Truman Madsen (1926 – 2009) told the story of a Latter-day Saint religious service in a prison I have occasionally seen pop up as a joke in Mormon culture. In the story, someone is offering a prayer and uses an absent-minded phrase that echoes an expression you can often hear in benedictions at Mormon congregations: ‘Please bless that those who are not here today will be here next time.’
Various forms of the joke use slightly different wording but the general substance is always the same. While you may pray that someone who is not at church today can be in attendance the next time, you probably do not want to pray that the location for their particular church services will be a prison.
I always thought this was just a joke, but I recently stumbled across a story that suggests it is based on an actual incident. Christine Durham recently retired as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court, capping a lengthy tenure of 35 years as part of this prestigious judicial body. While researching the identity of someone she mentions in an NPR interview, I discovered a short biographical review of Justice Albert Hayden “A. H.” Ellett by Justice J. Allen Crockett (1906 – 1994) in Utah Historical Quarterly, “Remembering A. H. Ellett.”
Crockett identifies Ellett as an exceptionally humorous individual. In a portion of the article devoted to humor, Crockett writes, “he took such pleasure in using it to brighten the lives of others that no writing about him would adequately reflect this unique quality without some examples of his stories.”
Among the stories Crockett shares is this account by Ellett that may serve as the origin for what has become a Mormon joke:
At Sunday service at the prison, following the LDS practice of audience participation, a prisoner was asked to offer the invocation. After appropriately addressing Deity his prayer was in part thus: We thank Thee that so many of us are able to be here this morning — under such safe and secure circumstances. We trust that others who ought to be here will be here next time; and that at the conclusion of this service, we may be permitted to return to our homes in safety.