What Mormons Mean: Translating General Conference (into English)

Every church or religion has its own vocabulary, which can easily make its meetings seem strange to outsiders. The Mormons are no exception.

Oh, boy, are we not an exception. We even think friendship is a verb; the ripples from this barbarous pebble are conspicuous at times. It’s a good thing the Lord is merciful. He gives us excellent, beautiful languages, and we insist on . . . But I digress.

A year or two ago, as I watched the first minutes of a Mormon general conference broadcast, I was struck by how many terms one would have to understand in the way Mormons do, in order to get just ten or fifteen minutes into a two-hour meeting. So this week I went back and watched the first 15 minutes of two previous conferences, making a list as I did so.

Here are some words and phrases you might have wanted to know, if you had been watching with me. The vocabulary will be approximately the same tomorrow, if you watch the first general session of the October 2014 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The definitions are brief, though the temptation is to be expansive.

A Few Basics

general conference — a semiannual meeting broadcast worldwide, via Internet, radio, television, and satellite, in which Church leaders speak to members in six two-hour sessions (four of which are for the general membership);

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the official name of the Church, and the reason most people use the nickname “Mormon” instead

LDS — acronym for Latter-day Saints(s); sometimes we’re called the LDS Church; sometimes good for a joke about LSD

saints — members of the Church

brothers and sisters — (sometimes “brethren,” never “sistren,” except in jest) — a common mode of addressing members of the Church; rooted in the idea that all humans are spirit children of God, and therefore are brothers and sisters

Conference Center — not the famous old Tabernacle built by Mormon pioneers; a much newer, breathtakingly large hall in the adjacent block, where 21,000 people can sit in comfortable theater seats for a meeting or a concert

Organization

general authorities — leaders over the whole Church, from the First Presidency down through the Second Quorum of the Seventy (see below)

general officers — leaders over the Church’s “auxiliary” organizations for children, youth, and women; not to be confused with military generals and admirals

our beloved prophet — the President of the Church (the senior apostle on the earth)

First Presidency — the leading council of the Church, consisting of three apostles: the President of the Church (“the prophet”) and his two Counselors, or sometimes three

Quorum (or Council) of the Twelve Apostles — the council second in authority to the First Presidency, consisting (when complete, as it usually is) of twelve modern apostles

[name] presides at this session — traditionally, the highest (presiding) authority in the meeting is acknowledged this way

invocation — the opening prayer; its counterpart at the end of the meeting is the benediction

Elder — our title for addressing general authorities, unless they are president of something, in which case we call them “President” (also a title for ordinary male full-time missionaries and an office in the ordained priesthood)

the Seventy — below the Quorum of the Twelve are the First Quorum of the Seventy, the Second Quorum of the Seventy, and several more quorums numbered in order; the first two quorums are general authorities, and the rest are “area authority seventies” assigned to specific areas in the world

Presidency of the Seventy — seven general authorities who together lead all the quorums of seventy

Presiding Bishopric — three general authorities, each called Bishop, who direct temporal (physical) matters for the Church, under the direction of the First Presidency and the Twelve

auxiliaries — (as in auxiliaries to the priesthood organization and leadership) — the Relief Society (women), Young Men and Young Women organizations (youth), and Primary (children), as well as the Sunday School (adult and youth instruction); each auxiliary is led by a presidency, consisting of a president and counselors

Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844) — the founder, first prophet, and first president of the Church; for Mormons, one of the greatest prophets ever to walk the earth

Thomas S. Monson — (we like middle initials) — the current President of the Church, our prophet; also a gifted storyteller, and able to wiggle his ears on camera (delighting many Church members and vexing some others, who think such silliness is inconsistent with his station or with the solemnity of speaking in general conference)

Jeffrey R. Holland — one of the current apostles; his name being announced in general conference is a code phrase for “sit up and listen, and you’ll be very glad you did”; there’s a fun Facebook meme out there saying that when Satan goes to bed, he checks under the bed for Jeffrey R. Holland

Dieter F. Uchtdorf — currently Second Counselor in the First Presidency; a former 747 pilot who has endeared himself to the Church in recent years by his candid, charming, artful, and insightful sermons — and to some in the Church, I suspect, by being uncommonly handsome for an old dude — and to two of my sons by frequent use of airplane lore in his sermons

Doctrine

Heavenly Father (or Father in Heaven) — God, the Father of our spirits; the Being whom we worship and to whom we pray in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ

Jehovah — premortal name of Jesus Christ

Spirit / Holy Spirit / Holy Ghost — the third member of the Godhead (a term Mormon doctrine prefers to the Trinity)

restored gospel — a bigger subject for another day, but the general idea is that some truth and all divine authority were taken from the earth after about the first century AD, and had to be restored through later prophets, such as Joseph Smith

atonement — Jesus Christ’s infinite sacrifice for humanity, in Gethsemane and on the cross, by which repentance and forgiveness (and other blessed things) became possible; arguably the central doctrine of the gospel

living prophets and apostles — we have ’em; we still like the dead ones too, but a living prophet trumps a dead one in contemporary relevance

inspired — guided or directed by God, through the Holy Spirit; may refer to people, words, actions, etc.

temple — not an ordinary church/chapel/meetinghouse; a place where we go sometimes to receive ordinances (sacraments), through which we make covenants (promises) with God; we also participate there in vicarious ordinances for the dead

dedicate a temple — consecrate a temple to the work of the Lord; every temple, when newly built or substantially rebuilt, is dedicated in services culminating in a dedicatory prayer by a leader of the Church; public tours usually go on for weeks or months before the dedication, after which only authorized members will go beyond the entry area of the temple

preach the gospel — in common Mormon usage, this refers to proselyting (missionary work)

Zion — a term with many levels of meaning for Mormons; in general, a place where the righteous live in peace

Israel — another term with many layers of meaning, referring to anything from the nation of Israel to the Church itself (also the House of Israel) — much more commonly the Church than the nation, in our hymns and sermons

great (or marvelous) work — the work of the Church in its time: spreading the gospel worldwide, redeeming the dead through vicarious ordinances in the temple, ministering to the temporal (physical) welfare of humanity, helping the living to live righteous and productive lives (“perfecting the saints”)

That’s Enough for Now, Right?

Now you’re a little more prepared to understand and enjoy general conference, which you can stream (live or later) here or, in some areas, watch on TV or hear on radio.

I’m open to the idea of posting additional glossaries from time to time. I welcome suggestions for more words and phrases from readers both Mormon and non-.

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