For many people, archaic English pronouns — i.e., thou, thee, thy, thine, thyself — represent a loftier form of address. This perception is prevalent due to an oft-repeated assertion that such pronouns were employed in royal courts (where more respectable language was demanded), while the pronoun, “you,” allegedly, was reserved for the jargon of the streets.
For this reason, many sincere, devout Christians prefer to study from a translation that makes use of them, as well as offer up prayers and songs that employ them, as a sign of respect for the subject matter. We believe this tradition is a relatively wholesome one, and cherish the songs, prayers, and translations which articulate them.
Still, extremes are plenteous. Too often, such extremes, rooted in ignorance, become divisive and imperious. Every truth-loving, God-fearing individual ought to approach this matter with balance, love, and accurate data at hand to inform our opinion of the issue judiciously.
The Historical Perspective
English pronouns, historically, have had two main functions:
(1) to distinguish number (thou, thee, thine, etc., were singular forms; while ye, you, your, and yours were plural);
(2) to distinguish social rank.
Ironically, the previously-mentioned perception has it exactly backwards. Four hundred years ago, during the Elizabethan era (when the King James Version was originally published), the pronoun, “you,” was generally reserved for people, occasions, and offices deserving of more formal respect, as were all the plural forms (ye, your, yours; yourselves); whereas the archaic pronouns (thou, etc.) were employed informally to address familiar friends and neighbors in the “street.”
Bill Bryson, in his engaging book, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, explains:
“Thou signified either close familiarity or social inferiority, while you was the more impersonal and general term” (64).
When addressing a superior (like the king), one was expected to address him with the plural “you” — “thou” would have been highly inappropriate and disrespectful. If addressing a person of inferior social status, “thou” (etc.) was employed. Tradesmen and commoners of equal rank referred to each other as: “thou;” whereas equals of middle and higher social ranks generally addressed each other with, “you,” as a gesture of formal respect, and “thou” would only be employed between equals to indicate a feeling of affection or closeness with the individual.
An examination of the 1611 preface to the KJV, written by the translators to King James himself, will demonstrate this. When they addressed the king, they did not employ the archaic pronouns, thou, thee, thy, and thine. Instead, they referred to him as: “Your Majesty” (10 times), “Your Highness” (5 times), “You” (4 times), “Your Hopeful Seed” (once), “Your very name” (once), and “Your most Sacred Majesty” (once).
The plays of that era (e.g., by Shakespeare) likewise demonstrate this grammatical convention. For copious examples of this, I recommend the article, “You vs. Thee,” at Peter Lukac’s Elizabethan Drama website (see below).
This provides a little insight into why the archaic pronouns, thou, thee, thy, thine, and thyself fell into disuse. Since you etc., tended to reflect a “loftier” form of addressing an individual, which expressed a formal respect for a stranger, an equal, or one of higher rank, it became socially polite to make use of such pronouns regularly. Whereas, if a commoner addressed a social superior with the archaic pronouns, he would have been behaving most unseemly. To address the king as: thou, became a sign of disrespect.
Hence, eventually, polite social order disbanded the archaic pronouns altogether, instead favoring the more respectful, you, your, and yours, especially when the era of democracy (which did much to expunge the distinction between the social classes) came into vogue.
Quakers, by contrast, maintained usage of thou etc., since, in their view, everyone was a “friend” — and they were often persecuted for refusing to respect the “social order” in their terms of address (see Merriam-Webster).
Why, then, did the translators of the King James Version choose to employ the informal pronouns, thou, thee, thy, thine, and thyself in their translation of God’s Word, while using, You, for extra-Biblical dialogue addressing individuals of loftier rank (as in their preface to the king)?
First, it was the aspiration of the translators to produce a translation that appealed to the common folk. They wrote:
“But we desire that the Scripture may speake like it selfe, as in the language of Canaan, that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar.”
King James English, as exquisite as it is, was not designed exclusively for institutions of higher learning, nor merely for the haut monde. Rather, it appealed to the everyday man, woman, and child, no matter how uneducated or unrefined, just as the Bible, in its original languages, was written in the common tongue of its own age. Since commoners in the Elizabethan era addressed each other everyday with “thou” etc. instead of “you,” Bible characters did so in the King James rendition too.
Second, God, in the Elizabethan era, was not generally viewed as a distant, impersonal monarch in the clouds, with whom the common man had little to no association.
Rather, unlike the earthly king, God, though exalted as “the Lord of Heaven and earth” (KJV preface), was nonetheless to be addressed as a close, familiar friend, not with distant formality (cf. Jn. 15.14-15; Jms. 2.23; 4.8). Since human beings are to have a personal relationship with the heavenly father, the people of that era spoke prayers, sang songs, and read Scripture employing the more familiar, informal pronouns (i.e., thou, etc.).
Third, and more to the point, pronouns in the KJV were utterly stripped of these subtle Elizabethan references to rank and formality, and instead were distinguished solely on the basis of case and number (as per earlier usage).
Thus, contrary to the social convention of that era (when you connoted public formality and thou connoted private familiarity), in the KJV, kings spoke to commoners, commoners spoke to kings, God spoke to humanity, and humanity spoke to God, using the same forms of address. In short, in the KJV particularly, ye, you, your, yours, and yourselves were simply plural forms — thou, thee, thy, thine, and thyself were simply singular forms. Consider these examples from the KJV:
(1) Ye was the subjective, second person plural — “Ye (subjective plural) shall know the truth…” (Jn. 8.32a).
(2) You was the objective, second person plural — “…and the truth shall make you (objective plural) free” (Jn. 8.32b; cf. Gen. 1.29; 9.2-3; Mk. 1.17; Lk. 2.10-12; etc.). You was also employed as a vocative plural (cf. Gen. 9.7).
(3) Your and Yours were plural possessives — “Comfort your (possessive plural) hearts, and stablish you (objective plural) in every good word and work” (2 Thess. 2.17; cf. 1 Cor. 3.21)
(4) Yourselves was the reflexive plural, which could be used subjectively or objectively — “Submit yourselves therefore to God” (Jms. 4.7; cf. 2 Thess. 3.7; 1 Thess. 4.9)
(1) Thou was the subjective, second person singular — “…thou (subjective singular) hast been faithful over a few things…” (Mt. 25.21c).
(2) Thee was the objective, second person singular — “…I will make thee (objective singular) ruler over many things…” (Mt. 25.21d; cf. Rev. 2.4; etc.).
(3) Thy and Thine were singular possessives — “…offer thy (possessive singular) gift. Agree with thine (possessive singular) adversary quickly, whiles thou (subjective singular) art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee (objective singular) to the judge, and the judge deliver thee (objective singular) to the officer, and thou (subjective singular) be cast into prison” (Mt. 5.24-25).
(4) Thyself was a reflexive singular (cf. Acts 8.29).
It is clear, from examining the many uses of the pronouns thou and ye (and their respective inflections) in the KJV, that the translators employed these pronouns based solely on grammatical function, and not upon a social hierarchy.
Thus, King Agrippa addressed Paul as, “thou” (Acts 26.1), not reflecting superiority or inferiority, but simply because Paul was a single individual (requiring the singular form). If, thou, in the KJV, did reflect one’s respect for and deference to a person of loftier status (as many today erroneously believe), then are we to suppose that King Agrippa regarded Paul as his social superior? That, of course, would be absurd.
In like manner, Paul addressed the king with the same informal pronouns: i.e., thou, etc. (cf. 26.2-23; 27-29). As mentioned earlier, in Elizabethan society, no subordinate (like Paul) would ever have addressed the king with an informal “thou,” without insulting his position. Yet, the translators of the KJV chose not to conform the conversations of Biblical characters to Elizabethan convention. Instead, “thou” simply indicated singularity (Agrippa was one individual) — without allusion to rank or formality. Hence, Paul was “thou” to the king and the king was “thou” to Paul. No class distinction is made between them, thus breaching Elizabethan custom.
When multiple kings are addressed, ye, you, your, yours, and yourselves is adopted (cf. Judges 5.3; 8.18ff; etc.). Consequently, contrary to common misconception, second person pronouns in the KJV have no connotations of social rank or formality whatsoever, for thou (etc.) and ye (etc.) are each used of kings and commoners alike, as well as of God and man just the same.
For this reason, then, God is always addressed in the KJV with the singular (and, according to Elizabethan convention, informal) forms, thou, etc., not as an expression of rank or formality, nor even to suggest friendly association with deity, but simply because God is contemplated as a singular recipient.
Our Use Of Pronouns
Whether we choose to address God with archaic pronouns or modern is a matter of personal judgment. It is, however, inappropriate to suggest that those who employ the archaic pronouns are showing “more reverence” for deity than those who do not.
First, there are scores of KJV passages where assigning “more reverence” to the archaic pronouns would be highly inappropriate.
For instance, when God told the wicked Pharaoh: “In this thou shalt know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 7.17), do readers think that God is speaking to him with lofty reverence, as though the Pharaoh is his superior? That would certainly be an unwarranted supposition (see also Rm. 7.7; Gal. 5.14; Rev. 2.10; 3.3; etc.)!
Second, there is merit in both systems of address. Again, in Elizabethan culture, people preferred to address God with informal affection instead of distant formality. Thus, they referred to him as “thou,” as if talking to a familiar friend. In this way, they were expressing their devotion and nearness to him.
Of course, modern convention has totally reversed these Elizabethan ideals. Not only has thou taken on a formal tone, due to its archaicness, but it has also, by and large, become customary to address God with more distant formality than friendly affection.
Strictly speaking, then, those who address God today with “you” etc., are following in the KJV tradition (addressing God with affectionate familiarity) — even though the pronouns have swapped connotations; while those who maintain usage of the archaic pronouns, desiring to address God with distant formality, are flouting that tradition.
Either way, however, whether he is addressed as a distant monarch or as a familiar friend, one may still show God an equal degree of devotion and respect using either cultural convention. For while God may be high above us (Isa. 55.8-9), he is not so far from us as to be unapproachable (Acts 17.27-28). Indeed, he desires our nearness — our intimate, friendly connection with him (cf. Phil. 4.5-7; Jms. 4.8).
Third, there are several spiritual songs, popular in the church today, which address God with modern pronouns. Do God’s singers show disrespect to him when they sing:
“O Lord, you know I have no friend like you” (This World Is Not My Home);
or, “O Lord we know you traveled the road to Jericho, and helped a lonely pilgrim, the Bible tells me so; when earthly friends forsake us and all the world seems blue, O Lord we need a friend like you” (A Friend Like You);
or, “As the deer pante'th for the water, So my soul longe'th after thee, You alone are my heart’s desire, And I long to worship thee, You alone are my strength my shield, To You alone may my spirit yield, You alone are my hearts desire, And I long to worship Thee” (As the Deer), etc.?
If not, why would such be the case in prayers addressed to him (cf. 1 Cor. 14.15)?
Furthermore, do songs like Count Your Many Blessings, Sing and Be Happy, Yield Not To Temptation, Are You Coming To Jesus?, Are You Ready?, There Is Power In The Blood, etc. express a less solemn tone than ought to exist in God’s presence, when we address each other during worship with modern pronouns?
And in songs where we do address each other with the archaic pronouns (e.g., He Is Able To Deliver Thee, His Way With Thee, Is Thy Heart Right With God?, Take Time to be Holy; etc.), are we not then addressing each other with the same language with which we address God? How, then, can anyone criticize others who choose to do the same thing using the modern pronouns (you, your, etc.)?
Fourth, perhaps the most important observation is this: those of us who hold in high regard the principles of the restoration movement (viz., to restore the New Testament order) have long aspired to do and teach everything in religion and morality consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus and his inspired evangelists. How, then, in that light, did they, in their own language, address God in praise and prayer?
Significantly, they did not employ more archaic forms (e.g., Homeric Greek: τύνη; etc.). Rather, they addressed God with the same modern pronouns as they did their fellow human beings.
In Jesus’ model prayer, he taught his disciples to address God with the common pronoun, su, and its various inflections (i.e., sou [your, yours] etc.; Mt. 6.9-13). Jesus himself spoke to the Father in this way — “your” (sou; Jn. 17.1, 6, 7, etc.), “you” (su, ; Jn. 17.5, 8, 21, etc.), “you” (se; objective form; Jn. 17.1, 3, etc.), “yours/with you” (soi, Jn. 17.5, 6, 9, etc.). Yet, he also addressed his own disciples with the same pronouns (Mt. 6.6, 17-18, etc.).
In like vein, when Peter and the apostles prayed to the Lord in the selection of Judas’ replacement, they also addressed him with the common pronouns, “su” etc. (i.e., you; Acts 1.24), as did the early church (Acts 4.24-30).
Yet, throughout the book of Acts, they addressed their fellow men in the same manner: i.e., Ananias & Sapphira (“Your,” sou [5.3, 4, 9]; “you/yourself,” se [5.3, 9]; “your,” soi [5.4]); Simon the sorcerer (sou, soi, and se, Acts 8.20-23); the Philippian jailer (su and sou, Acts 16.31); the high priest (se and su, Acts 23.3); Festus (su, Acts 25.10); and so forth.
The belief that one who addresses God with the same common pronouns with which we address our fellow human beings is showing God less respect than he deserves actually condemns Christ and his apostles, who did that very thing. Surely, then, this opinion, however well intended, ought to be expunged from every God-loving heart.
When brethren over the last century resisted the use of modern pronouns in religion, they did so in direct response to a modern movement which was leading the church away from a solemn respect for the authority of God and toward humanism. While their intentions were noble, their reaction was misguided.
Nevertheless, while we must admire those who conscientiously (due to years of habitual practice) prefer to employ the archaic pronouns in our songs and prayers out of a sincere (albeit misinformed) desire to show reverence for the Almighty, cultural or personal tradition must never be used to look down upon another individual’s liberty (cf. Mk. 7.1ff; Mt. 12.1-8; Rm. 14.1ff; 1 Cor. 10.29-30), especially when that liberty conforms to—and even replicates—apostolic example.
Finally, whether we prefer to approach God with distant formality or friendly nearness, we must always respect God as one who is both lofty and near, irrespective of the pronouns we utter with reference to him.
Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990. Kenyon, John S. “Ye and You in the King James Version.” PMLA, vol. 29, no. 3, 1914, pp. 453–471. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/456929. Lukas, Peter. “You vs. Thee,” ElizabethanDrama.Org. Access date: November 6, 2018. http://elizabethandrama.org/primers/you-vs-thee/ Merriam-Webster. “Why Did We Stop Using Thou?” Merriam-Webster.Com. Access date: November 6, 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/why-did-we-stop-using-thou