Last night, at our weekly elder’s quorum presidency meeting, I was struck once again at a verbal habit of our secretary: he refers to just about everyone in the ward as “Sister (or “Brother”) [insert first name].” I’m “Brother Russell.” The elder’s quorum president is “Brother Craig.” The Relief Society president is “Sister Mel.” In 35 years of life in the church, I’ve never before met someone who regularly speaks this way to fellow ward members in casual conversation. I’m familiar with this locution primarily through its historical association with Brigham Young, particularly via the writings of Hugh Nibley and especially Eugene England’s wonderful (and unfortunately out of print) biography, Brother Brigham. I had kind of assumed that it was a 19th-century style that had died out, but this fellow is hardly the sort to adopt a historical affectation. Perhaps it’s a regional and/or class thing? (Our quorum secretary is from Springville, UT, was born and raised there, never had more than a high school education, moved to Arkansas about a year ago when Nestle opened up a new plant (he’s a line manager), and is a pretty solid blue-collar type.) Anyway, it intrigues me, and I wonder if anyone else out there speaks that way, or has any insight into which Mormons did or still do use the “Sister [first name]” form. It also makes we wonder about forms of address in general.
I’ve long had a hang up regarding names and titles. I’m by no means uniformally opposed to them on egalitarian or some other grounds–I think the Confucian claim that the proper “rectification of names” (or in other words, roles) is central to a just or virtuous society is absolutely correct. It’s just that, I have often, probably too often, wondered what the basis for conventional forms of address in the church really are, what they involve and what they accomplish. On my mission, I struggled a lot with referring to my fellow missionaries as “Elder” and “Sister.” (But then, I struggled with lots of things.) It seemed to me that missionary work shouldn’t be about the impersonal delivery of spiritual services, but about the construction of networks through which the Spirit could move. Consequently, I believed missionaries ought to be allowed to serve in one place for a long time, and ought to be friends with one another and with those they associate with. To me, the insistence on the title–especially between peers and companions–kept in place a small but definite obstacle to such intimacy. Thus I tended–sometimes unconciously, sometimes (I admit) to make a not-always-charitable point–to refer to my companions and others by their given names. (I didn’t report weekly statistics to “Elder Brackenbury,” I reported them to “Wade.”) This practice wasn’t perfectly translatable into Korean (where, as in most of East Asia, “friendship” still has a highly if implictly formalized component), but more often than not I would refer to my Korean peers and fellow ward members by their given names or nicknames, and they reciprocated. (“Fox” had some odd permutations in the Korean vernacular.)
Basically, that same feeling about the importance of intimate networks holds for my relationships to my fellow Saints today. When I’m teaching in elder’s quorum, I call on “Bill” and “Tom” and “Donnie,” not Brother Caldwell, Brother Northcut, or Brother Walker. Some people do the same as I, but not all. I’ve found that there is in particular some resistance to this principle across gender lines, but I don’t know if that has more to do with the lack (and semi-official discouragement) of close male-female friendships in the church, or would exist outside of that dynamic anyway.
Leave aside the question of addressing ecclesiastical non-peers for the moment–i.e., bishops, stake presidents, general authorites (though of course the “Brother Brigham” reference might imply those relationships should be open for questioning as well). Thinking just about our fellow rank-and-file Mormons: what do you call them? What should we call them? What purpose is served by traditional forms of address that can’t be served just as well through the use of given names? Maybe our elder’s quorum secretary has the right idea…