Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
1. the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt.
I’m not going to talk about gosh‘s, geez‘s, holy cows, flips or fetches. Rather, I’d like to discuss a prevalent tendency among Latter-day Saints to shy away from direct and even scriptural terms for appropriately referring to deity and instead use what has become a somewhat unique LDS vernacular. Let me begin to illustrate with a story.
Jesus or Savior?
On my mission in Korea, one of our standard tricks of the trade was to offer English lessons in conjunction with the missionary lessons. When possible, we would make our English lessons gospel-centered. On one occasion, we decided to study the lyrics of English hymns with our investigators, so they could both get some legitimate reading comprehension as well as an enlightening message. The first hymn we studied was “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” We brought a recording of the hymn, and our investigator downloaded the lyrics off the internet. But he hadn’t gotten them from lds.org/music, but rather had found them on some online Christian library. I knew that many of our LDS hymns were borrowed from pre-existing sources, so I didn’t think to much of it.
We started going through the song line by line, looking up words as needed, and discussing meaning. At length, we got to the fourth verse, where we were expecting to find the familiar line:
“He lives, my Savior, still the same.”
But that’s not what the line said. What it actually said was:
“He lives, my Jesus, still the same.” (see source)
Now Jesus, of course, is the Savior, so the meaning remains unchanged. But it was blatantly apparent that in the process of including this song in the LDS hymn book, the word “Jesus” was changed to “Savior.”
On our way out of the appointment, I mentioned this change to my companion. He noted that “my Savior still the same” is more comfortable to say and hear; “my Jesus, still the same” seems awkward and jarring to LDS ears. I could relate fully with what he was saying. But I couldn’t help but wonder why that was. Suddenly, a scripture from the Book of Mormon came to mind. 2 Nephi 33:6
“I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.”
There it was, staring right at me. The very wording that was removed from the hymn to make it LDS friendly is used freely by Nephi, a prophet unique to Latter-day theology, and recorded in the Book of Mormon, a volume of scripture from the Restoration. Nephi is 100% full-blooded LDS. Why could he say “my Jesus,” but including it in a hymn would be inappropriate?
The Missing Verse
Another hymn we studied was “Did You Think To Pray,” another Christian cross-over. I was surprised to find that an entire verse was omitted from the LDS version. The missing verse reads:
When you met with great temptation,
Did you think to pray?
By His dying love and merit,
Did you claim the Holy Spirit
As your guide and stay? (see source)
I was moved by the poignancy of the message. Yet I saw why it got the axe: “His dying love and merit” are not green-lit terms in LDS Sunday School. Even “Holy Spirit,” while borderline, is more readily replaced with “Holy Ghost” or simply “Spirit.” Our Book of Mormon patriarch Lehi, however, unabashedly uses very similar language when speaking to Jacob in 2 Nephi 2:8:
“…save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit.”
I am fully cognizant of the discomfort that comes from using protestant-branded language in LDS settings. But I wish I knew where this discomfort originated from. It is clear to me that it certainly is not as a result of consulting the scriptures.
A Real Life Example
Again on my mission, a mission-wide Chritmas conference was coming up, and each zone was charged with coming up with a skit or musical number to perform. Our zone leader, a well-meaning but perhaps culturally out-of-touch native Korean (who spoke decent English) faxed each companionship the sheet music to his proposed musical number. He had taken the sheet music to “Santa Claus in Coming to Town,” whited out the lyrics, and replaced it with “God and Jesus Christ are Coming to Town.”
Needless to say, the plans quickly changed as soon as he was advised that such a number would be at best insensitive, and at worst heresy. A replacement performance was planned, and the incident was by and large forgotten.
I did, however, overhear a casual conversation between an Elder and a Sister, the Elder asked “did you get that fax too?” the Sister replied “oh, yeah, the ‘Heavenly Father and the Savior are Coming to Town’? I got it.”
Her word replacements stuck out like a sore thumb. It was clear that she was uncomfortable saying “God” and “Jesus Christ,” and felt that euphemizing it with “Heavenly Father” and “the Savior” was more appropriate.
Possible Origins of the Phenomena
How did the kosher LDS lexicon develop? I know that the early church had a strong theological rivalry with sectarians and evangelicals (I would argue more so than now).
Mormon missionaries sent to the South would challenge the ideas of salvation by grace and any semblance of trinitarianism despite quintessential LDS teachings that in some ways support those ideas. More recently however, these teachings have been emphasized increasingly by folks like Robert Millet and Stephen E. Robinson, but seem absent from the pulse of the Church’s adolescence.
With an “us against them” agenda against the sectarians, it would seem natural that a church would distance itself from what its rivals hold most dear. Thus, Evangelicals would downplay authority, revelation, and ordinances, while Mormons would downplay grace, oneness of God, intent/heart, and favor a just, dignified and majestic view of Christ over a compassionate merciful and shepherdly view of Jesus. This of course, despite the fact that the holy texts of both sides contain ample support for almost every view held by their opponent. In any case, these kinds of rivalrous doctrinal dynamics most certainly would spill over into contemporary language usage. That’s one theory anyway.
Conclusions and Lingering Thoughts
It has been my experience that in LDS settings, “Jesus” is almost only used when referring to him in his earthly ministry (ie. “Jesus went to Capernaum.”) “Christ” seems to be used in theological phrases (ie “Christ will reign for a thousand years.”) “The Savior” seems to be used in personal references (ie. “The Savior made it possible for me to return to Heavenly Father.”) And “Jesus Christ” is used in more rote phrases (ie “God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith”, or “in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.”)
Interchanging those terms in the various contexts yields jarring results. And throwing in “The Redeemer”, “Emmanuel,” or “the Anointed One” produce equal levels of awkwardness, despite their semantic equivalance. Can anyone shed light as to why? And is this a good thing / bad thing / or does it even matter at all? What’s your take on gospel euphemisms?