Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormons and “mankind”: Still holding on, but why?

Last fall in General Conference, the word “mankind” came up many times from the lips of Pres. Uchtdorf, Elder Gavarett, Sister Marriott, and the late Elder Perry, among others.

But that’s hardly unusual. In fact, most Mormons don’t blink an eyelash when we hear “mankind” used in church to refer to “all people,” women included.

It’s in our curriculum, like the adult lessons “The Origin and Destiny of Mankind” and “Jesus Christ Redeems All Mankind from Temporal Death.”

It’s in our scriptures, both the King James version of the Bible and the Mormon-specific texts that make up our Standard Works.

It’s so familiar that it’s surprising to realize that in fact, General Conference usage of “mankind” peaked in the 1970s and has been declining ever since:Use of "mankind"This dropoff in Mormon usage since 1970 mirrors what’s going on in the wider English-speaking world:

Google search for both mankind and humankindAs you can see here, “humankind” has become one of the many go-to replacements that English speakers have come up with. By 2000, “mankind” only outstripped “humankind” by a factor of 2.4 to 1 in the wider culture.

But “humankind” has not caught on in the LDS Church. Although Mormons use “mankind” less often than we used to, we still use it far more often than the wider culture does.

That difference is much greater. As in, what-decade-are-we-living-in greater.

In the 2000s, the last full decade for which we have Conference talks, “humankind” was used just eight times total. In contrast, “mankind” occurred 202 times, outstripping “humankind” by a factor of 25 to one.

Use of "humankind"Why is this growing linguistic divide between the LDS Church and the English-speaking world important?

It helps to examine a bit of history. The term “man” derives from the Old English word “mann” from over a thousand years ago, and indeed, the etymology suggests that in its own context, “mann” did mean all people, including women.

We know this because there was another word, “wæpenmann,” which indicated a person “with a weapon and/or penis.” That’s pretty direct.

But language has evolved over the last millennium – indeed, as we have seen, it’s evolved markedly in just the last half century. While history saw the use of “mankind” to refer to all people, that’s far less the case today, when popular alternatives like “humankind,” “humanity,” and “the human race” abound in the language and are gaining in popularity.

So why are Mormons holding on to “mankind”?

First, there’s an argument to be made for our collective stubbornness where language is concerned. After all, we are the folks who pray to God using what are now the most formal, archaic second person pronouns available (even though, ironically, “thee” and “thou” were once the most familiar, friendly ways of approaching another person, while “you” was so formal as to be off-putting).

We love us some King James English.

But the darker argument, the one that plagues me when I hear “mankind” used in Conference and see it in our curriculum, is that we are simply not thinking of the importance of women.

It’s possible to make a legitimate historical case that the word “mankind” used to refer in a gender-neutral way to all people. This was true even as late as Neil Armstrong speaking of “one giant leap for mankind” back in 1969. “Mankind” used to be almost universally accepted and few people explored alternatives (though there’s a fascinating overview in the new book Between You & Me of various writers who have tried).

However, the English language has changed since then, and it’s harder to make that argument linguistically now when so many legitimate gender-neutral options exist.

If “mankind” is a term that indeed represents both genders equally, logic suggests it should be interchangeable with “womankind,” with both words serving double duty to refer to all people and to their own gender specifically, depending on context. But somehow I don’t think we’ll be seeing general authorities say that “the gospel is for all womankind” anytime soon unless they are specifically addressing the Relief Society.

At this point, for the Church to hold on to “mankind” almost feels like a deliberate political statement.

And it’s a strange statement, frankly, considering that Mormon leaders’ persistent use of “mankind” to refer to all humanity occurs even as the Church reifies gender differences and insists on a binary distinction between male and female.

In fact, the subsuming of the female population under the masculine umbrella term “mankind” is the only example I can think of where the LDS Church sets aside its strict division between the genders and cheerfully agrees to lump them both together, lexically making women into men.

In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” we are taught that gender is an essential and eternal characteristic, and that men and women have separate divinely appointed roles.

Except, apparently, when it comes to language.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


Click here to post a comment

  • Watch out you ‘mankind’ word users. The word police are on the beat. Another interesting word study would be the usage of slang terms for women in general in American society. Words like, slut, ho, b;[email protected], etc. It might be good additional context regarding how important an issue for yourself you want to make of the word ‘mankind’ and the dark undertones you believe it has when used in General Conference.

    Another word topic, I like folk music and the old folk music often uses the word ‘gay’ implying happiness. It’s interesting how language becomes corrupted, meaning changed over time. Use the word ‘gay’ today and happiness is not the first that comes to mind for most people. Politically correct speech is an annoyance and gets in the way of clearly communicating thought and feeling.

    Why overanalyze? Why nitpick? Why criticize excessively?

  • Using gender-inclusive language is apparently an affront to a lot of LDS, unfortunately. I was surprised at the hostile response to my using it in the Easy-to-Read Bk of M, even though I was careful to show the inclusion (via brackets) and made sure to retain male-only language in male-only contexts. As the mother of three daughters, it astonished me to see how so many leaders fail to see the effects of exclusionary language. (And it creates some amazing doctrinal inconsistencies, too.

  • Actually, I remember being impressed with the FP’s statement on the ERA in 1976 that used “humankind” as in ““It would strike at the family, humankind’s basic institution. ERA would bring ambiguity and possibly invite extensive litigation.”.

    Don’t really know what they’ve been typically been using as an expression lately.

    I remember being torn a new one a few years ago for using the term “man-hour” in a presentation. When I challenged my critics to provide me better terminology they were somewhat at a loss to provide me a substitute. Perhaps clever wordsmiths have something better now. Haven’t heard it though.

  • I think this article is making a mountain out of a molehill. Most adults over the age of 25 grew up with “man” and “mankind” as the only words in the English vocabulary (except for “men and women” or “women and men”) used to refer to “all people.” These words are deeply ingrained habits, not socio-political statements! Political correctness polarizes where it need not.

  • For whatever it’s worth, Elder Gavarret’s talk was delivered in his native Spanish, where he referred to “todo el género humano” – “humankind.” In that one instance, at least, “mankind” is very likely a translation issue.

  • Outstanding post, Jana. I think you’re spot on with this point:

    “At this point, for the Church to hold on to “mankind” almost feels like a deliberate political statement.”

    I agree. You said it’s a strange thing to do at the same time Church leaders make such a big deal about gender differences. I think it kind of fits together, though, with the view that all people really *are* men, and women are kind of an appendage to men. Kind of people, but kind of not. I’m not a fan of this view, but I think it’s clear Church leaders hold it.

  • Well said, Lynn. I can see why it worries many traditional believers who are committed to the idea of a sexist God, though. Once you start replacing male pronouns with generic pronouns, you open up possibilities that might make people’s heads explode, like ordaining women. 🙂

  • Oh, and I neglected to say that it warms my heart to see you using data from the General Conference Corpus, Jana! Most excellent!

  • To paraphrase a quote from West Wing, there are real battles to be fought and this is not one of them. There are real issues regarding gender in the church and in society as a whole. I just don’t consider this to be one of them.

  • If a person believes that ‘mankind’ and ‘humankind’ are synonyms, your view is that it is sexist. Really? LOL… This is exactly why I disapprove of word policing, and politically correct speech. It’s oppressive to try to create a means of force to control how people express themselves, whether through shaming or other means. I am pro-freedom of expression especially when it comes to non-controvesial language like ‘mankind’.

  • I think it’s a whole different class of problem when it’s not just random people, but people held up as God’s mouthpieces, stubbornly persisting in using hurtful language.

  • My overtly feminist honors English teachers explained the contextual neutrality of “men” and “mankind” and similar such references to me many years ago. I use that term along with “humankind” completely interchangeably and without a whole lot of forethought. Probably the ones who give it the most thought are those who intentionally use “humankind” in all circumstances. As one who speaks German, the word “man” remains gender neutral. It is used much as we refer to be people as “one” in English, such as “What can one do?”

    The good news, however, is apparently the truly grave ills of man-, um, I mean human-kind have evidently been solved! 🙂

  • If these are examples of “hurtful language”, y’all have a pretty sheltered existence

  • This angst seems a little contrived.

    1. I would expect the term to be used at a much higher rate in Church sermons or political speeches. It’s just one of those words more commonly used in formal addresses than everyday talk. I would also expect “God bless America” shows up at a much higher rate in political speeches than the average American use. Do we assume higher rates of piety in politicians because of it?

    2. This post presumes because humankind has not gained in popularity in GC, the use of mankind is stubbornly held on to, perhaps even for pernicious reasons. But using your same time frame since 1970, note the percentage of use in GC has fallen at a faster rate than average use. Now, unless GAs have just stopped talking to or about people, they would have had to replace the word with something. Maybe not with humankind. But are we really going to assume dark, ulterior motives for using perhaps “everyone” or “children of God” instead of “humankind”?

  • Just realized I need to correct myself. I was comparing to # of uses in GC. When compared to rate (per million) in GC, average English-speaking use fell faster.

    That does not, however, negate the real point. Is has fallen to about half its use in GC from the 1970s. They obviously have been replacing it with something. And unless they just shortened mankind to man, it is something gender-neutral. (Besides the fact that man and mankind has historically, in the context they are using it, been gender neutral)

  • My love for West Wing knows no end, so I could become completely sidetracked on this issue. But I am on the side of those who believe CJ to be Sorkin’s one non – sexist female character. I am in agreement with that lot.

    I can think of many times where I have been very annoyed by what has been aid regarding women. But I truly do not believe that the use of mankind in talks is one of those issues. I think we would be much better off focusing on real issues.

  • I agree, if person wrests the scriptures, the scriptures can be made to mean anything a person wants.

  • Your justification for you criticism of LDS leader’s word choice is contrived and artificial. Geographic colloquialisms and phrasologies exist and we do not need to read more into it. Regarding this topic, you are more at odds with the thesaurus/dictionary than you are with anything else. You are “stubbornly” holding your opinion and are being hurtful toward free and open communication and would seek to control how people speak. You are a word oppressor. 🙂

  • We do not need to read more into it? How about this? If you tell people to think of “man” or “mankind,” they think of men. They don’t think of women. That’s empirically verifiable. Continuing to use the exclusive versions when there are non-exclusive versions available is either thoughtless or intentionally rude.

  • Ziff–
    Let me help you sort this out. My empathy (or perceived lack thereof) is not the primary cause of your disappointment. It apparently disappoints you that a number of my fellow readers and I are not shocked and appalled at the use of “mankind” by the GAs. Neither are we losing sleep over Jefferson and Lincoln using the phrase “all men are created equal”. I surmise that many of us do our bit to fight against female discrimination in Western institutions, of which there is still plenty, sad to say, and female subjugation and oppression throughout the world. We ain’t stopping to fight gnats when threatened by bears and lions.

    Jana has moved on to discussing fasting. I moved on to the weekend. See ya…

  • As I mentioned in a comment elsewhere on this post, I like folk music. I suggest that we do a hostage exchange since you’re holding people’s word hostage. I’ll give you the word ‘humankind’ in place of ‘mankind’, which I’m fine with because they’re synonyms. In return you give me back the word ‘gay’ so that every time I perform an old folk song with the word ‘gay’ in it I don’t have to deal with the inevitable low minded fool who smirks and giggles in the audience even though they know the word used in that context implies happiness and not homosexuality.

    Word context matters and that’s empirically verifiable. If you take a person’s words out of context, imagine the person speaking is thoughtless and/or intentionally rude by assuming the worse of the speaker and viola you’ll be offended every time. I need to use my time more wisely and this is trivial. I’m done. Thanks and have fun living life with that big chip on your shoulder.

  • Jana, you’re whining. No, I mean it. Sometimes, you amuse me; sometimes, you interest me deeply; sometimes, you tick me off; but this time, you’re whining. Find something else meaty that’s worthwhile. In the Church, there’s doctrine, or policy, or practice, or simply habit (even regionally). Learn th distinction and move on.

  • When you hear gender-inclusive language all of your life, It easy to scoff at those who rarely hear it.

    Lavina Fielding Anderson, a professional editor read through an entire conference issue of the Ensign looking specifically for messages of inclusion and exclusion. She noted in a talk given by President Benson that he referred to “the agency of man” and “all mankind” and said “God reveals His will to all men, … I testify that it is time for every man to set in order his own house … It is time for the unbeliever to learn for himself that this work is true, … In due time all men will gain a resurrection.” Exclusionary language such as this has a very real psychological impact on women and can negatively impact a woman’s religious experience.

    Ms. Anderson said that women cannot correctly understand their ultimate potential as gods when exclusive language is used. If we want to communicate inclusion,”then let us not use confusing gender-laden nouns.” Amen to that!

  • Really?! Good.Grief. With all the horrible things going on in the world.

    This is a good example of political correctness run amok. It is up there with not being able to say Merry Christmas.

  • I’m afraid I’m out of touch on this issue. My first reaction is that this is nit-picking and fault-finding, tying up modified meaning of a word with deliberate intention to discriminate, particularly a word that we’ve seen change use in our lifetime. Thanks for pointing it out, I’ll try and be sensitive to this work in the future. Could you also agree, author, that there is room here to give the benefit of doubt to the speakers as well?

  • The word “man” is part of the words “human” and “woman”. If you hate to even say the dreaded “M” word, how do you deal with it? Some people come up with odd spellings that replace the “a” with “y”, and think they are creating new words that have no etymological relationship to a term that refers to males. How silly.

    It is pretty simple to tell when a speaker means the term “mankind” to refer to “all male homo sapiens” or to “all homo sapiens”. In general, that is going to be 100% of the time, unless the speaker is setting up a distinction between “mankind” and “womankind”. And that generic, gender-inclusive meaning is what the term “mankind” has always meant. Any claim that the King James Version translators used “mankind” only to mean males, when they were discussing the Fall and God’s love and Christ’s atonement is simply wrong, and a modern attempt to ascribe a focus on gender that simply was not part of the language.

  • Jana is the biggest liberal cheerleader of the liberal wing LDS church. If I had my way I would have her ex-communicated from the Church

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.