Gordon A. Monson: In the name of humility, LDS leaders should ditch those middle initials

That extra letter “sounds and looks and is pretentious ... and church prophets and apostles and Seventies and the rest should be anything but pretentious.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson, center, with his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks, left, and Henry B. Eyring, at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023.

One of the great questions of modern Latter-day Saint life is this: Why are general authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost always identified with an initial in their names?

That includes the top leader (Russell M. Nelson) and those immediately around him (Dallin H. Oaks, M. Russell Ballard, Jeffrey R. Holland, Henry B. Eyring, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, David A. Bednar, Quentin L. Cook, D. Todd Christofferson on down the line). The lone exception among the faith’s apostles is the most junior of them, Ulisses Soares.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Ulisses Soares speaks at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023.

The trend continues from there, through the second and third and fourth layers of leadership, among men and women. The church’s new women’s Relief Society general presidency includes Camille N. Johnson, J. Anette Dennis and Kristin M. Yee. Typically the other initial exceptions, of which there are only a handful, are names of authorities from other countries. Perhaps they have no given extra initial to toss in.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Relief Society General Presidency: First counselor J. Anette Dennis, left, President Camille N. Johnson, and second counselor Kristin M. Yee.

Whether they do or don’t, it’s refreshing to see occasional guys like Patrick Kearon, who was born in England, and Edward Dube of Zimbabwe, and Eduardo Gavarret of Uruguay.

Regular Joes. Regular Joses.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Patrick Kearon of the Presidency of the Seventy speaks at General Conference on Saturday, April 2, 2022.

That’s the thing about the initial. It sounds and looks and is pretentious. (Check out my name — for this column only, thank heaven and earth — in the headline. See what I mean? Even worse, how about G.A. Monson?) In the church’s case, the added letter differentiates top church hierarchy from the rest of the teeming hordes, most of whom do not use such identifiers in their names. And church prophets and apostles and Seventies and the rest should be anything but pretentious, should run from the slightest hints of pretentiousness.

They are us, we are them, all in the same human soup under God.

There’s already so much deference called for from the plebs in a church at the head of which leaders are honored and — right up, perhaps, to the edge of blasphemy — deified.

Jesus had no middle initial, and one is only added rather disrespectfully, uttered among the unwashed in anger or humor, when his holy name, combined with the Messianic moniker Christ, has an H. or an F. thrown in in the middle, used in unholy expression.

The early prophets and disciples, as far as anyone knows, used no extra initials. Moses was just Moses, not Moses A. Abraham was just Abraham, not Abraham C. Peter also went by Simon or Simon Peter, so I guess there was that. One of the Johns is known as John the Beloved, another as John the Baptist.

The initial start of initials

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Joseph Smith, left, and Brigham Young, the first two leaders of the Latter-day Saint faith.

But beyond being all pompous, the modern initials seem something equally distasteful relative to religion ... chichi and corporate, as though these religious leaders are a bunch of bank bosses.

According to an article in LDS Living, there’s a reason for that. The use of middle names was rare among early church leaders — founder Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, etc. — because middle names weren’t even commonly given in the generations leading up to their time period. Middle names started being used among “English speakers” as early as the 1600s, but they — here’s the highfalutin part — were reserved mostly for royalty and aristocrats. It credited Ancestory.com with this historical tidbit: “It was illegal for a commoner to be given a middle name in England.” And while Americans were free to do what they wanted in the name game, their plentiful use of middle names and middle initials came only in time.

From the late 1800s until now, the use of extra names and initials among church leaders gradually caught on. Perhaps it was useful in delineating between Joseph Smith, Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith. Now, although the church takes no official position on it and gives no reason or explanation for it, darn near every high-level leader is in the pool. Even some stake presidencies and ward bishoprics are diving in.

There are guesses that, as mentioned, the reason for so much initial inflation is on account of the presumed boost of power and officialdom it provides. It sets the leaders, individually and collectively, apart from the rank and file.

And that’s the exact reason they shouldn’t do it, certainly not to the extent they do. Using extra initials among leaders has become something of a joke among many members, self-importance transformed into sarcasm, a bit of cultural overlay that is unnecessary.

I started to count the number of times initials were spoken from the pulpit during the church’s recent General Conference but stopped when it got into the billions.

Getting rid of cultural clutter

Granted, some “ordinary” folks use an extra initial in their name, but not all that many. How would you react if the guy standing next to you on the assembly line down at the plant started insisting on being called Joe M. Sixpack or the woman sitting in the office next to you announced she would answer only to W. Jill Sixpack?

Church leaders don’t need, nor should they rely on the extra letter for an authoritative lift. They are who they are, represent what they represent, have the calling they have, regardless of their handle.

Besides, going with something less ostentatious might endear them to their flock, make the people listen with greater intent to their words and value them more. Bridging the gap from them to us, making them more accessible, more approachable, more relatable, even symbolically, might help the state of the church, and curtail some of the ridicule. Creating distance between those in charge and those who are told to obey is hurtful, not helpful.

Here’s my suggestion: Unless Dallin H. Oaks goes by Dallin H. when his wife asks him to mop the kitchen floor at home and David A. Bednar is called David A. by his bride and other family members and close friends when he’s changing lightbulbs or playing pingpong on a Saturday morning, I say ditch the excessive initials. We’re all friends here, right?

Especially since using them adds cultural clutter to a church that needs to lose some cultural clutter and connect better with the faithful and the less-than-faithful on a spiritual level. And not highlight that clutter in such a manner, one that seems made up by somebody in a back office somewhere who thought it might be a good idea, and it rolled forward like the stone cut without hands, edging toward ironclad dogma from there.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.