“He Commanded His Disciples That They Should Pray”

Brant Gardner

This particular verse is the source of several comments and explanations. It is the focus of interest because of two things. First, the Nephites are praying to Jesus, rather than to the Father, and secondly, Jesus does not stop them. The question is therefore why Jesus would have allowed this “incorrect” prayer. A survey of LDS commentary on this topic shows relative agreement on the topic:

McConkie and Millet suggest:

“The Savior had previously instructed the Nephites concerning the proper language ofprayer (see 3 Nephi 13:9). They knew that they should pray “unto the Father, in my name” (see 3 Nephi 18:23), yet under the influence of the Spirit they prayed to Jesus “calling him their Lord and their God.” He was and is both Redeemer and God. In reverential worship they directed their prayers to the Savior, and he did not stop them nor correct them. It appears that, in this case, it was appropriate because a resurrected God stood in their very presence (see verse 22). Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written: “Jesus was present before them as the symbol of the Father. Seeing him, it was as though they saw the Father; praying to him, it was as though they prayed to the Father. It was a special and unique situation that as far as we know has taken place only once on earth during all the long ages of the Lord’s hand-dealings with his children.” (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987-1992], 4: 135.)

McConkie and Millet appear to follow Bruce R. McConkie’s suggestion that this was a special instance, and allowable as a special instance. Thus it is not the way we are to pray, but understandable because Jesus was there among them in obvious glory.

Elsewhere, Bruce R. McConkie suggests that perhaps there was an analogous situation with the Old World twelve while Jesus was among them: 

“Perhaps it is a situation similar to that which is involved in receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost; as long as Jesus was with the disciples they did not enjoy the full manifestations of the Holy Ghost. (John 16:7.) Perhaps as long as Jesus was personally with them many of their petitions were addressed directly to him rather than to the Father. Such was the course followed by the Nephites when the resurrected and glorified Lord ministered among them. They prayed directly to him and not to the Father. “When they had all knelt down upon the earth,” the record says, Jesus “commanded his disciples that they should pray. And behold, they began to pray; and they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God.” Then Jesus, in a prayer of his own to the Father, said, “They pray unto me because I am with them.” (3 Ne. 19:17-18, 22.) Perhaps, also, there was a matter of propriety which would keep prayers from being said in Jesus’ name as long as he was present and going “from grace to grace” (D. & C. 93:13) in working out his own salvation. In any event, prayers in his name were to commence “at that day” (v. 26), meaning after his resurrection. (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 1: 758.)

Donald Perry appears to agree that this was an exceptional occasion and that it was allowable because the resurrected Savior stood before them:

“The command to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ has been accepted without reservation by the Latter-day Saints in this dispensation. In 1916, Joseph F. Smith declared that “we … accept without any question the doctrines we have been taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith and by the Son of God Himself that we pray to God, the Eternal Father, in the name of His Only Begotten Son” (Conference Report [Oct 1916] 6). It is therefore not appropriate to pray to any other being than the Father.

If the instructions are crystal clear concerning to whom we must address our prayers, then why did the Nephites pray directly to Jesus, as recorded in 3 Nephi 19:18? The answer in part lies in the fact that Jesus is a resurrected deity. “And they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God.” A second explanation for the multitude’s praying to Jesus is found in his words to Heavenly Father, “they pray unto me because I am with them” (3 Nephi 19:22). It is also possible that the Saints began praying to Jesus as a natural reaction to and an acknowledgement of his glory.” (Donald W. Parry, “Pray Always”: Learning to Pray as Jesus Prayed.” Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Third Nephi 9-30: This Is My Gospel [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1993], 141.)

John W. Welch adds some other possibilities:

“Here in verse 18 the disciples pray to Jesus instead of God the Father.”

Well, let’s look at chapter 19. In verse 6 he says they should “pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus. And the disciples did pray unto the Father also in the name of Jesus.” Now, verse 18: “And behold, they began to pray; and they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God.” I think that if you read both passages together, they are praying to Jesus in a way but knowing that they are praying to the Father through him. The way I’ve always understood that is to read verse 18 in the context of all of the instructions that have been given.

“In a dedicatory prayer Joseph Smith prays to Christ also in the Doctrine and Covenants.”

I suppose it is proper, if you wish to pray to Jesus in some sense. Jesus is God; he is a member of the trinity. I don’t mean that in a sectarian sense, but he is a member of the Godhead. Some prayers are prayers of thanksgiving; some prayers are simply prayers of expression of devotion. One could certainly pray to any exalted being in that sense, I suppose. (John W. Welch. “3 Ne. 19:13 Nephi 19 - 4 Nephi 1: Understanding the Sermon at the Temple and Zion Society.” Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon--Semester 1: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988--1990 [Provo: Foundation for Ancient Re 156.)

The result of this survey of solutions to the question yields some commonalities. The first is that the command is quite clear that we should pray to the Father in the name of the Son, and not directly to the Son. Since this is a prayer to the Son, and it was allowed by the Savior, it is therefore an exceptional case, and to be explained by the exceptional circumstances of the occasion. This appears to work well until we arrive at John W. Welch’s comment that Joseph Smith prayed directly to Jesus in a dedicatory prayer in the Doctrine and Covenants. That observation would yield another occasion on which the “order” of prayer was technically violated, and therefore calls into question the whole solution.

Interestingly enough, however, it is that very dedicatory prayer that gives us the hints that provide a more complete solution to this particular issue. On March 27, 1836 Joseph Smith gave the dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland Temple. As he prays he is very obviously addressing the Father, as we would expect. This is explicit in several examples, such as DC 109:4;10;14;22, etc. However, in the middle of addressing the Father, Joseph Smith changes the address, and specifically addresses Jehovah (DC 109:34, 42). It is this address to Jehovah is that is likely Welch’s reference to Joseph addresses Jesus (as there is no address to Jesus with the name Jesus).

The issue comes from our understanding that the premortal name of Jesus was Jehovah:

“Jesus of Nazareth, who in solemn testimony to the Jews declared Himself the I Am or Jehovah, who was God before Abraham lived on earth, was the same Being who is repeatedly proclaimed as the God who made covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who led Israel from the bondage of Egypt to the freedom of the promised land, the one and only God known by direct and personal revelation to the Hebrew prophets in general.

The identity of Jesus Christ with the Jehovah of the Israelites was well understood by the Nephite prophets, and the truth of their teachings was confirmed by the risen Lord who manifested Himself unto them shortly after His ascension from the midst of the apostles at Jerusalem. This is the record: “And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto them saying, Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.” (James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 36.)

With this understanding, John W. Welch reads the dedicatory prayer and sees in it a switch from the Holy Father the Jehovah, and therefore sees a shift in the direction of prayer from the Father to Jesus in his premortal designation as Jehovah. The problem with this reading is that it not likely to have been the way that Joseph Smith used the term. (Thomas Alexander. Mormons in Transition. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1986, p. 279-80 gives a brief indication of the codification of this doctrine in the late 1800’s) There was no clear understanding of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the name Jehovah until it was delineated and espoused by James E. Talmage. Although that has become the official understanding of the church (see the article on Jehovah – Jesus Christ in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism,) this was not a clearly understood principle at the time Joseph Smith gave the dedicatory prayer. Indeed, reading through that prayer suggests that he was using the appellation Jehovah as a title for the Father during that prayer. For instance, we verses 29-43 of DC 109 are united with the common address “O Lord,” but the specific “Lord” is both “Holy Father,” and “Jehovah.” The easiest way to read this passage is to understand that they were exchangeable titles for Joseph at that time.

This lack of modern clarity of terminology helps us understand the Nephites’ prayer to Jesus. This was not Jesus the man, this was their Atoning Messiah. Beginning with the original manuscript’s designation of Mary as the “mother of God” (see 1 Nephi 11:18 and subsequent commentary), the Nephites had understood their coming Messiah to be their God. While Jesus has made it clear in his language during his appearance that there is a distinction between the Father and the Son, this was not a distinction that had been clear up to this point in Nephite history. Indeed, we see a shift in the Christology of the Nephites beginning with this appearance, where the references to Jesus as the Father are replaced by the correct understanding of the separation of Jesus and God the Father. The Nephites are therefore praying to their Messiah who was always understood to be their God. It is for this reason that they were “calling him their Lord and their God.” Jesus would not have stopped them from praying to him because he comprehended that their understanding was in transition. There may be some who had understood immediately and implicitly the distinction between the Father and the Son, but there would be others for whom this was not yet a concept that had become apparent. From this time forth it would, but on this day, the second day for most and the first experience for many, that concept was not yet clear.

Even though those who had been with the Messiah on the previous day had learned the distinction, there were many who had just arrived on this day, and would not yet have known the difference. Even for those who had so recently learned the difference, there was still the miraculous presence of the Messiah in their midst. Who but God could have come and done what the Messiah had done? There was time enough for doctrine. At this very moment what counted was the yearning in the hearts – that un-subjected prayer that they were praying, a prayer that must have been a soul-felt yearning for the spirit of this obviously deified being who stood among them.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon