"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
May 2, 2013
On Terminology
by Orson Scott Card

The Church has tried to control terminology from time to time, beginning with the nickname "Mormon" for the Church and its members.

Though "Mormonite" and then "Mormon" began as terms of derision, we could hardly expect either enemies or neutral observers to refer to us as "Saints."

Nor did we want needless repetition of the name of Christ, so we encouraged the use of "Latter-day Saints" and "LDS."

But the name "Mormons" persisted, mostly because it was short, memorable, convenient, and the Mormon people used it even inside the Church.

Finally, the leadership recognized the usefulness of the brand name and embraced it. "How much do you know about the Mormon Church?" became the first of the golden questions.

It's hard to command language -- it has a life of its own, born of the decisions of all the speakers of that language. In the case of "Mormon," people inside and outside the Church were able to vote, by their usage, on the persistence of the word.

Recently there have been several attempts to make changes in our internal language -- the terms we use when speaking to each other. In this case, outsiders have no vote at all. One would think, then, that obedience to Church leaders would make it possible for changes to be completely effective.

It has happened before. "Block teaching" became "ward teaching" and then "home teaching."

The names of Primary and Young Women classes have changed quite sharply over the years, responding to the changing language of the outside world -- thus we lost "Gaynotes" -- and the internal needs of the organizations.

Sometimes, though, inept terminology choices at the top lead to nothing but confusion at the local level. It took a while, but "homemaking meeting" was successfully changed to "enrichment meeting."

Alas, there was no hope of success for "Home, Family, and Personal Enrichment" -- it only worked when it was shortened to "enrichment."

Yet there must be a name for the Relief Society weekday meeting, and "Relief Society weekday meeting" is too cumbersome. That's why "enrichment" is lingering, just as "mutual" lingered.

"Mutual" hung on long after "Mutual Improvement Association" was dropped, and despite the attempt to make "activity night" and "Young Men/Young Women" do the job, the Church finally gave up and kept Mutual.

When something needs to be distinguished from something else, we will make a name for it.

These terms all began as names of programs, which the Church leadership can change, at least officially, at will.

It is an entirely different matter when it comes to words -- even words referring to doctrines.

Recently we have been told to stop using the term "preexistence" and replace it with "premortal existence."

I imagine that the reason was some kind of etymological logic, because that's the kind of complaint I heard about the term from time to time. "What is 'preexistence'? What does it mean to exist before existence?"

But that logical objection is based on a fallacy about language. Regardless of how words are put together, they mean whatever they come to mean, regardless of the parts. Once coined, the meanings drift; logic plays no role.

In fact, we Mormons are champion meaning-shifters. Take "bishopric," for instance. In the outside world, this refers to the authority of a bishop or to the property and organization under his control.

But in the Church, needing a name for the quorum of the bishop, his counselors, and the ward clerk and executive secretary, we shifted "bishopric" to refer primarily to that group of people, and also to a bishop's term of service.

It makes perfect sense to us, but Catholics, who had the word long before we did, might feel they had a right to complain at our "misuse" of the word. They would be wrong: Within our community, "bishopric" means what we mean by it.

Ditto with "preexistence." Few Mormons know it, but "preexistence" was a doctrinal term long before the Restoration. It was used in the context of the "preexistence of Christ" -- the doctrine that Christ was the Word by which all things were made in the beginning.

Joseph Smith's revelation that not just the Savior but all human beings lived before this mortal existence led us to extend the term to be used for our entire life before our birth, or to the place where we were all gathered together for the great council.

It was not a word we coined; it was a preexisting word whose meaning we broadened.

Notice that I used the word "preexisting" in that previous sentence. It's a perfectly good English word which everybody understands. Nobody is bothered by it, wondering how a word can "exist before it exists."

That's because we understand that the "pre" does not refer to "exist," it refers to "whatever timeframe we're talking about." So when I said it was a "preexisting word," you understood that I meant that the word existed before we Mormons started using it with our extended meanings.

So also with "preexistence." The "pre" obviously refers to "before this life," since this life is the context we all share. Thus "preexistence," all by itself, means "existence before this mortal life."

That's what it meant when it referred to the premortal Christ, and that's what it means when Mormons refer to the time or place before we came to this world.

That's why "premortal existence" is merely a longer term for exactly the same meaning as the completely logical "preexistence." There is no rational reason to replace a perfectly good word with a longer two-word term.

But, because of obedience, perhaps the word "preexistence," which has served us so well for a century and a half, will be suppressed.

At present, though, everyone is deliberately changing "preexistence" to "premortal existence."

And even if we succeed in extinguishing "preexistence" for the generation that remembers we were told not to use it, the next generation will simply reinvent it, because it's short, it's clear, it's unambiguous, it's perfectly logical, and it already exists in a great deal of previous Church literature.

Plan of Happiness

"The plan of salvation" has long been a label of convenience for a large area of doctrine drawn together from many sources in the scripture. Recently, we've been asked to replace that century-old term with "plan of happiness."

In Alma 42, Alma twice uses "plan of happiness" (vv. 8,16) to refer to his treatment of the subject. So there is a scriptural basis for "plan of happiness."

Other prophets, however, discussing other parts of the plan, do not call it that. Lehi's pivotal discussion of atonement gives equal emphasis to punishment and misery as contrasts to righteousness and happiness (2Ne 2:13).

Paul also gives us contrasts when he discusses the degrees of glory in 1 Cor 15: corruption/incorruption, dishonour/glory, weakness/power, natural/spiritual, earthy/heavenly.

Even Alma emphasizes that "repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment ... affixed opposite to the plan of happiness" (Alma 42:16).

Since the punishments, the natural man, the possibility of sin are all part of God's plan for us, it seems that the "plan of happiness" describes only a portion of the whole.

What Alma describes under that heading is the means by which, within the overall plan of salvation, we can attain forgiveness for our sins and qualify for the redemption of Christ.

But the overall plan, which the Father laid out before us in the great council, includes the negatives as well as the positive. This whole plan -- our path of life through our First Estate and Second Estate -- is what we have long referred to as the "plan of salvation."

And there's a scriptural basis for this usage, in verse 5 of the very same chapter of Alma:

"For behold, if Adam had put forth his hand immediately, and partaken of the tree of life, he would have lived forever, according to the word of God, having no space for repentance; yea, and also the word of God would have been void, and the great plan of salvation would have been frustrated."

Unrepentant sinners have not stepped outside God's overall plan for his children, even if they have rejected his plan of happiness -- for God's plan accounts for and deals with all our choices.

Perhaps the recent request that we use the term "plan of happiness" instead of "plan of salvation" comes out of a desire for us to emphasize the positive path that God wants his children to follow.

But we still need a term for the whole plan -- which includes the freedom to sin, the punishment of the unrepentant, the lesser degrees of glory. God's overall plan definitely includes unhappiness, too. We need a name for the whole plan, not just part of it.

The Word "Happiness"

Another problem with "plan of happiness" as a replacement for, instead of a subset of, "plan of salvation" is that "happiness" may not be the best word.

No matter how inspired and correct the translation of the Book of Mormon was, there are no exact synonyms within or between languages. Whatever word Alma used, it could not have been exactly equivalent to "happiness."

The problem with the English word "happiness" is that it carries implications and overtones that may not fit with the message we want to carry to the world.

Lehi told us that "man is that he might have joy." Not "happiness." The two words can be synonyms, and I think that was the intention of Lehi and Alma; but each word carries meanings the other lacks.

In English, "happiness" still carries overtones of luck and randomness, as we see in terms that include "hap" and "happy": "perhaps," "happen," "happy-go-lucky," "happenstance," "happy coincidence," and so on.

In the English language, "happiness" is used for something transient, a fleeting emotion. "That makes me happy" carries with it the clear meaning of temporariness -- I'm happy for now.

It's a light word.

The Word "Joy"

Joy carries far greater weight. "Joy to the world" means one thing; "happiness to the world" would mean something else.

Even if we can't explain that difference in words, we all feel it. It's in the bones of the language.

The danger of the term "plan of happiness" is that, as we use it with investigators and outsiders, we may come to be seen, incorrectly, as being in the Reverend Schuller school of glad-happy self-esteem love-yourself-first Crystal Cathedral theology.

The message of the gospel is not "Come on, get happy." The message is that we need, not cheering up, but rescue.

That's what salvation is: rescue. Redemption. Relief. We are in a dire condition and need to be saved. That's why Christ is called the Savior and Redeemer, not the Cheerleader or Gladmaker.

"Plan of happiness," outside of Alma 42's clear context, might make us sound like just another feel-good philosophy; it might carry an unfortunate hint of p.r. and advertising.

The gospel is not an anti-depressant, it's a deep, permanent change. It's not about self-esteem as you are, it's about becoming someone new.

"Plan of happiness" carries no overtones or hints of rescue. It seems to say, "You might already be pretty happy -- our plan will make you happier." It's all reward, no danger.

But "plan of salvation" says that we are in a state of sin, and from that dark place there is no escape except by faith in and obedience to Christ. In Alma 12:25-26, it is called a "plan of redemption."

The result of repentance and obedience will be, in fact, not transient "happiness," but lasting "joy."

Obedience to the gospel can sometimes make us very unhappy, as those going through nicotine or alcohol withdrawal can attest. But unhappiness, like happiness, is a temporary thing.

Joy, on the other hand, is something we can feel in the midst of grief. Faith does not keep us from being unhappy when a loved one suffers or dies -- we grieve like anyone else.

But even as we are deeply unhappy, faith can sustain us in the deep joy of remembering that pain and death are followed by resurrection in a perfect body.

This is why I think that the term "plan of happiness" is not adequate as a label for the entire plan of salvation. Both the lightness of the word "happiness" and the fact that the meaning of "rescue" is lost will make the term too weak for the work that "plan of salvation" has long done.

God has given us a plan of salvation. It is a plan to raise us from misery to joy. Our message must always name the misery for what it is, in order to explain the urgency of repentance so that we can receive the promised joy.

"Plan of salvation" names this gospel as the most important idea in the world. "Plan of happiness," in English at least, may be too slight to carry that weight.

That's why I think the venerable and successful term "plan of salvation" will, and should, prevail in the long run as the overall label for the group of doctrines outlining the course of human beings through eternity.

Free Agency

Church leaders can mostly (but not always) control what they name specific offices and programs within the Church, but conversational language -- even the private language we Church members use among ourselves -- is never under the official control of anyone, and cannot be.

Which is just as well. Because even when we try to say things for which there are no words -- as when Joseph Smith used "intelligence" to mean something that had never been thought of before -- when we have a meaning we want to get across, we will eventually coin new words or shift the meanings of existing words until we can say what we want to say.

It's part of that free agency that God gave us when we came to this world. And even though some might want us to say only "agency," the doctrine is only true as long as it includes the concept "free."

So we might as well use the term "free agency," with its far greater clarity and truth content, regardless of the fact that the outside world has an unrelated sports usage.

What they mean by "free agency" is not what we mean by "free agency." So what? What outsiders mean by "spirit" and "soul" and "God" and "atonement" and "redemption" and "birth" and "death" and "intelligence" are not what we mean by them, either.

If we can manage to be bilingual, understanding what others mean by these terms outside the Church, yet preserving a clear distinction in the way we use the terms inside the Church, there is no reason to drop "free" from "agency" in our internal usage.

Unintended Results

The problem with trying to change language by decree is that the change is never fully under control, and often has strange and unforeseen consequences.

For instance, when schoolteachers incessantly corrected "Me and Jim went to the store" by saying, "Jim and I," the result was the appalling "Between Jim and I," which is now more common than the correct form. The "correction" is more absurd than the mistake they were trying to correct.

Ceaseless commands to say "aren't" instead of "ain't" led to the illogical but universal "Aren't I?" (You would never say, "Yes, I are.")

Language has a life of its own. When you swap "happiness" for "salvation," or drop "free" from "agency," you run a grave risk of losing plain and precious meanings that were perfectly clear under the previous terms.

Clarification of the existing term requires only teaching: "Free agency in the gospel is not like what they mean by free agency in professional sports. We are free to choose, but not free to escape the consequences of our choices. Either we're on the Lord's team or we're not; we're not looking for the highest bidder."

That's an easy explanation; it divides Church language from world language, as we do with so many other terms.

But when you ban the word "free" from "free agency," the unconscious message is given that we are not free, that "agency" is somehow different from "free agency."

It would be unfortunate if that led to a change in our understanding of a plain and simple doctrine.

Fortunately, language has a great deal of inertia. Despite "between Jim and I," people still say "Me and Jim, we went to the store" (which, by the way, is not "wrong," it's just a different rule).

And "free agency" will probably survive alongside "agency," "plan of salvation" alongside "plan of happiness," and "preexistence" alongside "premortal existence."

True doctrine will probably prevail, regardless of attempts to control language.


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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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