacrament Gems and concert recitations were all going on at the same time for at least 40 years. I suspect that rather than wanting to end concert prayers, the Gems were a further development of that common and accepted method of teaching in Sunday School. But you can tell I’m trying to understand the idea by connecting a very limited number of dots. The picture may very well change when more dots are found.

    Thanks for your responses, friends.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 19, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

  5. Thank you for clarifying my question. It makes sense now, but it seemed very foreign to me when I saw it in the minutes.

    Comment by Maurine — February 19, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

  6. Ditto to Hunter’s comment. At least you present the opportunity to rise out of the mental ooze for a moment. Thank you for doing this for me so often!

    We have a gospel doctrine teacher in our ward who uses choral readings to good effect, a practice encouraged in Teaching, No Greater Call.

    This article reminds me of a couple of things. Ardis, do you recollect if Brigham said something about how we needed to come to the point that those in the congregation would silently pray for the same things the one called on to pray would audibly ask? And, on the other hand, during the journey across Nebraska to Winter Quarters, didn’t he speak of the problem of members “praying against counsel”?

    Dr. Nibley discusses the group expressions found in the coronation ceremony of King Mosiah and compares them to those found in the coronation of a king in exile in Babylon. Shadows of something.

    Hope we all get on the same page sooner rather than later.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — February 19, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

  7. Ardis,
    Could this also be a remnant of the Nauvoo-era prayer circles that the Quorum of the Anointed had?

    Some of those who had received their endowments in the Nauvoo era, gathered together at least weekly in someone’s home to have a prayer circle, in which one would be the key voice, and the rest repeat the prayer.

    This was discontinued later by Brigham Young, partially, I believe, because Emma Smith tried to use her clout as an “elect lady” and member of the Quorum of the Anointed to obtain favors and power in the Church going west. When BY would not give her any special consideration, she remained behind.

    Is it possible that similar prayers expanded to other meetings?

    Comment by rameumptom — February 21, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  8. rameumptom, I do believe the temple model — which is the prayer circle model, after all — must have played a huge role in the familiarity of this kind of prayer, yes.

    There are problems with your third paragraph, however: Neither Brigham Young nor anyone else discontinued prayer circles in Nauvoo (such circles continued through the 19th century in the west); although Emma’s opposition to polygamy was reflected in the purity standards of the Relief Society, I think it is grossly unfair to say that she maneuvered for “favors and power in the Church” at any time, especially during preparations for going west; and her reasons for remaining behind had absolutely nothing to do with failure to obtain any hypothetical “favors and power.” This is all a misunderstanding of Emma’s character, as well as of Brigham Young’s consolidation of authority in Nauvoo.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 21, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

  9. Prayer circles continued outside of the temple until the early 20th century, and “Lengthen Your Stride” claims they weren’t officially discontinued until 1978 (!).

    This piece of instruction:

    “If this learning as well as having prayer itself is your goal, the concert prayer has its place. If, however, the spiritual experience of prayer is your objective, quiet listening is the better form”

    Is very interesting in light of how prayers are said in the temple.

    Comment by Clark — February 22, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  10. I think there’s a big difference between how adults and small children would experience such a prayer.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 22, 2010 @ 9:57 am

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