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Learn English: The Anglicization of the Church

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At the Europe Area Conference in Munich, Germany, in August 1973, President Harold B. Lee, confronted with a variety of languages and the challenges for translators, said:

“How helpful it would be if everyone now speaking your own native tongue would learn to speak English. Then you would be able to talk with us more clearly and we could understand you better than we have done.[1]

In response, thousands of members started to learn English, even worldwide. In Korea a program “English for Latter-day Saints” was started. Next the Church Educational System asked BYU-Hawaii to develop this program for any country. For several years, curricula and lesson materials were developed.[2] Then the momentum fizzled. Church leaders, however, introduced a more efficient system as part of the missionary duties in Preach My Gospel. Somewhat paradoxically in the Chapter “How Can I Better Learn My Mission Language?” the third injunction is (p. 128):

Learn English

If you do not speak English, you should study it as a missionary. This will bless you during your mission and throughout your life. Learning English will enable you to help build the Lord’s kingdom in additional ways and will be a blessing for you and your family. Many of the suggestions found in this chapter will help you. Focus particularly on the following:

Thousands of missionaries from non-anglophone countries all over the world have learned English that way. The injunction to “learn English” remains in force for all incoming new missionaries whose native language is not English. Though some do better than others, overall, it works. Their companions are often American. Missionary meetings are often held in English, certainly with visiting authorities. Mission instructions and interviews are mostly in English. English becomes the main language of their social networking and remains it after their mission.

The Preach My Gospel argument that “English will enable you to help build the Lord’s kingdom in additional ways” seems to point to potential leadership positions. Sufficient mastery of English is indeed a supportive criterion for the selection of area and stake presidencies and for Church employment. English is vital for communication with higher-ups. The argument of the advantage of English “throughout your life” and “a blessing for you and your family” seems indicative of a business-oriented world view dominated by English.

However, a side note: in reality, not English, but the mastery of the language of a neighboring country or region is often more rewarding—without neglecting English. For example, in Belgium (with a French- and a Dutch-speaking region), public and private sectors beg for personnel fluent in both languages. Being bilingual French-Dutch is expected for functions on federal level and in the capital Brussels. But the Church almost never sends French-speaking Belgians to a Dutch-speaking mission, or Dutch-speaking Belgians to a French-speaking mission. Fostering such bilingualism would also result in bilingual Church leaders in Belgium—an important asset for cooperation and for government relations. The same principle applies to other neighboring countries and regions with high interactions such as in Europe’s patchwork of countries. Sending missionaries just to the neighboring country would also cost the Church much less. End side note.

Some think that Spanish may some day prevail as the most-spoken language in the Church. Even if Spanish becomes so numerically, there is little doubt that English will remain the Church’s prime language. Ronan Head noted the Church’s permanent Anglosphere in broader perspective: “English dominates two vital cogs in Mormon self-understanding: the Mormon revelation and Anglo-exceptionalism”.

Factors in anglicization in the non-anglophone church

Anglicization: here defined as “ever more English, pushing back the local language use.”

How extensive is anglicization in the Church? The past few years I noticed the following in my stake, the Belgium Antwerp Stake—officially Dutch-speaking, covering the north of Belgium (Flanders or Flemish Region) and a narrow strip of the south of the Netherlands. Our situation may not be representative for other stakes, since our stake also includes the Brussels International Ward and the Heerlen Military ward, but some of the following items are applicable in comparable environments. The order of the items is at random.

1    (Long) returned missionaries (LRMs), from local origin, tend to shift to English with the current young US missionaries in their ward. Some continue to use their Scriptures in English—the valued “original.” (L)RMs also easily intersperse English in their talks and lessons.

2    Stake leaders and most members of bishoprics are chosen among LRMs—all able to communicate at least fairly well in English. It’s useful for leadership meetings with visiting authorities, which are conducted in English—what President Lee wished for: “You would be able to talk with us more clearly and we could understand you better.” The principle extends to all areas where communication with (visiting) higher-ups is expected—Family History, Seminary, Institute, Self-Reliance, and more.

3    Members hungry for more information than what the church offers in translation must turn to sources in English—an incentive to learn or improve English. Short quotations in English are then used in talks and lessons, with translation perhaps offered to the “ignorant.” Also Church videos, in English only, are used in lessons, under the assumption all will understand. For the latest news from the Church or for extra material for children and youth: English required.

4    Connections in the US with RM’s, friends, or emigrated family members infuse English in social media. The numerous LDS-related virtual communities require English for participation. A visit to Utah is a must for the more privileged.

5    General conference and worldwide devotionals are broadcast in English. Though the translated version is available, listening to the original is more riveting, establishing a more direct contact with the prophet and other general authorities. “I listen in English” becomes a token of closeness to the premium membership.

6    At stake conferences the visiting authority usually speaks in English, with translation provided at the pulpit. But those who know English react immediately to English (laughing, acquiescing, responding to a request to raise hands), thus signaling their English proficiency. The subsequent translation is unwittingly sensed as for the secondary, less educated group.

7    Instructions from Salt Lake and from the Area Presidency always come in English first. Though translated copies are foreseen, in reality these are often late or skipped. The stake forwards the texts in English to each ward which distributes it to whomever it concerns.

8    American expats, temporarily attending a local ward, even for several years, seldom learn the local language. They are valuable for their experience and their willingness to serve, but they expect translation to English, even when called to local leadership positions. In the Antwerp stake, the presence of quite a few Americans leads to a demand for “more English” in meetings.

9    Quite a few converts are immigrants from Africa for whom English is usually their lingua franca. Local members who know English reach out to fellowship them. Talks and lessons are translated to English.

10  The expat and immigrant anglophones are of course also given the chance to give prayers, talks, and testimonies—in English. The talks and testimonies are translated in Dutch from the pulpit for the native audience, doubling the time. It’s quite normal to include them that way, but it adds to a natural acceptance of English as the normal church communication tool.

In short, President Lee’s admonition to all members and the Preach My Gospel injunction to “learn English” as “a blessing for you and your family” seem to be realized in various ways.

The impact on those who don’t know English and even on those who know

However, among the native members there still is a substantial group—even the majority—for whom English remains inaccessible or just too scant: older members, the less privileged, those who never needed English in life, those indisposed to foreign language learning, or feeling too insecure—quite often the more humble souls. For decades most of them have been part of a little branch, where the native tongue shared by all provided social cohesion. Then came the growth for which they have so often prayed and fasted. They rejoice in the development to a stake and to full-fledged wards. However, the increasing presence of English and the related comprehension gaps weaken their sense of communal identification. Similar obstacles apply to investigators and newly baptized members who lack English and are already overwhelmed by all the novelties. And even among those who know (some) English, the English intrusion is felt as disturbing.

The situation is even more particular for native members who used to have their own fully Dutch-speaking units, such as in the cities of Genk and Louvain. Those cities were closed in 2017 as part of a major consolidation. Most members of Genk were assigned to the Military Ward in Heerlen and those of Louvain to the International Ward in Brussels. In these two wards English predominates and translation is provided for the Dutch-speaking natives. Some of these transferred members, if they know enough English, found advantages in belonging to a larger and experienced ward. For others the distance, travel costs, and loss of communal identity took their toll. We lost quite a few of these native members.

In short, a communal distinction creeps in between the English-knowers and the not-knowers. For the latter, their love of the gospel and the Church, as well as the principle of obedience, compel them to accept these developments as they come. Complaining would seem ungrateful or ethnocentric. They may even feel guilty or incompetent for still not knowing (enough) English.

This movement is slow and insidious. The emergence of a managerial leadership style on stake and ward level may add to the distance. Some of these leaders, all in the know-English group, may not even be aware of the subtle exclusion taking place at the lower levels. Some may even unconsciously cultivate the use of English as a social affirmation strategy: it can feed a feeling of belonging to upper ecclesiastical levels. Of course, not all English-knowers are in this case: some do worry about the anglicization as undermining social cohesion and fostering tensions.

Another drawback of anglicization is the Church’s image. For decades Church leaders have been pounding on the message that “this is not an American church,” in particular in countries where US-connections are not viewed favorably. The increasing use of English is not helping to shed the American image. In Flanders in particular, a region that since the middle of the nineteenth century had to struggle for the recognition of Dutch as its official language, this is a sensitive issue.

The question of language and community

For the Church in general, the topic of lingual cohesion for a ward’s well-being has been a regular matter of controversy and concern: should foreign-language speakers assimilate into the local church unit or is it better to provide a separate language unit for them? Over the years Church policy has balanced between integration and separation, the latter allowing “ethnic units” or “specialized congregations”—Spanish, Korean, Russian …—to be organized in the US and in other countries with sufficiently large minorities.[3] These units are an answer to members’ hunkering after an own sociolingual haven in a church where the verbal component—prayers, talks, lessons, meetings, and various programs with much oral interaction—takes such an inordinate space.

On the other hand, Church PR praises multilingual units for their diversity. But praising diversity seems in the first place finding charm in the external display of a “beautiful florilegium,” which is certainly praiseworthy and which may, we hope, also represent the deeper reality. But as Jessie Embry noted from past Church experiments: “Integration into multi-cultural, multi-lingual units was based on the ideal—and idealized philosophy that gospel unity produces social unity.”[4] So the real question is to what extent each individual member really feels part of a community rather than of a disparate congregation. The very reason why the Church permits ethnic units is to provide a haven to individuals struggling with acculturation and to retain them as active members.

Anglicization of a stake or a ward is quite another perspective: here native units in the native country are being slowly anglicized, with a risk of frustrating the very natives for whom the Church was established in the first place. Here we see the paradoxical antipode of an ethnic unit that recognizes the value of people’s native language: an internal movement that promotes English over the native language and may lead to an English-speaking church as default, with some collateral damage.


[1] Cited in Doyle L. Green, “Munich Conference Report,” Ensign 3 (November 1973): 82.

[2] Lynn Henrichsen, “English for Latter-day Saints,” Deseret Language and Linguistic Society Symposium 5, no. 1 (1979): 126–141.

[3] See the chapter “Ethnic Congregations” in Jessie L. Embry, Mormon Wards as Community (Binghamton, N.Y.: Global Publications, 2001), 105–130. See also Roy A. Prete, G. Eric Jarvis and Jonathan A. Jarvis, “The Linguistic and Ethnic Transformation of the Church in Quebec since the Mid-1960s,” Journal of Mormon History 43, no. 4 (2017): 155–184.

[4] Embry, “Ethnic Congregations,” 107.

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