What’s With the Initials Anyway?

Jeff Spector Mormon 32 Comments

Never in the history of mankind have name initials played such an important role as in the LDS Church.

Not only are middle initials used when referring to the leaders of the Church, one cannot even say the names without the middle initials. It just doesn’t sound right.   Gordon Hinckley, Russell Ballard, Reuben Clark? In some cases,the first name is not even used just the initial, probably to distinguish a son from his father.

Many of the early leaders of the Church didn’t have middle names, like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Lorenzo Snow, Wilford Woodruff, Hyrum Smith, to name a few. But, then again, some did.  Heber C. (Chase) Kimball, John W. (Willard) Young, George Q. (Quayle) Cannon and George A. (Albert) Smith, for example.

In some case, it is understandably necessary to distinguish one person from another. Joseph F. Smith, for example, not to confuse him with his uncle, Joseph Smith, and Joseph Felding Smith, not to confuse him with his father, Joseph F. Smith.

In some case, leaders used their entire name, Ezra Taft Benson, George Albert Smith.

And what is wrong with perfectly good names like Nathan (N. Eldon Tanner), Joshua (Joshua Reuben Clark) or Melvin (M. Russell Ballard). Ok, maybe Melvin.

Why the rest then?  We would know who Gordon Hinckley is/was without the B (Bitner)?  Thomas Monson with the S (Spencer)?

What is strange to me is that not only do we all know the full names with the initials, in many cases, even what the initials stand for.

Any ideas as to why we do this?

The Latter Day Prophet Song

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Comments 32

  1. I have no idea what the deal is with initials, agree that names without initials sounds weird (Gordon Hinckley. Thomas Monson. SO FOREIGN WITHOUT THE INITIALS).

    But I am most disappointed that you linked to an old version of the song? I want to hear the latest update to see HOW they fit in Monson’s name…

  2. I think its simply a matter of formality and respect. When naming a professional in the academic or medical field people tend to do the same.

    In certain contexts, some types of business and formal correspondence relating to fraternal matters, I use my full first name and middle initial as well, and I know others who do the same.

  3. The use of initials for church leaders is fairly long-standing, but at some point it seemed to become standard. In the conference reports of April, 1880, 10 of the 31 speakers were cited using their middle initial, 23 of 37 in 1897, and 31 of 32 in 1914. Rudger Clawson was the only not cited using his middle initial and he did have a middle name, Judd. After that point almost all speakers or named authorities had a middle initial used.

    I use my middle initial on my business cards. Makes me sound like I should charge more.

    Holden Caulfield’s middle initial is “M.” It would make more than an initial to make him seem more worthy of respect, however. This ends the trivia section of this thread. Back to comments from people who use their time more wisely.

  4. I think it is some thing to make things sound more formal…more important.

    I often hear the same being used in stake conference as we sustain stake presidencies and high councilors…all of a sudden the dude I’m friends with becomes some important public figure!

    It sounds kinda funny to be honest, when I hear it in stake conference…like they’re trying really hard to be taken seriously.

    The thing with Salt Lake is, I never hear it any other way, so “Gordon B” is the first name and “Hinckley” is the last name (in my mind). It just flows…

  5. Back early in the church…they called the prophets “Brother Joseph” and “Brother Brigham” …that system couldn’t work in a global church.

    I’d like to go back to a less formal and more more “chummy” address to our leaders. Titles and positions aren’t important in the eternities anyway, are they?

  6. I thought it started with Joseph F. Smith to distinguish from the others with the same name. But I don’t know that for a fact.

    Personally, I think it’s a silly practice at best, a pretentious practice at worst.

  7. Yes, I’ve long wondered about the initials. Thanks Holden for the trivia. I do get a kick out of Pres Monson when he tells a story about himself, and refers to himself as “Tommy”.

    In my new job, I am working on getting some academic papers published. They want me to use my full first name. It seems much too formal to me, and I’m afraid people will confuse me for my father of the same name.

  8. Middle initials are fairly common in names of foundations: the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; even the William J. Clinton Foundation and the Make A. Wish Foundation.

  9. With the Churches propensity for nepotism, it seems like a tradition to help distinguish future leaders as well as past, It’s easier than restricting members from naming there children after themselves,

    I also find it interesting that female leadership are using there maiden names as the initial (Ann Monson Dibb).

    finally because of the whole initial thing, I found out at an early age that I would never become a GA, my initials are triple K, with the churches race relation history it might not be a good idea.

  10. I think it also depends upon the GA in question, with regard to both title and style. While I would never use the names “Thomas (or Tom) Monson” or “Boyd Packer”, I have no problem referring to “Jeff Holland”–probably because he comes across as much more conversational and even (at times) colloquial. (Using the term “President” completely does away with the need for middle initials at all: “President Monson”, “President Packer”, etc. Interestingly, I have no problem with saying “Henry Eyring”.)

    Then, of course, there are those who need no last name at all, such as “Bruce R.”

  11. The Latter day Prophets song just tells you to insert the name of the living prophet where Pres. Hinckley’s name is. So I guess they’ve stopped trying to fit them all in. That was the latest version from LDS.Org.

    I can understand the need for some level of formality, but since we, as a Church, strongly emphasize our Brother and Sisterhood connection, It would seem more appropriate to use that with our leaders. But even using Brother or Sister at Church seems overly formal when we know each other’s first names.

    And to refer to oneself as Brother or Sister so and so really sounds strange to me.

  12. Regarding the use of full names, in all three of the cases you cite, the full name was used to distinguish between a (then) current church leader and a related leader from a previous generation with the same initials. For Joseph Fielding Smith, it was his father; for George Albert Smith his grandfather, and for Ezra Taft Benson, his great grandfather.

  13. For some reason, this sounds like a Seinfeld standup routine.

    “And what’s with those middle initials anyways? Does anyone actually use them?”

    Apparently.

  14. Whenever the press says, “Mormon church leader Thomas Monson” it sounds somewhat disrespectful and signals that they can’t be fully trusted, because we all KNOW the RIGHT way to say names. I think I’ll adopt Holden Caulfield’s idea and adopt a variation so I can charge clients more. I wonder which sounds best: Buckley C. Jeppson or B. Carlos Jeppson. The latter sounds more like a General Authority.

  15. Buck—B. Carlos is sweet.

    BTW, happy to make your internet acquaintance. Have followed your travails over the years. Hope things are going well for you.

  16. Buck–one more thing. I don’t know if you spend much time on this website, but I kam sure you would have an interesting guest post for us, if asked. I have nothing to do with this site, but hopefully someone who does is reading this.

  17. I don’t think it’s cultural conditioning, The leadership have asked to be referred to with the initial included and it’s respectful to follow what they ask, Just as I don’t like anyone to shorten my name.

  18. An acquaintance of mine once got into an elevator at the Church Office Building, saw Spence Kinard (whom he knew and who was then the narrator of “Music and the Spoken Word”), and said, “Hi, Spence!” A gravelly voice next to him said, “Hello!” He looked down and saw it was Pres. Kimball. He was horribly embarrassed but said that Pres. Kimball seemed to be rather amused by the whole thing.

  19. Actually, having been around the world a little, you’ll always know an American businessman, because he’s the one with a middle initial (not all Americans, but very few others, except Germans, who are also big on formality). Americans just use initials a lot.

    I guess it’s “Americanese” for titles. Since you can’t be “sir” this or that, you need middle (or first) initials.

    I’ve run into several European people, who have pointed this out.

  20. Talk about a pet peeve! My mother in law grew up in Tommy Monson’s neighborhood and had no problems calling him Tommy. Once, several years after she was married (and after Tommy had become a general authority), she was talking to a neighbor and told her she used to play with Tommy Monson. The neighbor was all, “should I know who that is?” My MIL said, “Yes, you know, Tommy Monson, from the Quorum of the Twelve.” The neighbor was visibly shocked and replied indignantly, “That’s Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve!” Yeah, there is some cultural conditioning going on. And antis referring to Joe Smith and his gold bible only reinforces it.

    On a side note, my wife started including her middle initial every time in her signature after we got married. She wasn’t given a middle name when she was born, so she was thrilled when she was able to use her maiden name as her middle initial. She felt like she’d been missing out.

  21. Ezra Taft Benson was named after his (I think) grandfather, known as Ezra T. Benson. You’d think one of them could have dropped some letters.

  22. The reason for use of the full names with initials is because they are legal corporate names and are used to comply with trademark and copyright laws. Has nothing to do with respect but everything to do with protecting copyrighted material.

  23. Pingback: Midday Commentary on Last Night's News - June 5, 2015 - Utah.Politico.Hub

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