Of Mormonish and Saintspeak
By Philip Barlow
In the beginning, Mormonism was a cult. Not in the vulgar sense often attributed to feared or misconstrued religious minorities, but in the way that earliest Christianity or nascent Islam was a cult: a group that forms around a charismatic figure coupled with radical new religious claims. Like these predecessors, Mormonism has long since grown from cult to culture. This is reflected in its fertile, distinctive parlance–by turns revealing, quaint, ingenious, paradoxical, and humorous.
The term Mormon, referring to a church member, has an uneven acceptance among the faithful. It is a shortened form of Mormonite, an 1830s appellation assigned by critics to early believers in The Book of Mormon. Just as early converts to “the Society of Friends” were by outsiders labeled “Quakers” after their sometimes demonstrative practice of shaking with the spirit during worship, so adherents of the newly founded “Church of Christ” were called after Mormon, the purported ancient editor of their new scriptural book, which believers took to complement the Bible. Some Mormons prefer Saints, which is what first-century Christians called themselves, or Latter-day Saints (“LDS”), deriving from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the church’s cumbersome official title since 1838. But these days many believers happily accept the sobriquet “Mormon”; it remains in wide use and did not, after all, seem to offend founding prophet Joseph Smith during his lifetime.
What the tight-knit Mormons call themselves and others engenders jokes. One old joke is that whenever a Jew arrives in Utah he says: “This is the only place in the world where I am seen as a gentile.” The humor turns on Mormon self-identity as heirs both of ancient Israel and of a restored original Christianity. Hence, traditionally, Mormons are Saints and outsiders are gentiles. The quip draws laughter among Mormons, Jews, and others, although in actuality Mormons have never thought of Jews as gentiles.
Moreover, Mormon nomenclature evolves. The prominent Methodist scholar, Jan Shipps, has made her career studying the Saints for more than a half-century. When she began in the 1960s, she became affectionately known among her subjects as the “gentile Mormon watcher.” As Mormonism grew and became less tribal, “gentile” faded from its vocabulary and Shipps became a non-Mormon. Subsequently, she reports, she was referred to as a non-member, perhaps a bureaucratic inflection of the Correlation movement in a religion working to retain firm organizational control of its diverse programs, curriculum, finances, and liturgy amidst dramatic international growth in the second half of the 20th century. At last Dr. Shipps became simply a Methodist scholar of Mormonism–all this change in labels without her altering her stance or private affiliation!
When humans name each other, or their institutions and possessions, they reveal something of their backgrounds, perspectives, whimsies, tastes, aspirations, fears, and beliefs. This is evident in the names of Mormon places, which harbor stories and thus are “place tales.” The Mormon toponymy may be traced from the movement’s antebellum origins in western New York through its sojourn in the Midwest and its forced exodus across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. The serene woods where Joseph Smith had his earliest vision in 1820 in present-day Palmyra, New York, is now, to Mormons, the Sacred Grove. A nearby hill in which Smith reported discovering the gold plates, whose translation became the Book of Mormon, is called after its Book of Mormon name, Cumorah. Despite the violent Mormon exile from Nauvoo, Illinois, after 1846, the town retains the name bequeathed to it by Joseph Smith when his followers gathered there in 1839; Smith explained the name as Hebrew for a “beautiful place.” In Iowa, Lamoni (after a king) and Zarahemla (a figure, city, and land) derive from the Book of Mormon. Western states contiguous to Utah are dotted with Mormon placenames: Joseph City, Mormon Lake, and Mormon Mountain in Arizona, for example. In Utah proper the names are myriad: Orderville, after the United Order in which 19th-century disciples enacted a communal economic system urged by church leaders; Brigham City, after Mormonism’s great presiding colonizer, Brigham Young; tiny Veyo, from a Mormon acronym for Virtue, Enterprise, Youth, and Order; and the Jordan River, named when Mormon pioneers discovered that the climate and terrain of their new homeland in the western desert resembled “Palestine inverted,” complete with a large dead sea (the Great Salt Lake) that was connected by a narrow river to a smaller fresh Galilee (Utah Lake) to the south.
Perhaps the two most common Mormon placenames in the state are Zion and Deseret. Originally among the aspiring Mormons, Zion suggested the “New Israel” where service and cooperation, rather than profit, drove the economy and its society. There “the pure in heart” were to dwell with such harmony that there would be “no poor among them.” Today Zion ironically attaches as much to commercial as to religious affairs: banks, rare coin dealerships, energy companies, insurance agencies, real estate corporations, and numerous others are called after this name.
“Deseret” is the Book of Mormon name for “honeybee”–denoting industry and connoting organization, prized Mormon virtues. Mormon leaders in the 19th century repeatedly proposed that the vast territory they called Deseret be granted statehood, though the federal Congress, wishing to limit Mormon power, spurned the name, instead designating the territory and later the state after a native tribe, the Utes. But the symbol and concept of Deseret infuse Mormon culture. A beehive beneath the word “Industry” comprises the center of the Utah state flag. The dominant religious bookstore chain in the state is the church-owned Deseret Book Co.; Deseret First Credit Union is a prominent financial institution; one of Salt Lake City’s two major newspapers is the church’s Deseret News; Deseret Industries thrift stores is a division of Mormonism’s vast and impressive Welfare Services enterprise which displaces nationally-known Good Will Industries in places where Mormons are numerous.
In Mormon popular culture, anywhere outside of Utah and vicinity is the missionfield. Elders are commonly 18-year-old men. And virtually all members of a ward (congregation) have a calling or responsibility. This arguably produces more presidents per square mile than any other organization in existence, for a half-dozen Saints preside over various aspects of their respective wards.
All this grants us the briefest glimpse at Mormonism’s rich and colorful culture. Doubtless a substantive book could be written on Mormon vernacular.
Philip L. Barlow is Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. His books include the updated edition of Mormons and the Bible (2013), The Oxford Handbook to Mormonism (co-edited with Terryl Givens, forthcoming, 2013), The New Historical Atlas of Religion in America (2000, co-authored with Edwin Scott Gaustad) and, as co-editor with Mark Silk, Religion and Public Life in the Midwest: America’s Common Denominator? (2004). He is past president of the Mormon History Association.