Learn English: The Anglicization of the Church

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At the Europe Area Conference in Munich, Germany, in August 1973, President Harold B. Lee, confronted with a variety of languages and the challenges for translators, said:

“How helpful it would be if everyone now speaking your own native tongue would learn to speak English. Then you would be able to talk with us more clearly and we could understand you better than we have done.[1]

In response, thousands of members started to learn English, even worldwide. In Korea a program “English for Latter-day Saints” was started. Next the Church Educational System asked BYU-Hawaii to develop this program for any country. For several years, curricula and lesson materials were developed.[2] Then the momentum fizzled. Church leaders, however, introduced a more efficient system as part of the missionary duties in Preach My Gospel. Somewhat paradoxically in the Chapter “How Can I Better Learn My Mission Language?” the third injunction is (p. 128):

Learn English

If you do not speak English, you should study it as a missionary. This will bless you during your mission and throughout your life. Learning English will enable you to help build the Lord’s kingdom in additional ways and will be a blessing for you and your family. Many of the suggestions found in this chapter will help you. Focus particularly on the following:

    • Set a goal to speak English with your companion. If your companion already knows English and is trying to learn your language, you might choose to speak English in the apartment and the mission language when you go out.
    • With your companion, read from the Book of Mormon in English. You might also choose to alternate: You read a verse in English, and then your companion reads a verse in the mission language. Correct each other’s pronunciation and intonation.
    • Ask your mission president for suggestions on a simple English grammar text if you do not already have one.

Thousands of missionaries from non-anglophone countries all over the world have learned English that way. The injunction to “learn English” remains in force for all incoming new missionaries whose native language is not English. Though some do better than others, overall, it works. Their companions are often American. Missionary meetings are often held in English, certainly with visiting authorities. Mission instructions and interviews are mostly in English. English becomes the main language of their social networking and remains it after their mission.

The Preach My Gospel argument that “English will enable you to help build the Lord’s kingdom in additional ways” seems to point to potential leadership positions. Sufficient mastery of English is indeed a supportive criterion for the selection of area and stake presidencies and for Church employment. English is vital for communication with higher-ups. The argument of the advantage of English “throughout your life” and “a blessing for you and your family” seems indicative of a business-oriented world view dominated by English.

However, a side note: in reality, not English, but the mastery of the language of a neighboring country or region is often more rewarding—without neglecting English. For example, in Belgium (with a French- and a Dutch-speaking region), public and private sectors beg for personnel fluent in both languages. Being bilingual French-Dutch is expected for functions on federal level and in the capital Brussels. But the Church almost never sends French-speaking Belgians to a Dutch-speaking mission, or Dutch-speaking Belgians to a French-speaking mission. Fostering such bilingualism would also result in bilingual Church leaders in Belgium—an important asset for cooperation and for government relations. The same principle applies to other neighboring countries and regions with high interactions such as in Europe’s patchwork of countries. Sending missionaries just to the neighboring country would also cost the Church much less. End side note.

Some think that Spanish may some day prevail as the most-spoken language in the Church. Even if Spanish becomes so numerically, there is little doubt that English will remain the Church’s prime language. Ronan Head noted the Church’s permanent Anglosphere in broader perspective: “English dominates two vital cogs in Mormon self-understanding: the Mormon revelation and Anglo-exceptionalism”.

Factors in anglicization in the non-anglophone church

Anglicization: here defined as “ever more English, pushing back the local language use.”

How extensive is anglicization in the Church? The past few years I noticed the following in my stake, the Belgium Antwerp Stake—officially Dutch-speaking, covering the north of Belgium (Flanders or Flemish Region) and a narrow strip of the south of the Netherlands. Our situation may not be representative for other stakes, since our stake also includes the Brussels International Ward and the Heerlen Military ward, but some of the following items are applicable in comparable environments. The order of the items is at random.

1    (Long) returned missionaries (LRMs), from local origin, tend to shift to English with the current young US missionaries in their ward. Some continue to use their Scriptures in English—the valued “original.” (L)RMs also easily intersperse English in their talks and lessons.

2    Stake leaders and most members of bishoprics are chosen among LRMs—all able to communicate at least fairly well in English. It’s useful for leadership meetings with visiting authorities, which are conducted in English—what President Lee wished for: “You would be able to talk with us more clearly and we could understand you better.” The principle extends to all areas where communication with (visiting) higher-ups is expected—Family History, Seminary, Institute, Self-Reliance, and more.

3    Members hungry for more information than what the church offers in translation must turn to sources in English—an incentive to learn or improve English. Short quotations in English are then used in talks and lessons, with translation perhaps offered to the “ignorant.” Also Church videos, in English only, are used in lessons, under the assumption all will understand. For the latest news from the Church or for extra material for children and youth: English required.

4    Connections in the US with RM’s, friends, or emigrated family members infuse English in social media. The numerous LDS-related virtual communities require English for participation. A visit to Utah is a must for the more privileged.

5    General conference and worldwide devotionals are broadcast in English. Though the translated version is available, listening to the original is more riveting, establishing a more direct contact with the prophet and other general authorities. “I listen in English” becomes a token of closeness to the premium membership.

6    At stake conferences the visiting authority usually speaks in English, with translation provided at the pulpit. But those who know English react immediately to English (laughing, acquiescing, responding to a request to raise hands), thus signaling their English proficiency. The subsequent translation is unwittingly sensed as for the secondary, less educated group.

7    Instructions from Salt Lake and from the Area Presidency always come in English first. Though translated copies are foreseen, in reality these are often late or skipped. The stake forwards the texts in English to each ward which distributes it to whomever it concerns.

8    American expats, temporarily attending a local ward, even for several years, seldom learn the local language. They are valuable for their experience and their willingness to serve, but they expect translation to English, even when called to local leadership positions. In the Antwerp stake, the presence of quite a few Americans leads to a demand for “more English” in meetings.

9    Quite a few converts are immigrants from Africa for whom English is usually their lingua franca. Local members who know English reach out to fellowship them. Talks and lessons are translated to English.

10  The expat and immigrant anglophones are of course also given the chance to give prayers, talks, and testimonies—in English. The talks and testimonies are translated in Dutch from the pulpit for the native audience, doubling the time. It’s quite normal to include them that way, but it adds to a natural acceptance of English as the normal church communication tool.

In short, President Lee’s admonition to all members and the Preach My Gospel injunction to “learn English” as “a blessing for you and your family” seem to be realized in various ways.

The impact on those who don’t know English and even on those who know

However, among the native members there still is a substantial group—even the majority—for whom English remains inaccessible or just too scant: older members, the less privileged, those who never needed English in life, those indisposed to foreign language learning, or feeling too insecure—quite often the more humble souls. For decades most of them have been part of a little branch, where the native tongue shared by all provided social cohesion. Then came the growth for which they have so often prayed and fasted. They rejoice in the development to a stake and to full-fledged wards. However, the increasing presence of English and the related comprehension gaps weaken their sense of communal identification. Similar obstacles apply to investigators and newly baptized members who lack English and are already overwhelmed by all the novelties. And even among those who know (some) English, the English intrusion is felt as disturbing.

The situation is even more particular for native members who used to have their own fully Dutch-speaking units, such as in the cities of Genk and Louvain. Those cities were closed in 2017 as part of a major consolidation. Most members of Genk were assigned to the Military Ward in Heerlen and those of Louvain to the International Ward in Brussels. In these two wards English predominates and translation is provided for the Dutch-speaking natives. Some of these transferred members, if they know enough English, found advantages in belonging to a larger and experienced ward. For others the distance, travel costs, and loss of communal identity took their toll. We lost quite a few of these native members.

In short, a communal distinction creeps in between the English-knowers and the not-knowers. For the latter, their love of the gospel and the Church, as well as the principle of obedience, compel them to accept these developments as they come. Complaining would seem ungrateful or ethnocentric. They may even feel guilty or incompetent for still not knowing (enough) English.

This movement is slow and insidious. The emergence of a managerial leadership style on stake and ward level may add to the distance. Some of these leaders, all in the know-English group, may not even be aware of the subtle exclusion taking place at the lower levels. Some may even unconsciously cultivate the use of English as a social affirmation strategy: it can feed a feeling of belonging to upper ecclesiastical levels. Of course, not all English-knowers are in this case: some do worry about the anglicization as undermining social cohesion and fostering tensions.

Another drawback of anglicization is the Church’s image. For decades Church leaders have been pounding on the message that “this is not an American church,” in particular in countries where US-connections are not viewed favorably. The increasing use of English is not helping to shed the American image. In Flanders in particular, a region that since the middle of the nineteenth century had to struggle for the recognition of Dutch as its official language, this is a sensitive issue.

The question of language and community

For the Church in general, the topic of lingual cohesion for a ward’s well-being has been a regular matter of controversy and concern: should foreign-language speakers assimilate into the local church unit or is it better to provide a separate language unit for them? Over the years Church policy has balanced between integration and separation, the latter allowing “ethnic units” or “specialized congregations”—Spanish, Korean, Russian …—to be organized in the US and in other countries with sufficiently large minorities.[3] These units are an answer to members’ hunkering after an own sociolingual haven in a church where the verbal component—prayers, talks, lessons, meetings, and various programs with much oral interaction—takes such an inordinate space.

On the other hand, Church PR praises multilingual units for their diversity. But praising diversity seems in the first place finding charm in the external display of a “beautiful florilegium,” which is certainly praiseworthy and which may, we hope, also represent the deeper reality. But as Jessie Embry noted from past Church experiments: “Integration into multi-cultural, multi-lingual units was based on the ideal—and idealized philosophy that gospel unity produces social unity.”[4] So the real question is to what extent each individual member really feels part of a community rather than of a disparate congregation. The very reason why the Church permits ethnic units is to provide a haven to individuals struggling with acculturation and to retain them as active members.

Anglicization of a stake or a ward is quite another perspective: here native units in the native country are being slowly anglicized, with a risk of frustrating the very natives for whom the Church was established in the first place. Here we see the paradoxical antipode of an ethnic unit that recognizes the value of people’s native language: an internal movement that promotes English over the native language and may lead to an English-speaking church as default, with some collateral damage.


[1] Cited in Doyle L. Green, “Munich Conference Report,” Ensign 3 (November 1973): 82.

[2] Lynn Henrichsen, “English for Latter-day Saints,” Deseret Language and Linguistic Society Symposium 5, no. 1 (1979): 126–141.

[3] See the chapter “Ethnic Congregations” in Jessie L. Embry, Mormon Wards as Community (Binghamton, N.Y.: Global Publications, 2001), 105–130. See also Roy A. Prete, G. Eric Jarvis and Jonathan A. Jarvis, “The Linguistic and Ethnic Transformation of the Church in Quebec since the Mid-1960s,” Journal of Mormon History 43, no. 4 (2017): 155–184.

[4] Embry, “Ethnic Congregations,” 107.

17 comments for “Learn English: The Anglicization of the Church

  1. Very nice Wilfried. It makes you wonder whether a religion should have a default or dominant language, or whether it’s inevitable because after all a religion always starts in a specific place. But certainly the question is what messages should be sent to those without that language? How might this compare with Latin in Catholicism, Arabic in Islam, or the Orthodox practice of preferring local vernaculars to a semi-official or official lingua franca?

  2. Thanks for this insightful and timely commentary, Wilfried. The need to make intellectual room for non-English-knowers in Church-adjacent communities is why the Journal of Mormon History is piloting a non-English-language issue of the journal this year, but it has been hard to get the word out (in English, as it turns out) about this opportunity to non-English-knowers; I guess the Mormon History Association needs to work up an announcement/invitation in various non-English languages to facilitate that.

  3. Since 1978 Hawaiian is the official state recognized language of Hawaii. If the MTC trained all of its Hawaii missionaries to speak Hawaiian, they would better serve the work of restoring Hawaiian culture and nationhood. Baptisms would skyrocket if LDS missionaries could speak and teach Hawaiian. If BYUH students were required to take Hawaiian as a requirement for graduation, the Lord’s work in the Pacific would blossom. All the tribes of the earth are watching closely how the LDS institution deals with indigenous peoples: by assisting in the proliferation of the Hawaiian language, the Restored Church signals to the tribes of the earth that we have not inherited Cain’s colonialism.

  4. This is fascinating conundrum. English has become the de facto global language. In Uganda, the official national language is English. The country comprises a variety of tribes, each with it’s own language. To overcome the language confusion, English was chosen. Children learn it as part of their formal education.

    In Peru for many, Quechua is their native language. They learn Spanish in school. And I assume that Spanish is the official language. So for the Church to further impose another language, would be a bit of a hassle.

    My grandson went on a mission to Chuuk, Micronesia. The small island group has it’s own unique language: Chuukese. A language spoken by maybe100,000? Practically speaking, for the Church to provide a wide variety of resources is next to impossible.

    The only solution I see is to encourage members to learn English. With Spanish as backup. Not because the Church was founded in the US, but because English is the de facto global language. Missionaries could be actively involved in teaching English.

    All this seems like neocolonialism. Ugh. But at the same time, the Church could allow more local culture to be infused into Church activities.

  5. Craig, indeed: some major religions have their own language as part of their orthodox essence. That is certainly the case for Judaism and Islam. For the Catholic church, the mass was still in Latin till the 1960s. On the other hand, the subsequent lingual diversification did not prevent Italian from becoming the Vatican’s language for its leadership relations across the world and for its internal highest councils. But Italian never became a lingua franca for the membership at large. Of course, Catholicism has also much more leniency to allow local priests to adapt to local situations, even with diversifying parishes in one city, than our church allows.

    Julie, that’s of course an important aspect I did not touch upon: English as the worldwide academic language. If we want Mormon academics in non-English countries to contribute their Mormon-related research and insights, it will have to be in English for maximal reach, as it is in all disciplines. But the challenge for many of these researchers is not so much the receptive mastery of English, but the productive part: the ability to write in academic English. Perhaps here more help could be provided from the Anglo-side: a pool of bilingual academic volunteers in related relevant fields willing to assess and, when approved, next translate submissions written in non-English languages. Something the main Mormon journals could think about?

    rogerdhanse, thanks for your thoughts! You raise a valid point: what about the many small language groups who need to turn to a major language in order to be part of the larger world. As to the idea that “the Church could allow more local culture to be infused into Church activities,” this is true for well-defined smaller cultural entities, but once the entity is larger, internal cultural diversity makes it difficult to define a “local culture” typical for all. It may lead to folklorization or to tensions over what is the “local culture”.

  6. It is actually possible that both things are happening, i.e., English continues to dominate as the church gets bigger in some areas, and access to local languages resources increase at the same time.

    Important to put the argument in context as well. The Belgian experience is hardly unique, but neither is it widespread. I’m afraid the author’s personal experience colors his conclusions.

    From a developing country perspective—which biases my perspective on this issue—learning English is a great, life changing asset for our RMs. In the meantime, they’ll have picked up neighboring languages like Italian on their own. While learning Greek and Serbio-Croatian would certainly be beneficial, the value added is not as great as knowing English.

    Finally, in developing countries English becomes a gateway to the BYU-Online program, smth that many in the global north don’t necessarily need (although the program has been beneficial for members over 30 yo).

    In short. Yes, it’s annoying and sometimes discouraging. However there is no one solution that works best. First world problems are not shared by the majority of the church which now increasingly resides in the developing world.


  7. Medlir, you make excellent points and thanks for nuancing my approach. The developing country perspective deserves to be highlighted as English proficiency can bring education and progress to individuals, families, and the country itself. In that sense, the Preach My Gospel injunction to learn English is certainly valuable, in particular because BYU provides online courses from which RM’s, who have few other means to study, can profit. So yes, circumstances can justify the push to English. At the same time, I think some of my basic remarks remain valid even in such countries: RM’s who next progress in English, obtain better jobs, often in the corporate-managerial sphere, and also become local Church leaders, should never forget to care for those who remain outside their sphere. Higher positions entail that risk of distance, as David Knowlton remarks in the section “Social positions of leaders” in his article, “Mormonism in Latin America: Towards the Twenty-First Century,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (1996): 159-176.

  8. Even in countries where the goal of speaking English as a foreign language is not so often achieved, there is a certain number of unnecessary loan words from English incorporated into the local LDS jargon.

    While teaching Sunday school in Brazil, I’d sometimes ask if anyone knew the meaning of the words “elder” or “garment”. Most replies made clear that using such English words in a Portuguese-speaking country only conceals their meaning.

    That makes me wonder how the Church linguistic policy is decided in theses cases, and if the decisions are made in Salt Lake City or negotiated at the national level.

    The words or titles used to refer to full-time missionaries or male authorities and their wives, for example, are an interesting case. Translatios of the words “sister” and “elder” are used in Japan and Italy, but go untranslated in Brazil. And there is also the interesting mix happening in Spanish-speaking countries, where “elder” and “hermana” are used.

  9. Wilfried, thank you for your insight. I am still puzzled (and disappointed) at the short-lived effort to have talks delivered at General Conference in the speaker’s native language. That was a wonderful opportunity to be part of an international church, even when viewing conference remotely.

  10. I sincerely believe that the church should have all the most widely spoken languages ??as official languages. All Church materials should at least be in those languages, and that applies to Church-dependent businesses, including Deseret Books. We do not know where the greatest growth of the Church is going, but the English, the Portuguese, the Spanish have an advantage. For the General Authorities, being able to handle several languages ??is essential. An example of this is Elder Texeira, Elder Christofferson. In particular, my first language is Spanish, I have learned English and in my mission Guarani. But if I have to express ideas from the heart, I can only do it properly in Spanish. I know many people who are not going to learn English in their life and cannot access specific information from the church due to language issues…in a certain way that is discrimination. The church has the means to provide all of its materials in the world’s major languages, and that is much easier than having everyone in the world learn English.

  11. Antonio: yes! a form of anglicization also comes through the uniquely Mormon lingo that permeates our communication. In that sense even non-English knowers “learn” some English words that become part of their “Mormon” native tongue. Elder and garment are prime examples. I assume these have been adopted in many languages. In our “Mormon Dutch” I hear and read about devotionals, firesides, YSA, EFY … It’s a little bewildering for investigators and recent converts. On the other hand, some of these inclusions are pretty unavoidable because so Mormon-specific and most members will integrate and understand them. Mormonism is entitled to its own lingo as long as the terms have pretty unique connotations and are useful to our culture. The real problem is that such words may facilitate more and more use of English by some, as if all members will also understand the rest. That’s the main point of my post: the zone where exclusion begins.

    Jim, thanks for your comment! The General Conference talks in the speaker’s native language seem indeed to have been an experiment and we must wonder what the afterward assessment was. I guess a mix of advantages and disadvantages. At least the experiment shows that Church leaders are well aware of the lingual challenges for many members and are willing to try out new things.

  12. This is why I keep coming back to Times and Seasons. Thought-provoking for sure and thanks for your efforts and thought on this.

  13. Wilfried,
    In Australia we have lots of members who are Tongan or Samoan. Presumably they can get by in english (australian), but they have their own ss class, and we get prayers and baby blessing in language. At one stage there were Tongan and Samoan wards but they were closed down. We only have one church building in our stake and these wards were meeting in rented accomodation. They just continued to meet as if nothing had changed until they were accepted back. 12 or 18 months.

  14. Goes to show how ethnocentric it is of the church to make everyone learn English for the sake of THEIR comfort. We have one of the most diverse churches and the money to back multi language learning besides English. Yet why are we pushing just English? What happened to the gift of tongues and interpretation of tongues? Guess that went out the window…??

  15. How I remember why conference speakers using their native tongue was not continued, it made the translation process into the variety of other languages difficult and challenging.

  16. Wilfried, thanks for sharing! It could actually have an extra layer to it. Let me explain. Here in Kazakhstan the Church is in Russian only. Russian is one of the two official national languages (Kazakh being another one) but we don’t have anything in Kazakh language. Only in Russian. Even Scriptures (well, except the Bible).

    So in order to be accepted as privileged you need to speak Russian + English. And if you are native Kazakh and don’t happen to learn Russian – you have big problems.

  17. Nur, thank you for joining us from Kazakhstan and adding your valuable perspective. You confirm the importance of mastering several languages, one of which is English as the world’s lingua franca. But the point is indeed also our concern with the many who are not that privileged and for whom we must care to make sure they understand and feel part of the community. From Belgian history, I can also relate with your situation in Kazakhstan. Up to a century ago, French was the imposed administrative and higher education language in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. To succeed in life, French was obligatory, resulting in reinforcing the difference between social classes. The same tends to happen in the Church: without English, one may feel like a second-class latter-day saint.

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