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“In Their Native Tongues”: Non-English Languages in Zion, 1924

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 02, 2013

The desire of Church members to gather for a more complete experience of gospel living, added to the world’s other social, political, and economic reasons for migration, has always brought groups of Saints speaking different languages into close proximity. That has been especially common in Utah, but occurs throughout the world, wherever Mormons are found.

How we have handled that reality has changed from time to time throughout our history: Sometimes we encourage minority ethnic/language groups to integrate and assimilate; other times we organize entire wards and branches along linguistic lines, or provide other services, to meet the needs of such groups. Neither isolating people by linguistic walls, nor pretending that distinctions can be completely ignored, is an ideal solution, and there is always a tension in finding the right balance according to local situation or institutional needs.

Here is a snapshot from 1924, a letter from the First Presidency circulated to stake presidents in Utah and nearby areas, indicating how the Church was addressing the problem at that point:

[letterhead: Office of the First Presidency]

October 30, 1924.

Dear Brethren:

The Church is publishing, as for many years in the past, the following periodicals in foreign languages:

Bikuben – in Danish and Norwegian
Utah Posten – in Swedish
Salt Lake City Beobachter – in German
De Utah Nederlander- in Dutch

The considerable expense involved has been gladly met, because of our desire to assist our brethren and sisters, converted through the efforts of our missionaries in the countries where these languages are spoken. These converts have come to Zion to be taught in the ways of the Lord and to walk in His paths, and we regard it a duty to render them assistance in overcoming the handicap occasioned by their foreign birth and tongue, especially while they are adapting themselves to local conditions and acquiring a knowledge of the English language which often requires many years of earnest and strenuous effort.

With this thought in mind organizations have been effected in many of the Stakes of Zion, for conducting meetings in which our foreign Saints may receive Gospel instruction and admonition in their native languages; and with the same purpose in mind the abovementioned periodicals have been and are being published. We are glad to say that by reason of this policy great good has resulted to the Church and to our foreign born Saints.

To give expression to the deep interest which we feel in the welfare of our Saints who have come from foreign lands, and in the hope that they may more fully receive the benefits and advantages to be derived from carefully supervised foreign language meetings and newspapers, we have appointed a committee, charge with the supervision of all foreign language organizations of the Church and with the management of the foreign language publications. This committee as at present constituted is as follows: John A. Widtsoe, chairman; Rulon S. Wells, vice chairman; John Wells; Nephi L. Morris; Serge F. Ballif; Franklin S. Davis, secretary.

Our purpose in addressing this communication to you is that you may be fully advised in this important matter and also to enlist your active cooperation with the Committee in its efforts to carry out the aims and desires of the Church in behalf of its members of foreign birth.

A communication on this subject from the Committee, a copy of which is enclosed herewith, is being simultaneously addressed to all the Bishoprics soliciting their assistance and cooperation. We hope that the number of subscribers to the foreign newspapers may be increased by awakening a new interest among the foreign Saints and missionaries who have labored in foreign lands. The Committee will communicate with you as occasion demands.

The active support which we feel certain we shall receive from you and from the Bishops acting under your direction, will enable the Committee to effect many improvements which will inure to the benefit of our brethren and sisters of foreign extraction, will directly assist you in building up the work of the Lord in the Stake over which you preside; will at the same time reduce to a minimum the financial burden of publishing foreign language papers and will help realize fully the purposes for which these periodicals are being maintained.



3 Comments »

  1. Wonderful. I have heard of this letter. I think this was one of the substantial policy changes in the Church’s evolving ways of addressing different languages — perhaps even a precursor of the current translation department in a way.

    I’ve long thought that the whole language issue demands a history itself.

    And since we’re not anywhere near where we need to be, given that there are 928 languages with at least 100,000 speakers (per ethnologue.com), it would be nice if more of the average members of the Church thought about language issues once in a while. [Merely curing monolingualism among Church members would be a step in the right direction.]

    Comment by Kent Larsen — October 2, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

  2. I agree, Kent — it’s an important (and interesting!) topic, and sooo much work needs to be done to document it in the past as well as, as you note, making progress in the future.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 2, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

  3. Hienoa!

    Comment by Kim Ö. — October 9, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

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