Prayer at Cabinet Meeting

By August 29, 2009

As we continue to get settled into our new apartment, and as I continue to unpack books (where on earth did I get so many books?), I came across a box that contained primarily devotional writings by Latter-day Saint leaders, including two or three compilations of Eza Taft Benson’s religio-political writings and speeches. I took a minute and flipped through one of the volumes—a 1960 publication compiled by President Benson’s son, Reed entitled … So Shall Ye Reap: Selected Addresses of Ezra Taft Benson. I was intrigued by many things—the book’s preface, for instance, was authored by Herbert Hoover and the introduction by Harold B. Lee, something not likely to be seen repeated in a book authored by a general authority today. But one thing in particular caught my eye. One selection is titled “Prayer at Cabinet Meeting,” and is a transcript of the prayer offered by then Secretary of Agriculture Benson at the first Cabinet meeting of the recently-elected President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

I’d read the prayer before, and seen the handwritten note President Eisenhower had sent President Benson thanking him for his regular prayers at Cabinet meetings*, but something stood out to me this time that had not before. And it actually was nothing in the prayer itself. That is all pretty much what you might expect—expressions of gratitude for the founding fathers, the freedom enjoyed as Americans, and “the glorious Constitution,” as well as invocations of divine blessings to be bestowed on President Eisenhower, congress, and the judiciary, topped off with a typically Mormon blessing on the food served that day to the president and his cabinet (“For this food which we are about to partake … we thank thee. Bless and sanctify it to our nourishment and good.”).

What stuck out to me, though, was the short paragraph written by Benson that explained the prayer’s inclusion in the book:

The following, requested by the press, is a reconstruction as nearly as possible, of the prayer offered at the beginning of the first Cabinet meeting of President-Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower held in New York City at 12:30 p.m., January 12, 1953. The prayer was called for, without previous notice, at the beginning of the luncheon meeting and was given spontaneously. I have never attempted before to write or reconstruct a prayer (p. 261).

In actuality, this brief statement does not explain the prayer’s inclusion in the book as much as it attempts to justify the recording and printing of a prayer at all. Benson is careful to stress that the prayer was unplanned and “was given spontaneously,” and that it was his first ever attempt at writing a prayer. This all seems typically Mormon to me—writing to what I assume was a primarily LDS audience (the book was published by Deseret Book), the author makes sure that those readers are aware that he was not in the heretical habit of writing and repeating prayers and that the invocation at this meeting was not rote, but rather spontaneous.

I’m interested in any feedback presenting any additional insights into the language used by Benson in this brief passage, the subject of Mormon disdain for pre-meditated and rote prayers more generally, or anything else related to the topics addressed above.


*This note, as I recall, was on display in the Benson Building at BYU a few years ago. I assume it may still be there, as part of a large glass-encased exhibit celebrating the life, service, and achievements of ETB.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Nice insight.

    I think Benson’s statement can be read in part as a content and form disclaimer. Knowing that some might try to imitate him rigorously or find offense if he left out something they thought he ought/n’t have, he hedged the language.

    But, I think you’re right that Benson is mostly disclaiming prepared and rote prayers. Intriguing. Subject headings for further thought might include:
    — authenticity discourse (it’s more “real” [supposedly] if it’s unplanned)
    — boundary maintenance (“we” are not like “them” and their paid, form-over-feeling clergy)
    — charisma/bureaucracy transitions (public prayer is a planned moment of unplanned speaking).

    Did/does the non-Ensign Conference Report reproduce prayers?

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 29, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  2. There is the story (if not true it should be) of later in his administration at a cabinet meeting Eisenhower starting a cabinet meeting and realizing that they hadn’t had an opening prayer, he stopped and said”G-D-MIT we forgot the prayer.”

    Comment by John Willis — August 29, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

  3. Interesting thoughts, Chris. In light of recent events, your questions about the character of Mormon prayer make me think of the seemingly singular case of temple dedications, where the prayer offered is pre-recorded, seemingly premeditated, and yet given ostensibly by revelation. This seems an exception to what you have (I think correctly) identified as a pretty uniform characteristic of Mormon devotion. Unfortunately, I think the inclination against formalized prayer often derives less from a commitment to in-the-moment sensitivity to what ought to be said (the Spirit teaching “what we should pray”…”in the very moment”) than from a cultural aversion to prayer that smacks of taboo formalism (like Edje said).

    Comment by Ryan T — August 30, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  4. my first paper in Mormon studies looked at the process of formalization of temple dedication prayers textually (i didn’t do any archival work to see what they discussed in meetings, just inferred from the prayers the presence of a process). #3 reminds me of that work, which was mediocre but I think drew attention to an important finding.

    independent of that,w e really do inhabit two worlds, don’t we? free-form worship and highly structured liturgy, church vs. temple.

    Comment by smb — August 30, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  5. Gary Bergera’s article on Elder Benson’s cabinet service reports the cabinet prayer matter differently:

    Having suggested that the new cabinet?s pre-inaugural first meeting begin with prayer, Benson was overjoyed when Eisenhower invited him on January 12, 1953, to offer the invocation. For Benson, ?beseeching the Lord for spiritual strength was as necessary . . . as eating or sleeping.?61 ?We are deeply grateful for this glorious land in which we live,? he paraphrased LDS scripture. ?We know it is a land choice above all others, the greatest under Heaven. . . . We thank Thee for the glorious Constitution of this land which has been established by noble men who Thou didst raise unto this very purpose. . . . Help us ever, we pray Thee, to be true and faithful to these great and guiding principles.?62

    The next week, however, Benson was ?deeply disappointed? when Eisenhower chose not to begin the cabinet?s meeting again with prayer. Had he done something wrong, Benson wondered. That evening, he ?broke down and wept aloud? in his small apartment. Five days later, he summoned his courage and sent Eisenhower a letter urging that all cabinet meetings thereafter ?be opened with a word of prayer.? Eisenhower did not act immediately, looking instead for a practice that would be acceptable to everyone. Then, on the second Friday morning cabinet meeting after Benson?s letter, Eisenhower announced that, barring any objections, he would like to start with a moment of silence. ?And that?s the way itwas . . . fromthat time on,? Benson wrote.63 (Benson made certain that his own departmental staff meetings always began with a vocal invocation?a ?custom,? he termed it.)64–04Bergera.pdf

    Comment by DavidH — August 30, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

  6. I remember watching my grandpa once carefully write out a dedicatory prayer for my parents’ new home (like temple dedicatory prayers others have mentioned). It seems that “rote” prayers are most common in ritual moments that are primarily ceremonial or artful rather than dynamic. There’s almost a poetic beauty to D&C 109 that adds to the dignity of the temple. Prayers in meetings or blessings on the sick seemed designed to be flexible in the hope that new inspiration or guidance will be offered–there’s a sense of “action” behind them.

    Either way, this has made me think it might be a good idea to prepare a few things in advance for any future baby blessings, rather than stumbling randomly for 5 minutes for my first.

    Comment by Dallin Lewis — August 31, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  7. Very interesting Chris, and excellent comments.

    Comment by Jared T — August 31, 2009 @ 12:19 am

  8. I’m not really sure what to make of ETB’s comments regarding his extemporaneous prayer (perhaps he was just heightening the readers’ sense for the drama of the momemnt?).

    But Dallin Lewis’ comment reminded me that I have nothing against so-called “prepared” prayers. I made mental notes of what I could say before I stood up to give my children their baby blessings. Inspiration can come ahead of the actual performance/event, much like when a teacher prepares a lesson and is inspired what to say beforehand. In other words, if ETB’s prayer had been prepared ahead of time, I would have no problem with that.

    Comment by Hunter — August 31, 2009 @ 11:03 am

  9. After some further research it appears that the incident of Eisenhower saying “***** we forgot the silent prayer” really did happen. See Geoffrey Perret’s 2000 biography of Eisenhower for a discussion of the incident.

    Comment by John Willis — August 31, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  10. I believe I read in Rough Stone Rolling that Joseph Smith’s reading of the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer surprised and even shocked many of the attendees.

    Comment by Tom D — September 1, 2009 @ 12:41 am

  11. Thanks, all, for your comments and for helping tease out the possible meanings of Benson’s comments and the further context of prayer in cabinet meetings. I don’t have much time to address each comment now, but I do think these issues deserve some further attention.

    Comment by Christopher — September 1, 2009 @ 11:24 pm


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