I distinctly remember being a child trying to figure out Mormon and non-Mormon forms of address. For a while I thought that all adults were named “Brother” and “Sister.” That led to at least one highly embarrassing moment with my father’s boss. But, like all good Mormon kids, I soon figured it out: members of the Church are named “Brother” and “Sister.” Other adults are named “Mister” and “Missus” (or occasionally “Miss”). And never, ever call a grown up by their first name.
This simple rule of thumb got me all the way to college, where I learned that some Brothers and Sisters (and Misters and Missuses) prefer to be called “Doctor.” And among the Brothers (but not the Sisters) are those you are supposed to call “Elder.” And neither Doctors nor Elders like it when you call them “Sam.”
But when you poke around Church history enough, you see that those forms of address involving last names were once rarer than they are now, and those involving first names were much more common. Brigham Young was almost never “Brother Young.” He was “Brother Brigham,” just like Joseph Smith was “Brother Joseph.” These forms of address functioned very differently in the early Church.
Nothing illustrates the schizophrenic nature of modern Mormonism better than the shift from “Brother Joseph” to “Brother Smith” in our interactions with each other. The “brother” and “sister” forms of address were designed to go with first names, to enhance the familiarity. Among adults in our culture, the use of a first name implies friendship and intimacy, and the addition of “brother” or “sister” enhances the intimacy by extending our sense of family into the friendship.
When we use the “brother” and “sister” title with a last name, however, we increase the formality and decrease the sense of kinship. “Brother Austin” is a much more formal way to address me than just “Mike.” It creates a distance, signals an institutional connection rather than a personal one, and (because family connections are usually identified through a last name) emphasizes the fictive nature of our kinship rather than the kinship itself.
I do not believe that it is a coincidence that this linguistic shift in how we relate to each other parallels a similar linguistic shift in how we relate to God.
Let me be more specific. Latter-day Saints are among the very few denominations who still insist on using 17th century forms of address in public prayers. Even though most of us really don’t know how to use early-modern grammar, we do our best to sound spiritual with terms like “thee,” “thou,” thine,” “art,” and “doth.” We do this, of course, because it is how God is addressed in the King James Version of the Bible, which all Latter-day Saints are instructed to use, and in the Book of Mormon, which reflects the KJV on almost every page.
But here’s the problem. In 1611, when the KJV was first translated, the second person familiar (“thee,” “thou,” etc.) was a common way to show intimacy. These were the pronouns that parents and children, husbands and wives, and good friends used with each other. To use this form of address with God indicated a closeness with deity that made God seem approachable and familiar. This was even true, though to a lesser extent, in 19th century America, where the early-modern usage survived among Quakers and other religious movements.
In 2016, exactly the reverse is true. “Thee” and “thou” are archaisms that we use only to address God. We are so unfamiliar with these 17th century verb tenses that we almost never conjugate them correctly. Rather than making God familiar and approachable, they make Him impossibly distant. God is so far removed from us, and so unimaginable as part of our day-to-day context, that we must communicate with Him in a verb tense that we do not use for anything else in our lives.
Thesed drifts in forms of address have real implications for how we interact with each other and with God. For a variety of reasons, linguistic mechanisms for creating familiarity (which literally means treating somebody like family) now do precisely the opposite: they prevent us from using more familiar forms of address with the people we are trying to love, and they encourage us to see God as something distant and alien from our everyday lives.
I have no hope of reversing these trends single-handedly by writing blog posts. But I do recommend that sympathetic Saints join me in a few acts of everyday rebellion. Address the people in your ward as “Brother John” and “Sister Mary.” Pray to God using “you” and “your.” Try to reclaim the original intention of these familiar forms of address whenever you can. People will probably look at you funny, but every family has a crazy aunt or uncle. Beest thou the change thou wantstest to see.