An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Mormon customs’

What’s in a Name?

The Mormon tradition of calling each other Brother and Sister puzzles and amuses those outside the faith. But for Mormons, this nomenclature serves an egalitarian purpose—effectively reminding us that we are all children of the same Heavenly Parents. Of course, even in the best of families, children often resolve disagreements with insults and fists. But, for the most part, seeing ward members as siblings has a unifying effect. We contribute fast offerings to keep our sisters and brothers from going hungry. We sacrifice the comforts of home and hearth on cold nights to visit and home teach our sisters and brothers. We attend sometimes tedious meetings and socials to support those in charge. And we turn out in force to offer food, child care, yard work, house work, and other services as well as prayers when tragedy strikes members of our ward family. That’s what brothers and sisters do.

Would the world change if I saw people beyond my ward and stake boundaries as my sisters and brothers? Am I willing to pay a few cents more for fruits and vegetables so Brother and Sister Migrant Worker can earn enough to feed their families and send their children to school? Can I forego chocolate from companies that buy cocoa beans from Ivory Coast plantations which use my 11-year-old sisters and brothers as slave laborers? Will I lobby Congress to enforce the law banning electronics from manufacturers who use rare minerals from the Congo mining industry which supports the armies that regularly rape my African sisters?  Will I actively protest my country’s involvement in wars that kill and mutilate innocent civilians? Taking these actions may not alter the world significantly but will change one person—myself.

Generally, we Mormons keep civil discourse in our interaction with each other. What if we could extend that courtesy to those outside our group? Referring to a person on the opposite side of our political fence as Brother Obama or Sister Palin might calm our rhetoric. But of course, extending family terms to others has a flip side. It’s entirely possible that the person I address as Sister or Brother might be thoroughly insulted at the thought of being related to me.

My Brothers and Sisters–and All the Rest of You

When did Mormons begin using “Brother” and “Sister” as titles for Church members? I grew up in Utah during the ‘50s and always heard adults call each other “Mr.” and “Mrs.” if they weren’t on first-name basis. In her 1945 journal, Aunt Cozy referred to her visiting teachers as Mrs. Hansen and Mrs. Taylor. Our bishop was Bishop Stagg, but his counselors were Mr. Taylor and Mr. Moore. Seminary teachers referred to themselves as Brother, but everybody knew seminary teachers were zealots.

At BYU in the ‘60s, most of the professors used the egalitarian title “Brother” rather than “Professor” or “Dr.” After graduation and a move to Wyoming, I found ward members there using the “Brother/Sister” titles and fell in with the practice. Maybe my wards in Provo and Lindon had just been anomalies—or maybe the change had been occurring gradually and I hadn’t noticed until moving.

“Brother” and “Sister,” followed by a surname, lend a tone of inclusiveness and formality to relationships. They are particularly helpful for dealing with persons older than oneself for which first names are too familiar, but Mr. or Mrs. seems too cold.

 I sometimes wonder if part of the reason for the formality of using “Brother or “Sister” instead of first names for contemporaries is to maintain a distance between the sexes. Are YM and YW presidents working together on activities less likely to become romantically involved if they refer to each other as Brother Pratt and Sister Swensen instead of Jeff and Tiffany?

For years I’ve gone along with the practice without giving it much thought. Yesterday we attended our grandson’s soccer match in a Wyoming town that is about 25% Mormon. Our son-in-law referred to the coach of the opposing team as Sister Welling and I wondered: Does using church titles outside of church contribute to the perception of Mormon clannishness?

Tag Cloud