In casual conversation, Mormons use words just like everyone else. But when it comes to Mormon religious discourse and to more formal discussions of doctrine and theology, it gets tricky. Sometimes Mormons use words that other English speakers use but with an entirely different meaning. Sometimes Mormons confidently use ambiguous words. Sometimes Mormons juggle different meanings of a word in the same discussion (that’s equivocation). Let’s talk a bit about how Mormons use and misuse words by looking at some examples.

Translate. You’re familiar with the meaning of the English word “translate,” to render spoken or written words from one language into another. If you happen to know two languages fairly well, you can translate casual conversation. If you know two languages very well and have a good bilingual dictionary on hand, you can translate a written document. If you don’t know the source language, you can’t possibly translate conversation or a written document; you can’t translate at all. If your friend comes up to you with a two-page German article in hand and says, “I translated this into English,” and you reply, “But you don’t speak German …” then you are entitled to add, “Translate. I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Consider the LDS Gospel Topics Essay “Book of Mormon Translation“. Here is how the essay describes the process of producing the English text: “According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English.” That’s not translating, that’s reading. Words appear on a (supernatural) rock and Joseph reads them out loud to his scribe. That’s reading. Joseph could read, so there’s nothing implausible about it (well, other than the supernatural rock part). Joseph didn’t write down the English phrases, he spoke them, and one or another associate wrote them down. That’s dictation. Other LDS scholars and apologists (but not the Essay) have endorsed a looser approach to Joseph’s project, suggesting that while looking at characters and pondering their meaning, God somehow put thoughts or ideas into Joseph’s mind. Joseph then put those thoughts or ideas into words using his own vocabulary, which he then spoke to his scribe. That’s composition, putting thoughts and ideas into words, not really different from what you did when writing a paper in college or what any other author does when writing a book. Reading, dictation, composition, whatever, but even the Essay clearly acknowledges (when you ignore all the handwaving) that it wasn’t translation that Joseph was doing. Yet leaders and laity alike keep using that word.

God. When 21st-century Christians use the word “God,” they are generally referring to the orthodox Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three persons but one God. The attributes of the Christian God include the three “omnis,” omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, as well incorporeality, impassibility (the “passions” part of without body, parts, or passions), and eternity (that God exists in some sense outside of time; He has no beginning or end). The Book of Mormon uses the term God and often refers to a tripartite God, as in Alma 11:44: “Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God.” So Mormons quite happily, in their conversations, use the word God pretty much like mainline, Evangelical, and Catholic Christians do.

At the same time, Mormons think of God quite differently. The Persons are quite distinct and there are three of them, united in purpose but not in any deeper or metaphysical sense. One of them is often depicted as literally sitting on a physical throne somewhere in Heaven, hardly different from depictions of Zeus sitting on a throne somewhere on Mount Olympus. While Mormons often sneer at the Christian claim that God is incorporeal — as if incorporeal means not real — of the Three Persons in the Mormon Godhead, one is plainly depicted as incorporeal (the Holy Ghost, necessarily so in order that His influence might be felt everywhere, universally, although confusingly the Father and the Son are generally accorded the same power) and another, the Son, as incorporeal in the Pre-existence, prior to earthly birth.

The LDS view is that God is not impassible; He weeps, He has emotions. Presumably He can be happy or sad, angry or depressed. I know, it sounds a little impious to talk about God in those terms, but I’m just spelling out what LDS leaders and scholars have increasingly come to candidly affirm, that God is a very emotional Being. I’ve never seen an LDS scholar put out a list of approved emotions (ones they are okay with God having) and disapproved ones (emotions that they think God would not have). But presumably if God can take on some emotional states, He can take on any emotional state. If you are thoroughly convinced God weeps, you have little basis for denying that God can get angry, even enraged, from time to time. Who are you to say God can’t have a bad day? Really, the whole idea that God has emotions (e-motions, something external to God that nevertheless moves Him) compromises His omnipotence and His self-contained being (which might fall under aseity or immutability or transcendence, other attributes of the Christian God). The idea that external events could cause God to be angry or to weep raises more problems than it solves, although LDS commentators seem totally oblivious to this problem.

Bottom line: When Mormons use the word “God,” they generally have a much different concept in mind that do other Christians.

Covenant Path. You’ve heard this term a lot lately. What does it mean? Well, obviously it’s not an actual path, although I wouldn’t be surprised if a stake somewhere in the world has constructed an actual path from the baptismal font in the stake center across the street to the front door of the adjacent temple and named it “Covenant Path.” In some contexts, it refers to the Mormon Checklist: baptism, seminary, serve a mission, attend Institute in college (or take your BYU religion classes), get married in the temple, have from two to ten kids, pay tithing and serve without pay in whatever calling comes your way, serve a senior mission, and die quietly and reverently, surrounded by kids and grandkids, with a testimony on your lips. Miss checking a box, you’re off the Covenant Path. Well, there are apostles who didn’t serve an LDS mission. Are they off the Covenant Path? Well, hmmm, not sure. Will repentance retroactively put you back on the Covenant Path if you missed a few boxes during your wild and crazy twenties, before coming back to the fold in your thirties? Seems like it should. So maybe repentance and grace are what’s important, not the boxes to check on the Covenant Path.

Whatever the term Covenant Path implies, it’s certainly not limited to covenants. It seems to be used much more broadly. A one-hour Mormon (who skips the second hour) is likely talked about as off the Covenant Path in Ward Council discussions. I’m sure there are Mormon Republo-fascists who think a Mormon Democrat is off the Covenant Path. I have no doubt some members of your ward think that a young woman in the ward with more than one piercing per ear is off the Covenant Path. The more you think about it, the more it seems the term has become just another Mormon stick to beat on those who aren’t quite as zealous as you think they should be. It’s just another tool for judging your neighbor. As a term, it means whatever it needs to mean in order to engage in an enjoyable episode of judge your neighbor.

The next time the phrase pops up in Mormon conversation, ask your friend, “What exactly do you mean by the term ‘Covenant Path'”? I think you might get a variety of answers from different people, and even from the same person in different contexts. Even LDS leaders who try to explain what the term means don’t really do much explaining. Here is Elder Christofferson, from his 2021 Conference talk “Why the Covenant Path“:

What is the covenant path? It is the one path that leads to the celestial kingdom of God. We embark upon the path at the gate of baptism and then “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men [the two great commandments] … to the end.”2 In the course of the covenant path (which, by the way, extends beyond mortality), we receive all the ordinances and covenants pertaining to salvation and exaltation.

Conclusion. I’ll bet that now that you have this idea in your head, you will notice a lot of words and terms in Mormon discourse that don’t quite make sense. Or maybe you have been noticing them all along and are dying to share your frustration.

  • What terms or phrases do you think members and leaders constantly misuse or confuse?
  • Any terms or phrases that you now realize that *you* have misused in the past?
  • Any examples of members or leaders who swim against the tide and are careful to clarify confusing terms or avoid misleading terms?