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Kirby: Mormons have made familial references their own

Published June 6, 2013 1:46 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I've had a lot of official titles as a Mormon. I was Elder Kirby on a mission and later President Kirby as an Elders Quorum boss. Mostly I've just been Brother Kirby.

"Brother" and "Sister" are how most rank-and-file Mormons refer to one another. I have no idea when or how the practice began, other than it probably began as a reminder of our solidarity in the family of God.

Other faiths have used similar familial references in congregational settings, as in, "It's Brother Bobby Joe's turn to handle the snakes" or "Sister Verbeena may be a witch." But Mormons really made this gospel sibling reference our own.

I was raised in such a Mormon home that adults were either "Brother" or "Sister" or "Mr." or "Mrs." Lamentably, sometimes they could be both.

One of my elementary-school teachers was "Mrs." at school and "Sister" at church. It was embarrassing to get them mixed up. You didn't want your classmates hearing you ask "Sister Felter" if you could go to the bathroom.

Strange as that seems, it was also 50 years ago. Back then there were still old-school Mormon married couples who referred to their spouses as "Brother" and "Sister." Creepy, I know.

As missionaries, we were directed to call one another "Elder [Last Name]" in order to remind us of our status. Even in the relaxed environs of our apartments we were never to refer to each other by our worldly first names.

We may have been servants of the Lord but we were also guys, so it wasn't unusual to hear a debate over a toothbrush turn surreal, as in, "I'll kick your %#@&!, Elder Karpus."

Speaking of which, religious references can even be used to torment people. I'll sometimes call Sonny "Brother Sonny" until he gets mad and takes a swing at me.

Years later, I was a cop in a town in Utah County. Everyone knew everyone else. It didn't happen a lot, but it wasn't unheard of for someone to inquire of me, "How much is my bail, Brother Kirby?"

This formality increases as we go up the Mormon ecclesiastical ladder. Other faiths refer to their congregational leaders as "Pastor Ralph" or "Reverend Billy." First names don't work for Mormons, even when we're referring to the leaders of other faiths.

The few times I've met the Most Rev. John Wester of Salt Lake City, I've called him "Bishop" even though I'm not Catholic and he isn't technically my bishop. My bishop is Geoff. He lives next door.

One of my friends was just "Larry" until two years ago, when he became "Bishop Erdmann." Today I call Larry "Bishop," except when we're arguing, and then he's whatever comes to mind.

The archaic formality of "Brother and Sister" may be falling into disuse. Today my bishop, stake president, various church authorities and most of the children in my ward routinely call me Robert.

There's probably some headquarters directive against this descent into heathen familiarity, but I'd still rather be "Robert" than "Brother Kirby." Less seems to be expected of just plain "Robert."

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.




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