Prayerful Patriotism: A Query on Mormons Praying for the Troops

By July 25, 2011

This past Sunday, several of the prayers to open and close meetings in my ward included mention of United States soldiers. This, of course, was not something new. I’ve heard such particular mentions of the military in every ward I’ve ever attended, and it is especially common here in Virginia, where several members of the local congregation (and many, many more throughout the Newport News Stake) serve(d) in the armed forces. I don’t know why my mind focused on this otherwise routine supplication during yesterday’s service; perhaps it was the juxtaposition of one brother mentioning the armed forces as part of a longer list of individuals needing either God’s blessing or our thanks (they were mentioned right after the missionaries and right before the Pioneers), or perhaps I was struck by the particular language used (“please bless those fighting for our country”). Regardless, it got me thinking about the origin of the practice.

My sense—and I have nothing to base this on other than my own anecdotal evidence and my general sense of Mormonism’s longer historical trajectory—is that this originated in the early to mid twentieth century, very possibly during World War I or World War II. This period marked not only the beginnings of mass enlistment of Mormons in the U.S. military, but also the increasing integration of Mormons (if not Mormonism) into American society more generally. The result, as far as I can tell, was increased patriotism among American Mormons and the mention of the military in Mormon prayers—both public and private—was one expression of that patriotism.

I’m not sure how far I want to pursue this research question, and I’m not at all interested in debating whether or not such expressions are appropriate or not in a church setting. But I am interested in any feedback any readers have on the origins of this practice, it’s prevalence in your respective neck of the woods, and whether this ever happens outside of the good ole’ US of A.

I am also especially interested in the particular forms such mentions take. For example, in my ward yesterday, the Sacrament Meeting invocation—offered by a middle-aged woman—included an expression of gratitude for those “who protect our freedoms” and a plea to “keep them and their families safe.” The prayer offered during opening exercises of Priesthood meeting, by contrast—spoken by a man somewhere around the age of 40—simply asked God “to bless those fighting for our country.”  In your experience, what particular form (either along the lines expressed above or any other alternative) is most commonly used? And do such expressions differ based on sex? Setting (sacrament meeting versus priesthood versus Relief Society, etc.)?

And finally, what does this all mean, anyway?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Great questions, Christopher. While I don’t have answers, I will mention that whenever I hear these types of prayers I think of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” While it may not really play a role in today’s wars–which are waged more against “terrorism” than a specific nation–it seems that we fall into the traditional mindset where God takes a particular said in these national battles.

    One thing’s for sure: today’s LDS prayers concerning American soldiers definitely differ from those offered in the Civil War era!

    Comment by Ben Park — July 25, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

  2. Last month in the temple (Oakland) the officiator prayed for “our troops, who are protecting our homes and freedoms” and asked that they be blessed with safety and success.

    I think that perhaps the Cold War intensified this practice. With Elder Benson and others decrying the wicked atheist communists we were fighting, I think many both within and without the church viewed US soldiers as Christian soldiers.

    Oh, and the whole time in the temple I kept thinking about section 98, renouncing war, praying for our enemies, etc. I’m not a fan of praying only for our troops.

    Comment by geoffsn — July 25, 2011 @ 11:10 pm

  3. We have a lot of military families in our ward and stake, being a stake that serves Ft. Bliss, one of the largest military bases in the country. We heard recently that with all the deployments coming up, a significant percentage of families will be without a priesthood holder in the home. This point was made to encourage home teaching so that there will be priesthood representation in homes.

    Thus, prayers often reference the families of troops as well as troops, for the safety of troops, their safe return, for “those righting for our freedoms” or “for our country”. I haven’t noticed if there are any particular patterns in terms of age or sex, but now I’m interested in paying closer attention.

    Comment by Jared T — July 25, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

  4. Ah, yes, yes, geoffsn’s comment reminds me that last week in the Snowflake, AZ temple, the officiator also prayed for the troops “protecting our freedoms” and that’s not the first time, but I’m fuzzy on the exact wording other times.

    Comment by Jared T — July 25, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

  5. Adding to geoffsn and Jared T: I was in a session in the SLC temple last friday and a similar prayer was offered.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 25, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

  6. It occurs with regular frequency out here on the Central Coast, but not every week. My own uninformed take is that it goes hand in hand with the idea God inspired the U.S. Constitution, and because it is a divine document, the perceived use of military force to “protect and defend” that document to be of indirect divine origin and of course is legitimate. I’m just not sure whether it is necessarily true, i.e., the troops are necessarily fighting for our freedoms or are actually protecting our country.

    Comment by Guy Murray — July 25, 2011 @ 11:48 pm

  7. There is a specific policy in the Seattle Temple proscribing mentions of troops in the prayers (perhaps because of the large number of Canadian patrons, before the BC Temple was dedicated?).

    I’ve read statements from Joseph F. Smith noting that there were believers on both sides of the war.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 26, 2011 @ 12:01 am

  8. Huh? Canadians have troops in Afghanistan. They’ve taken a lot of casualties. It seems odd to assume that Canadians would be upset at such a prayer. (Speaking as a Canadian)

    Comment by Clark — July 26, 2011 @ 12:17 am

  9. I don’t think there’s been many, maybe any, times I haven’t heard soldiers mentioned in our temple’s prayer. San Diego is a big military town, so it kinda makes sense that people are thinking about that. However, I am very uncomfortable with the whiff of politics that it brings into a space that is supposed to be all about perfect harmony.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — July 26, 2011 @ 12:45 am

  10. Another common practice in this vein is listing the contact addresses for enlisted or deployed members in our Sacrament Meeting programs, alongside those of full time missionaries serving from our ward.

    Comment by Tom O. — July 26, 2011 @ 5:44 am

  11. I find praying for our troops especially touching and meaningful when our military personnel are used as pawns by our leaders in unnecessary adventurism that has nothing to do with protecting our freedoms.

    Comment by Aaron — July 26, 2011 @ 6:19 am

  12. I am an Army veteran, and my brother served in Iraq, surviving several IED explosions.

    That said, I hate those prayers.

    I think we should be praying for everyone involved in conflicts around the globe where our military forces are serving. Far more Iraqi civilians have died than USAmerican troops. Lots more. Not just directly in our misplaced bombs and crossfire from insurgents, but also the diabetics etc. who died when the infrastructure was disrupted and they couldn’t get what they needed to survive.

    I was teaching Gospel Doctrine when the invasion of Iraq began, and whenever topics touching the military came up, I begged people to pray for all those involved in war.

    Aaron’s comment #10 will help me tolerate such prayers better.

    Comment by Naismith — July 26, 2011 @ 6:42 am

  13. Of course, the most ironic thing is that these prayers came on Pioneer Day–the day we remember Mormons fleeing America and later being threatened by U.S. soldiers.

    Comment by DLewis — July 26, 2011 @ 7:51 am

  14. Although Quinn is specifically interested in examining the abandonment of “selective pacificism” among the Saints, his 1984 article “The Mormon Church and the Spanish-American War: An End to Selective Pacifism” suggests that the Spanish-American War was the time when the Saints engaged in a full-hearted identification with American historical providentialism. While previously the Saints had seen the American founding as providential, they also endorsed a strong judicial providentialism that foresaw the destruction of the American nation 1) at the hands of the Lamanites and 2) as punishment for the Saints’ persecutions. Zion would be a place where people would flee war, rather than a jingoistic supporter of America’s conflicts. Although the Saints had nominally supported the U.S. in the Mexican-American War (Mormon Battalion) and the Union in the Civil War, it could easily be argued that this support was more to ensure the survival of Zion than to perpetuate the American nation state. And while there was substantial debate among the church’s leadership in 1898, with some leaders opposing Mormon involvement in the war and others supporting it, ultimately the supporters won out, with the First Presidency issuing a call for the Saints to enlist to defend the nation and its liberties. Even leaders who publicly opposed Mormon participation in the war, like Brigham Young Jr., suggested that the Saints donate money to the war cause. So, given this framework, I think a case could be made that this was the time when Saints began praying for the troops who fought America’s wars.

    As for my own experience, I don’t hear it as much as you’d expect here in Fort Worth, Texas, home of Lockheed Martin (and the employer of many in my stake). But it may be just me being used to such prayers and not consciously noting them. I think I heard them more in Utah, though, and I recall one time when I offered a prayer for the innocent civilians suffering in Iraq, and the girl I was with at the time looking at me like I was crazy for praying for Iraqis rather than the troops.

    Comment by David G. — July 26, 2011 @ 8:42 am

  15. I notice when a line like this is included in a group prayer, but I haven’t noticed any particular patterns as to gender or age. When I think back, I tie the most memorable mentions to specific people, as though it’s part of their individual personality rather than a broader pattern.

    I do notice and think it’s strange when people pray for soldiers but don’t pray for missionaries.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2011 @ 9:14 am

  16. Two derailing thoughts:

    1) I wonder what sort of mention, if any, was made of the U.S. Civil War during LDS prayers of the time?

    2) I appreciate our armed forces and the sacrifices they make, but I think I’d be upset if a mention of soldiers crept into a prayer in the temple. But on that note, I wonder if such a mention did occur during earlier major wars (e.g. WWII).

    Comment by Bro. Jones — July 26, 2011 @ 9:44 am

  17. Ardis, every endowment session I’ve ever been to included the missionaries. The military was always common (even in Canada) but more so since 9/11. In Sacrament prayers neither is common, but neither has it been surprising to hear one or the other mentioned.

    I have to admit in my personal prayers I typically forget about the missionaries and soldiers. I need to be better about that.

    Comment by Clark — July 26, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  18. Br. Jones, as I recall the main view at the time was that the Civil War was a punishment on both sides. I think there were still a lot of hard feelings from the Utah War and perhaps not quite as much love or forgiveness as we’d like looking back in hindsight.

    Comment by Clark — July 26, 2011 @ 10:02 am

  19. Yes, Clark, I’m familiar with constant prayers for missionaries in temples — remembering that was one of the things I clung to as a missionary just to get by day to day. I thought we were talking about ward meetings here.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2011 @ 10:31 am

  20. I think praying for our troops is more common in areas with a large military presence. We used to live in the Virginia Beach Stake (not too far from you!). I heard prayers for military personnel much more in our ward there than where we live now. I’ve never had issue with it, mainly because those praying usually have a vested interest (whether it’s a loved one, ward member, friend etc.) I usually take it as a concern for the welfare of those who they know and care about.

    I agree with Naismith, however, that we should be praying for all involved in a conflict.

    I also have to add that I would prefer prayers not just mention safety, but the ability to make wise decisions in whatever situation our military personnel find themselves in. Not just when in the midst of conflict, but also just dealing with the temptations that seem to be so pervasive amongst those who serve.

    Comment by Marie — July 26, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  21. On my mission I was asked to give the prayer on my first Sunday in a ward, with a specific request from the bishop that I pray for our troops since a ward member had just been deployed. Being a bit uncomfortable with the political implications such prayers seem to carry (especially back in 2007), I prayed something to the effect that the faithful soldiers would be blessed and that they all would come home soon. I was a bit worried that avoiding some of the typical bless-our-troops buzzwords would rankle, but afterwords several ward members specifically thanked me for my prayer. So, yeah. Don’t care for prayers that implicitely elevate soldiers to near-missionary status, though, under any circumstances.

    Comment by Casey — July 26, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

  22. D-Day: Mormon boys died taking that beach___Mormon boys died defending that beach.

    Comment by Bob — July 26, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  23. And what, Bob, does that have to do with the topic at hand?

    Comment by Kumquat Wattendaddles — July 26, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  24. Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful responses. This appears to be even more complicated than I imagined. A few general thoughts:

    1) I’m intrigued by Stapley’s note about the proscription in effect at the Seattle temple, especially as it contrasts with the anecdotes of Ben, geoffsn, Jared, Cynthia, and others that prayers on behalf of the military are regular occurrences in other temples. If anyone else has any anecdotes about anything of this sort at non-U.S. temples, please do share.

    2) Thanks for pointing out Quinn’s article, David. That does push this back further than I first thought.

    3) My sense, based on the comments here and my own experience, is that one’s political leanings and the current political climate directly affect the way (s)he reacts to this practice. That may be an obvious point, but it’s not one I had considered when I wrote the post.

    4) I’ve heard others explicitly refer to military service as “a type of mission.” That seems relevant here, and I wonder whether that idea came about during earlier wars when 18-25 yr. old Mormons were fighting in one of the several 20th century wars and could not/did not serve a proselytizing mission as a result.

    5) I still wonder about the gendered dynamics at play here (if there are any, in fact). I also wonder how race, ethnicity, and age affect this. Are such prayers offered in Spanish-speaking congregations here in America, for instance? Are they included in the invocations and benedictions of Genesis Group meetings?

    Comment by Christopher — July 26, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

  25. #23: It about asking your God to help end wars, not win them. It’s about asking for God’s support for the victims of the war, no matter who they are, not just “your troops”.
    Sorry if this was a thread-jack.

    Comment by Bob — July 26, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

  26. I’m late to the conversation. I can say that in my most recent session in the Detroit Temple, our soldiers (and missionaries) were also remembered. It happens much less frequently in our regular church meetings (though missionaries are nearly always remembered; those serving in our ward by name).

    I personally favor pleading the cause of all engaged in war and praying for the end of conflict. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone pray for our soldiers’ “success” specifically. That said, after 9-11, my typical prayers (public and private) were for “world leaders” to make “wise choices” at that time.

    Comment by Paul — July 26, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

  27. #16: And that’s what I get for not reading all the comments before posting. [smack]

    Comment by Bro. Jones — July 26, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

  28. So Mormon boys died on the beaches of Normandy to end the war without winning it, and for some unspecified purpose having to do with the non-military victims of war.

    Got it.

    I can’t imagine why I had the slightest trouble in making that connection myself, Bob. Thank you for enlightening me.

    Comment by Kumquat Wattendaddles — July 26, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

  29. Seems to be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing on both sides here. Invoking god’s blessings on those who serve their country is not detrimental, and being worried about the messages that such prayers might convey seems overly intellectualizing a public prayer. How is that any different than asking for rain during a drought, or for asking god to stop a raging forest fire? It’s not as if they are asking for the ‘Mericans to win the war and kill the muslims. And, I am pretty confident in God’s ability to answer prayers as He sees fit and necessary…the prayers of the faithful notwithstanding.

    As an Active Duty member, i generally am uncomfortable with the “Thanks for your service” comments I get when I am out in public in uniform. My snarky response is — when the mood strikes — “thanks for paying my salary with your taxes!” but, a prayer that asks for my protection as I am deployed or to watch over my family members in my absence? I’ll take those anyday…

    Comment by Dr. Horrible — July 26, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  30. Ardid (19), I thought we were talking both about temple prayers and ward prayers. It is interesting that there is a big difference between the two.

    “Dr. Horrible” (29), the comparison with weather is interesting given what we understand of weather. After all rain for one often means drought for someone else.

    Comment by Clark — July 27, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  31. #16,

    To answer your first derailing thought: Since the majority of the saints were in the Utah Basin at the time of the Civil War, I would bet that their prayers were similar to that of the “Fiddler on the Roof” Rabbi’s blessing for the Tzar,

    “May god bless and keep the [civil war] far away from us.”

    Comment by Fletcher — July 27, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

  32. #30: “After all rain for one often means drought for someone else.”

    I don’t think that is true at all. In fact, I would tend to think the opposite. It would be much harder for a gigantic cloud to drop tons of water on just one area.

    I suppose it could vary in some microclimates, but in general, isn’t most the water for rainclouds the result of evaporation from the ocean. There is no way that the ocean could run out of water such that rain in one place means drought for someone else.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — July 27, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

  33. My point with the “rain during a drought” comparison was only meant to highlight my ‘modified’ Deist view of God. Sure, he COULD intervene if he wanted to and cause it to rain, but there are well-established laws of nature that have been set in motion that govern.

    Back to the troops…praying for “victory” is different than praying for their well being — mostly. I remember when I was in school and had been diligently prepping for my finals, I offered a prayer that, after all was said and done, that I would be able to finish in the top 25% of my class (class rank being THE decider for job prospects and such). After the prayer, I got a subtle nudge that I had just prayed that 75% of my class to worse on the exams than me. Definitely changed my perspective on prayer…

    Comment by Dr. Horrible — July 27, 2011 @ 9:51 pm


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