“No Substitute for Family Prayer,” Ensign, Feb. 2001, 25
The counsel of the prophet was plain and to the point: “Parents, safeguard your families. … Pray together. There is no substitute for family prayer when all kneel together before the Lord.”1
Somehow when I had listened to President Gordon B. Hinckley speaking in general conference, I must have let those words be overshadowed by his announcement a few sentences later that the Nauvoo Temple would be rebuilt. Yet as I reread his talk in the Ensign, I realized that here was inspired counsel no one could afford to ignore: nothing can take the place of kneeling with our families and petitioning God for His help, guidance, and mercy. If we would help save and strengthen our families, nothing else we do can replace family prayer.
It is counsel that President Hinckley has consistently offered. A decade ago, in a First Presidency message in the Ensign, he similarly taught that “a return to the old pattern of prayer, family prayer in the homes of the people, is one of the basic medications that would check the dread disease that is eroding the character of our society.”2
It is a call that other prophets have consistently sounded throughout the history of the Church. Following the sorrow and tragedy of World War I, for example, President Heber J. Grant shared his feelings about family prayer: “I am convinced that one of the greatest things that can come into any home to cause the boys and girls in that home to grow up in a love of God, and in a love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is to have family prayer. … I believe that there are very few that go astray, that very few lose their faith, who have once had a knowledge of the gospel, and who never neglect their prayers in their families, and their secret supplications to God.”3
I have often reflected upon my own experience growing up in a home with family prayer. I don’t remember ever being instructed by my parents on how to pray. It was just something we always did in our family. My earliest memories of prayer are kneeling as a family around the kitchen table, feeling the steady, unwavering faith of my father. Although he passed away more than a quarter of a century ago, I will be eternally grateful for his humble and sincere prayers. He had many sayings and proverbs he used to impart to us children, but no phrase of his is more often remembered than one I heard him pray every time he spoke to Heavenly Father. It wasn’t a vain repetition but a daily, heartfelt, and sincere petition: “Wilt Thou bless the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, and those who have cause to mourn.” Little did I realize at the time that my father was teaching me compassion for others less fortunate and mercy for those in need. No lecture or lesson has had as far-reaching an impact on my soul as did this simple, faithful, heartfelt plea of my earthly father to our Heavenly Father.
I have since learned that although one’s heart may be full and the desire great to share thoughts and feelings with Heavenly Father, there needs to be a special sensitivity to those who are participating. President Spencer W. Kimball taught that family prayers should be “appropriate to the need. A prayer of a single couple would be different from one for a family of grown children or for one of small children. Certainly, it should not be long when little children are involved, or they may lose interest and tire of prayer and come to dislike it.”4
Wise parents will recognize the protective power of regular family prayer. President Kimball taught: “No mother would carelessly send her little children forth to school on a wintry morning without warm clothes to protect against the snow and rain and cold. But there are numerous fathers and mothers who send their children to school without the protective covering available to them through prayer—a protection against exposure to unknown hazards, evil people, and base temptations.”5
The challenge for parents in this age of rapid transit, rapid communication, and hectic schedules is that families can easily fall into the habit of rapid prayer or no prayer at all. Gathering the family together can be quite a challenge when everyone seems to be headed in different directions at different times. Even a half century ago, Church leaders were concerned with this intrusion of busy schedules into family life. President George Albert Smith cautioned the Saints: “I fear that, in the midst of the world’s confusion, of hurry and bustle, many times homes are left without prayer and without the blessings of the Lord; these homes cannot continue to be happy.”6
Later, President Kimball counseled: “When we kneel in family prayer, our children at our side on their knees are learning habits that will stay with them all through their lives. If we do not take time for prayers, what we are actually saying to our children is, ‘Well, it isn’t very important, anyway. We won’t worry about it. If we can do it conveniently, we will have our prayer, but if the school bell rings and the bus is coming and employment is calling—well, prayer isn’t very important and we will do it when it is convenient.’ Unless planned for, it never seems to be convenient.”7
Some parents may get discouraged trying to hold family prayer. They have a desire to follow the counsel of our leaders, but because of conflicting work hours and school schedules, it sometimes seems impossible for them to gather their families to the same place at the same time. Even so, with faithful devotion to the words of the prophets and a little inspired creativity, families can find a way to pray together. Elder Joe J. Christensen, then of the Presidency of the Seventy, gave an encouraging insight to parents when he counseled: “Remember family prayer every day. With schedules as they are, you may need to have more than one prayer.”8
Because of the steady example of my mother and father, I can bear personal witness of the value of these words of counsel from our leaders. When my parents had a family of four small children, family prayer in the morning was not too difficult to do on a regular basis. However, as we children got older, the morning schedule of our family became unpredictable and hectic. There were times when my father would have to leave for his job as an electrician at four or five in the morning. My mother would arise with him and they would have “family prayer” together before he left. Soon my sisters and brother would be up for work or school, and my mother would have “family prayer” with them. Many times I would be the last to arise in the morning and would rush to get ready and run out the door. Without fail, my mother would call to me, “Let’s have family prayer.” I would often complain that my ride was waiting or that I didn’t have time. I am most grateful that my mother would ignore my pleas and excuses and simply say, “You always have time for prayer.” In fact, my most prevalent memory of family prayer in the morning is when my mother and I prayed together. How grateful I am that she did not let busy schedules and the hustle and bustle of everyone leaving for work and school get in the way of praying with her family, even though it sometimes was in stages. Now that our children are older, my wife and I often find ourselves kneeling in prayer with different ones at different times before they leave for the day. It is not uncommon to have “family prayer” three or four times in the morning.
President Hinckley has encouraged parents to be hopeful and to persist in holding family prayer, even if the blessings of doing so are not immediately apparent: “I give you my testimony that if you sincerely apply family prayer, you will not go away unrewarded. The changes may not be readily apparent. They may be extremely subtle. But they will be real, for God ‘is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him’ (Heb. 11:6).”9
Faithful adherence to the counsel of the prophet will bring blessings. Most children probably don’t realize the impact their parents’ example will have on the rest of their lives, but parents must persevere.
President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, once told of an interview President Kimball held with a bishop. President Kimball asked the bishop how often he held family prayer. The bishop responded that he tried to hold family prayer twice a day, but that his family probably averaged only once a day. The prophet answered: “In the past, having family prayer once a day may have been all right. But in the future it will not be enough if we are going to save our families.”10
In teaching that we should have family prayers in the morning and the evening, Church leaders have called for more than simply expanding the blessings we pronounce upon our meals. President Ezra Taft Benson taught: “Just a few words added to the blessing on the food, as is becoming the custom in some parts, is not enough. We need to get onto our knees in prayer and gratitude.”11
During difficult times family prayers in the morning and the evening will not always be enough. President Kimball said: “Never hesitate to gather your family around you for your prayers, especially in those times when more than morning and evening family prayer is needed. Extra needs require extra prayers.”12
Although children learn to pray as they listen to their parents pray, family prayer is meant to be a time for all the family to participate. Even very small children should have the opportunity to voice family prayer. “One cannot learn to pray by merely listening, but must be given experience.”13 There is, of course, a proper order of things governing who should direct family prayers. “If the father is home, he takes charge, and calls on one of the family to pray. If father is not there, the mother is in charge. If both are gone, the oldest child is in charge, and every night and every morning, the family is on their knees in prayer to the Lord.”14
As children participate in family prayer and hear their parents speak to God in humility, with faith in Jesus Christ, they can begin to learn things of the soul in a setting that cannot be duplicated anywhere else. During family prayer, children may begin to consider the answers to the great questions of the ages: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” Through family prayer—and their own personal prayers that are thus encouraged—children will begin to learn that they are sons and daughters of a loving Father in Heaven, that they are here as part of a great and wise plan of happiness, and that they can hope to return to their Father after this life. It is through family prayer that children become acquainted with many eternal family values.
What an impact parents can have on their children if they pray as a family that their sons will prepare for and be worthy to serve missions! How powerful will be the message when parents pray that their daughters and sons will stay morally clean and keep themselves worthy to enter the holy temple to be sealed for time and all eternity! As parents plead for the Holy Spirit to be in their home, children will come to know the importance of seeking the Spirit in their own lives. As children hear their parents plead for help in resolving difficult challenges and then witness the answers to those prayers, they will begin to develop a spirit of inquiry of their own. They will pray with a desire to knock, seek, and ask for help with problems and trials they face in their own lives (see Matt. 7:7–11). The spirit and behavior that parents leave as a model when they approach Heavenly Father in prayer will have an important, long-lasting effect on their children. As President Kimball once reminded parents, “Your little ones will learn how to talk to their Father in Heaven by listening to you as parents. They will soon see how heartfelt and honest your prayers are. If your prayers are a hurried and thoughtless ritual, they will see this too.”15
Parents can also learn much about prayer from their little ones, as did a group of Nephite parents when the resurrected Savior appeared among them and loosed the tongues of even their small children (see 3 Ne. 26:14). Often the words given to little children in prayer are more profound than they understand, but the humble, listening heart can hear the Holy Spirit speak through them.
Families that have not been having family prayer should not wait for some change in conditions or some ideal time to start. There is no better time to begin than now. Family prayer is a habit that should be part of a family from its beginning—when a husband and wife become one through marriage. But families that have not had the habit can usually begin it with little preparation; the parents—or mother or father if the parent is single—can lead out and teach or encourage the children to follow.
Sometimes there are special circumstances—a spouse or child who declines to participate, for instance. But if the spouse will permit prayer or if the child will be present, even without participating, a heart often can be won in the end by humble, persistent, loving example. Over time, the benefits of family prayer usually become obvious even to those who decline to participate, and they may be learning from what they observe, even when they do not realize it. Many are the stories of those who have been touched by prayers, both in the family group and in the solitary, yearning heart that would not give up on loving.
The end result is worth whatever sacrifices we make to build the habit—and often these are no more than small sacrifices of time. President Hinckley has said: “I know of no single practice that will have a more salutary effect upon your lives than the practice of kneeling together as you begin and close each day. Somehow the little storms that seem to afflict every marriage are dissipated when, kneeling before the Lord, you thank him for one another, in the presence of one another, and then together invoke his blessings upon your lives, your home, your loved ones, and your dreams.”16
Following the devastation and terrible destruction that occurred after His crucifixion in the Old World, the Savior appeared to the Nephite people and comforted them with the counsel to “pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed” (3 Ne. 18:21). What simple yet powerful direction to a people who had lost and suffered so much. What peaceful direction to all who suffer and need guidance in their families today.
Recently a good father and husband passed away unexpectedly in his home. He was only in his 55th year. His youngest son found him while the mother was away in a nearby city. The boy’s older brother and sisters were contacted at work. Friends and neighbors came to assist. The children gathered at the hospital with extended family and priesthood leaders. Medical personnel tried in vain to resuscitate the father, but he was gone. There was much sorrow and grieving. Mother was finally contacted and sped to the hospital, not knowing that her eternal companion had already passed away a few hours earlier and that her children had been heartbroken and awash in grief and pain for some time.
Upon arrival, this mother was informed of the loss of her husband and taken to the small hospital chapel where her children had been waiting. What a trial and test lay before this woman! As she entered the chapel, her children rushed to the comfort of her arms. Immediately, before much else was said, this wise and steady mother said to her sorrowing children, “Let’s have family prayer.” And so a family whose life and future had looked so bright and promising that morning knelt together, arm in arm, to petition their Father in Heaven to help and comfort them as they began the process of rebuilding shattered lives. The members of this family testify that God heard their prayer. From that moment on, there was strength and comfort. Testimonies were reaffirmed, hope was steadied, and love and understanding filled the family circle. Father was gone, but they knew it would be only temporary. Uniting in family prayer, they had been reminded that through the grace and Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, they would be together again as a family.
For this family, for other families in the Church, and for all families throughout the world, the words of a living prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, bring comfort, guidance, and promise of everlasting spiritual growth: “There is no substitute for family prayer.”