An initial question

December 14, 2009 | 39 comments
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Why do we use first initials for LDS leaders who otherwise use their middle names? M. Russell, L. Tom, D. Todd, L. Whitney — we all know who these people are. What is the reason for continued usage of first initials, rather than simply saying “Russell Ballard” or “Todd Christopherson”? This seems to be a peculiarly Mormon tic. Granted, there are a few famous non-Mormons who have used similar nomenclature — F. Scott Fitzgerald, for one; L. Ron Hubbard, for another. But the majority of famous middle-name users simply omit the first initial. Who ever heard of T. Woodrow Wilson or J. Paul McCartney or T. Sean Connery? (Thanks for the examples, Wikipedia.)

When did Mormons get in the habit of keeping and prominently using the first initial, and why? Does anyone know?

39 Responses to An initial question

  1. WMP on December 14, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Perhaps to differentiate between all of the Brigham Youngs and Joseph Smiths kicking around. Not sure.

  2. Aaron on December 14, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I always considered it a prerequisite to becoming a GA. Guess I won’t make it.

  3. W. H. Morris on December 14, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    It’s all about the gravitas.

  4. S. G. on December 14, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    It might go back to thoughts/beliefs/doctrines regarding names, or views held by the leaders about the importance of names. I mean we have baby blessings, which are for the primary purpose of bestowing a name on the child- via an official church ordinanace, and it is often stated that the child will be known by that name on the records of the Church and in the world by that name. There are also of course other examples of the importance of names within the Church and its ordinances.

  5. John Mansfield on December 14, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    I think providing a specific identification is the aim. My favorite along those lines, for some reason, was Elder Rex C. Reeve, Sr., just in case you might confuse him with his son.

    Consider the list of the Johns Hopkins Board of Trustees. Few of them are not named with all applicable initials, and a few are identified with first initials: Mr. C. Michael Armstrong, Dr. N. Anthony Coles, Mr. A. James Clark.

  6. JT on December 14, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I think the prevalence of first-name initial usage is mostly related to how the names are presented in general conference, where a measure of formality exists. I don’t think that this usage occurs any more for first-name initials than it does for middle initials.

  7. Hunter on December 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    WHM is correct — it’s the gravitas, babee.

  8. Crick on December 14, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    It’s all about formality.
    Using one’s full-name (or initial’s in lieu of full name) is old-school and formal and the General Authorities are all about respect and decorum. For example, following Thursday meetings, senior members of the Council of the Twelve leave the room after before junior members.
    This does not mean that they call each other by their full names in casual circumstances, but in official publications and during sustaining its all formal.

  9. Crick on December 14, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Yes…gravitas.

  10. Mike S on December 14, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    In the Church, there are many cases of what would be called nepotism in other circumstances (we call it “royal blood” or some similar concept). This was especially true in the past when the population from which to draw qualified leaders was smaller and very interrelated. Hence, Joseph Smith, Joseph F Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, etc.

    Add to this the fact that we don’t just reference living GAs, but deceased GAs are quoted as much (or even more). Therefore, there is a high chance of “overlap” with someone having a similar name having also been a GA at some point. This can help with clarificaiton in this instance as well.

  11. Mex Davis on December 14, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    I think it is just that they mostly go by their middle names. They grew up being called by their middle names and that is how they and everyone calls them. Maybe some of them have really bad or funny first names, ergo the middle name. Also some families called the father by the same first name and the son by his middle name.

  12. CJ on December 14, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    I’ve always told my friends that, while I’ll surely never be a General Authority, if it ever happened, I’d be the first to go by my full first name, full middle name, and last initial. So, along with M. Russell Ballard and Russell M. Nelso, we’d have a Clayton Dale J.

  13. jks on December 14, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    We use the middle initial of those who go by their first names. I never said President Gordon Hinkley, it was always Gordon B. Hinkley or President Hinkley. So it is consistant accross the board of using first name initial or middle name initial because it is formal. That is the way formal names were always done. Things are different now, but in previous generations that was always how you did it when being formal. You don’t say/write the full three names, just the two they use plus the initial of the other one. That’s how my parents wrote their own names formally.

  14. Crick on December 14, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    JKS: “Things are different now…”

    Well, true…they are for many people. But I still use my full name or full first name w/middle initial in some formal contexts.

    I think the GA’s will always do it.

  15. Cameron on December 14, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    I have always thought it was to clarify the individual’s identity since so many people have similar names. Harder to mistake someone for a general authority or vice versa.

    My wife’s favorite is definitely: C. Scott Grow!

    Although I long for the days of “Brother Joseph,” I acknowledge that in the age of rampant unjailed sex-offenders, we have to be this formal.

    I also find the ‘biographical summary’ at the beginning of devotionals to be annoying, particularly for the prophet. I suspect some of the leaders do themselves. When Jesus returns, how long is his biographical sketch going to take, delivered by President Monson?

    /rant

  16. queuno on December 14, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    is often stated that the child will be known by that name on the records of the Church and in the world by that name

    Except it isn’t quite true. The name printed on the blessing form (and signed by the parent) is the name that will be on the records of the Church…

  17. J. Michael on December 14, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    I’m not sure what all the fuss is about…

  18. z on December 14, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    I sometimes think the initial stands for a uniquely Mormon name (e.g. Nephi), and the user doesn’t want to have to explain it to all and sundry or out himself as LDS to the general public. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But since I never bother to check what the initial is for, I have no idea if that’s true.

  19. DCL on December 14, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    It seems to me to be the product of a name culture where boys are frequently named after a close relative in their first names and individual variations are given in the middle name. When combined with the formal naming convention of using an initial for the unused name, the result is that men from that certain name culture naturally use the initial initial. I was born in a different naming culture (suburban, protestant southern California) where a close relative’s name is often given as the middle name, with individual variation in the first name.

  20. Kevin Barney on December 14, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    My porn name is Bluebell Tilton.

    And my GA name is K. LeRoy Barney.

  21. queuno on December 14, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    I think I’d insist on the Church using my preferred name on my records, and not my legal name.

    (Must write myself a note to get my preferred name on my records changed to Barack Bush.)

  22. Mark B. on December 14, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Sorry, Kevin, but that name is already taken. In the old temple film–the one with Gordon Jump and Spencer Palmer and Charles Metten–one of the minor roles was filled by a BYU professor named K. LeRoi N_____. I don’t think they’ll let you be a GA with a moniker like K. LeRoy. It’s too close.

  23. S. G. on December 14, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    Queuno,

    Last I saw, I believe there is a place in the computerized MLS system for the preferred name of each member. I believe I noticed this a few weeks ago when searching for a particular ward member to see what, if any, callings they held, at the moment, as I was considering recommending them for a calling.

    Also: “is often stated that the child will be known by that name on the records of the Church and in the world by that name.”

    I didn’t know this ’til I blessed my first child and the ward clerks were freaking out because i didn’t come into the clerk’s office to fill the paper work out prior to blessing my girl.

    I’ve often wondered, what happens if someone writes one name on the paperwork but then feels impressed to or for some other reason gives the child a different name? Do they just retroactively change the paperwork.

    Maybe the bigger question is what happens to the priesthood holder, after his wife gets ahold of him after the blessing…

  24. David on December 14, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    I’d like to get in touch with K. LeRoy Barney. Could someone please tell me how I might reach him to discuss an article he wrote on Times and Season back in 2005.

    Thanks!

  25. Alan LeBaron on December 15, 2009 at 2:03 am

    The CHI (2006) says a persons full legal name should be used on records and certificates and initials and nicknames not used. And I am trying to remember now if full names are used during the sustaining of the GA’s at general conference. I live in Mexico and many of the married women go by their maiden names so the attendance lists, contact lists, tithing settlement lists, membership lists show husbands and wives with different names. The children take the fathers name.It makes it fun keeping the records straight.

  26. m&m on December 15, 2009 at 4:10 am

    I’ve often wondered, what happens if someone writes one name on the paperwork but then feels impressed to or for some other reason gives the child a different name? Do they just retroactively change the paperwork.

    We did this. The blessing certificate remains the same (a story will always lurk in the scrapbook). The church records now have their changed name (which was actually changed months after the blessing.) [Don’t ask. ;) ] I can’t remember, though, if we used the legal docs to do that, or were just able to do it w/out them.

  27. Alex T. Valencic on December 15, 2009 at 8:35 am

    I just realised that I don’t use my middle initial here, which is really odd, and I am changing it now. I have, for at least fifteen years or so, signed my named as Alex T. Valencic. Just about everyone in my family signs their middle initial, possibly because all of us have the same initials, and we think it is kind of cool.

    My dad and my oldest brother both go by their middle names. They sign their names with the first initial, though. My parents are converts, though, so no, this is not a peculiarly Mormon practice. In fact, many lawyers do the same thing. Gravitas and formality, I imagine.

    Besides, if they went by the names their friends called them, we’d have Tommy Monson and Hal Eyring, among others.

  28. Alex T. Valencic on December 15, 2009 at 8:38 am

    Oops, missed something: 25, I have heard sustaining of church leaders use both initials and full names in General Conference. I know for sure that they use full names during the Solemn Assemblies, though. (Funny story… I just learned my Stake President’s first name a week ago! His counselor didn’t use the typical “T. Ned” monicker that I’ve always heard.)

  29. Don on December 15, 2009 at 9:26 am

    If it were only a few GAs who did this, nothing would seem amiss. But the fact that so many do it does seem a bit odd.

    BTW, does anyone know a GA who has changed the spelling of his name to make it seem more GA-appropriate? I can think of one Seventy who did.

  30. Ida Tarbell on December 15, 2009 at 11:26 am

    The coolest use of a first initial had to be former Black Panther Justice Minister H. Rap Brown (yes, it’s now Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, but still). Maybe the GAs are just trying for a little street cred or revolutionary flair.

  31. Dan Sinema on December 15, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    So, is it Tom E. Monson?
    It is really hard to have the church records use a name other than your “official name.” I had to write to the Pres of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to get the Presiding Bishopric Office to change our daughter’s church record name. The regular workers just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. How about this one — my grandmother changed my dad’s middle name on the way home from the hospital. So for 50 years he used a name different from his birth certificate. He only learned of the difference when he got a birth certificate to get a passport. Are all of the ordinances now invalid because the names don’t match up?

  32. danithew on December 15, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    For no rational reason, I blame this all on J.K. Rowling.

  33. H. Bob on December 15, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Well, I don’t think I’ll quote Ed Abbey on the “initial initial,” and just let anyone interested Google his opinion. I would point out that in many cases, the GA usage is to avoid confusion with near relatives who were also General Authorities (or otherwise notable), e.g., Ezra T. Benson (of Pioneer Day fame) vs. Ezra Taft Benson (both actually named Ezra Taft); Melvin R. Ballard of the Seventy and his grandson, M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve (both named Melvin Russell); and of course, the multitude of Henry Eyrings out there, from the uninitialed scientist to his son Henry B. of the First Presidency, to his grandson (and biographer) Henry J. The clear example, of course, is to name your kid Cree-L. That’ll teach ‘em.

  34. Sheldon on December 16, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    WMP:

    And we say “Dieter F. Uchtdorf” to distinguish him from all the other Dieter Uchtdorf’s in the church hierarchy.

  35. Ms. Jack Meyers on December 17, 2009 at 9:12 am

    I had a religion teacher at BYU mark me down once for answering a test question “Joseph Fielding Smith” instead of “Joseph F. Smith.” I had meant to name the sixth president of the church—we’d only studied the history of temples into the 1930s and hadn’t even mentioned the other Joseph Fielding Smith yet—but I’d had no idea that he’s distinguished from the tenth president of the church by abbreviating his middle name. I think I managed to argue with the teacher about it and get him to change it, overachiever that I am.

    Initials in Mormonism is srs bsns.

  36. John Taber on December 17, 2009 at 10:49 am

    And while the sixth president was alive, the future tenth president went by “Joseph F. Smith Jr.” It was only later that he started using “Joseph Fielding Smith”.

  37. John Taber on December 17, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Oh, and the current apostle’s full name is Melvin Russell Ballard Jr. His grandfather was Melvin J. Ballard (but I don’t know what the J stands for.)

  38. H. Bob on December 17, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Well, d’oh! I’ve got the Church almanac on my desk–I should’ve fact-checked myself about the Ballards. And “J” is for Joseph (natch).

  39. marianne on December 23, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    If you sing the Primary song, the initial thing creeps in with “Joseph F. Smith, remember the F. Heber J. Grant, and George Albert Smith . . .”