Mormon Culture and Jargon: Mormon Missionaries (Part 1)

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(This is part 1 of a 2 part series. Read part 2 here.)

Variation in language occurs constantly and continuously throughout our society, and for each of us, whether we realize it or not, it is a daily experience. Social groups have dialects, jargon, and slang that oftentimes transcend geographical boundaries and provide cohesion among members. This is particularly true of racial groups and religious groups. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, provides an excellent example of religious/social language variation. It has been noted that Mormons made early contributions to American English. H. L. Mencken, in the earliest editions of The American Language, mentions some of these. In the 1921 edition he writes:

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The Mormon Church has an extensive and unique culture and jargon that can be very difficult for outsiders to penetrate. Kenneth Woodward, a columnist for The New York Times, in an April 2007 op-ed piece concerning an address Mitt Romney (who was running for President at the time) was to give at Regent University, noted:

But Mr. Romney must be sure to express himself in a way that will be properly understood. Any journalist who has covered the church knows that Mormons speak one way among themselves, another among outsiders. This is not duplicity but a consequence of the very different meanings Mormon doctrine attaches to words it shares with historic Christianity.

He continued:

Thus, when Mr. Romney told South Carolina Republicans a few months ago that Jesus was his “personal savior,” he used Southern Baptist language to affirm a relationship to Christ that is quite different in Mormon belief. (For Southern Baptists, “personal savior” implies a specific born-again experience that is not required or expected of Mormons.)

Indeed, Mormon jargon is quite unique even among Christian religions. In fact, it is commonly understood among members of the Church that newcomers to the group will be disoriented at first – and as a result will have to go through a significant learning period before beginning to feel comfortable – and the members are thus counseled to assist the foreigner during the learning process. It is this impenetrable nature of the language and vocabulary that has led Orson Scott Card to refer to it as, ‘Saintspeak’.

In fact, the use of the name Mormon, in reference to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, comes from the Book of Mormon, a book which is considered by the members of the Church to be of divine origin. The book itself is named after an ancient American prophet/historian, Mormon, who, according to Church teachings, compiled and abridged the original engraved plates from which the book was translated. But ‘Mormons’ is not the preferred term among the members of the Church. They usually refer to themselves as LDS, an alphabetism of Latter-day Saint, or even more simply, as Saints. ‘Saint’, in Mormon usage, refers to any true follower of Christ (which obviously includes all members of the Church), which contrasts with the Catholic usage, and with the common everyday use in reference to “anyone who does good deeds.”

Probably the most unique area of Mormon jargon can be found among the Church’s missionary force. In the Church the term ‘missionary’ is used to refer to the young men and women dedicated to full-time service to the Church, although many frequently attempt to apply the designation to the general membership of the Church (as in “Every member is a missionary!”). The typical Mormon missionary is a 19-25 year-old male, or a 21-25 year-old female, who has been ‘called’ to ‘go on a mission’. The ‘call’ to be a missionary is not what most Christians would understand as a personal divine conversion or a lifelong commitment to a cause, but actually just a normal, temporary church assignment. And in Mormon jargon, one ‘gets a mission call’, and is thus ‘called to go on a mission’ or ‘called to serve’. The duration of the mission call is either 18 months or 2 years, and begins with a ‘farewell’, a special Sunday meeting in honor of the young man or woman and their family (a meeting which is, in fact, officially discouraged by the Church). Then, after a quick stop at the Missionary Training Center (commonly referred to as the MTC), the missionary ‘enters the field’ – leaves home to go and serve the full-time mission – at his assigned location.

‘Mission’ refers to both the 2-year (or 18-month) event of ‘serving the Lord’, and the group of missionaries in a particular location. Each mission (meaning the group of missionaries) is led by the ‘Mission President’, who lives in the ‘Mission Home’, which is typically near the ‘Mission Office’ (where the administrative work of the mission is done). The Mission President (who is always male) and his wife are also considered full-time missionaries, and have thus been called to serve in the mission, but they are typically older than 35. The missionaries in the mission refer to the Mission President as ‘President’, and to one another as ‘Elder’ (if male) or ‘Sister’ (if female). In the Church, ‘Sister’ and ‘Brother’ are used among the members to refer to one another (as is commonly practiced in many other Christian religions), but ‘Elder’ is a title reserved exclusively for two groups: either the leadership of the Church at the very top of its hierarchy, or, interestingly, the 19-25 year-old male missionaries.

All missionaries are assigned a ‘companion’, another missionary with whom they are expected to remain at all times. Infrequently, a third missionary may temporarily be added to a companionship, creating a ‘threesome’. One missionary in the ‘companionship’ is designated by the Mission President as the ‘Senior Companion’, responsible for all final decisions in the companionship, while the other is the ‘Junior Companion’. The Senior Companion is usually, but not always, the more experienced missionary in the companionship. Missionaries are rotated among different locations, and assigned different companions typically on a 6-week basis in an event called ‘transfers’. Usually a transfer is not a welcomed event, but sometimes it is, as in the event of a ‘less-effective’ companionship (meaning that the two missionaries do not get along at all). Frequently, between transfers missionaries participate in ‘exchanges’, which involve trading companions for one day. One day each week, usually Monday, is designated as ‘Preparation Day’, which is somewhat of a misnomer since, although it was originally intended as a day for weekly preparation-type activities (such as getting a hair cut, going shopping for food and clothes, etc.), it is commonly used by missionaries for sightseeing, playing sports, or sleeping.

Mormon missionaries enjoy keeping track of ‘mission genealogy’. When a missionary enters the field for the first time he is ‘born’, his first companion is referred to as his ‘father’, and likewise he is his father’s ‘son’. Second companions are referred to as ‘stepfathers’, and third companions are referred to as ‘godfathers’. A similar system applies to the female missionaries, but the female equivalent designations are used. Missionaries eventually ‘die’ – leave the mission – and, infrequently, they are ‘resurrected’ – re-enter the mission. Large and complex family trees develop quickly, with many missionaries keeping track of their ‘brothers’, ‘grandfathers’, ‘grandsons’, etc. Usually missionaries can only reasonably retain a couple of generations of mission genealogy, with one exception. Every once in a while there is a missionary that does something extraordinary, whether it be good or bad, that merits their designation as a ‘mission legend’. Mission genealogy that immediately precedes, and which follows, the mission legend, is often maintained for years.

(Read part 2 here.)

2 Responses to “Mormon Culture and Jargon: Mormon Missionaries (Part 1)”

  1. LDS Tees

    G’Day! Crispycromar,
    Interesting Post, This is often referred to, but what actually IS it?

    You can define Islamic culture / Amish culture / Mormon culture easily and more or less everyone within those movements will agree.

    But what IS Western culture – and if the definitions are all different, can we really be said to have a cohesive Western culture at all?