Our Many Covenant Names
Braden Hancock was a senior studying mechanical engineering when this paper was presented.
In late 1887, a six-year-old girl named Helen Keller lived in Alabama, completely deaf and blind. She realized even at a young age that she was different, that she could not communicate as others did. She grew frustrated with her inability to express herself or understand others. She wrote, “I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself.” Daily, and sometimes hourly, her frustration would lead to passionate outbursts of emotion.
Eventually, Helen’s parents hired a teacher named Anne Sullivan, who was willing to attempt to teach Helen how to communicate with others using words instead of only crude hand gestures. One morning, Miss Sullivan handed Helen a doll and allowed her to play with it for a while before slowly spelling the word “doll” into Helen’s hand. In Helen’s own words, “I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. . . . I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation.” Helen Keller’s autobiography, titled The Story of My Life, recounts what happened next:
We walked down the path to the well-house. . . . Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. . . .
I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them—words that were to make the world blossom for me, like Aaron's rod, with flowers. It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.
Helen Keller’s story is inspiring on many levels. An especially poignant lesson that many readers can attest to learning from her autobiography is the realization that through all our lives, we have taken for granted the gift of names. Helen Keller described a world which came to life the day she realized the world was filled with objects that had names and significance. Physical sensations, tangible objects, dear loved ones—all had names by which they could be called and shared with others.
This paper explores the purpose and significance of the many names that we carry throughout our lifetimes. We begin by briefly considering the importance of names to people, regardless of their religious background. We then observe the statements and actions of God that demonstrate the importance of names to him. The primary focus of this paper, however, is given in the section titled “A Name Reflects a Covenant,” where the many scriptural ties between names and covenants are highlighted. In particular, we explore the covenants associated with the name of our fathers, the name of our marriage, and the name of our Savior, demonstrating that each name given to us by God has the potential to serve as a token of remembrance of our covenants.
The Importance of a Name to Humanity
One of the first words that we understand as children is our own name. Before we know how to spell it or even pronounce it, we quickly learn to identify that sound, that symbol, with the entity that is “me”—our consciousness. We grow up in that paradigm, generally not questioning for years the source of that name. Some children no doubt are taken aback their first year in school when a teacher going down the roll follows their name with the question “And what would you like to be called?” Such children must wonder in their subconscious minds for the first time, “Is a name really so arbitrary that I change mine simply by willing it so?” Nicknames often appear around this time, and for years individuals may “try out” various versions of their names or some new name entirely. In nearly every case, however, by adulthood each has found the name by which he or she would like to be known to family, friends, and the world. We find a name with which we identify most strongly and choose that to be the particular combination of letters and sounds that we will make significant to ourselves because we have decided, “That is my name.”
In Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet Capulet is often quoted for the famous line “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And this is true, to some extent. With thousands of spoken languages in the world today, there are a myriad of names for a rose—names which do not necessarily all share commonalities in phonetics or etymological roots. In that sense, the spoken word rose does, indeed, hold little significance in determining what the living, beautiful organism is that we call a rose. Nevertheless, it is important that we recognize that to many individuals, a name is much, much more than a sound that has been arbitrarily connected to an object for the sake of convenience. Perhaps the person who would defend this position more vehemently than all others is God himself.
The Importance of a Name to God
Concerning his own name, there is no doubt that God is protective. One of the ten fundamental commandments given to the children of Israel when they proved themselves unworthy of a higher law was the simple injunction “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Millennia later, in our dispensation, the Lord once again warned, “Let all men beware how they take my name in their lips,” for “many there be who . . . use the name of the Lord, and use it in vain, having not authority” (D&C 63:61–62).
A number of important figures in the history of this world had their names given by God through prophecy. The angel Gabriel gave instructions to Mary that “thou . . . shalt call his name Jesus” and to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, “thou shalt call his name John” (Luke 1:31; Luke 1:13). Similarly, Joseph in Egypt prophesied of a great seer in the latter days whose “name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father.” We understand this great seer to be Joseph Smith Jr.[RU81] (Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 50:33). Furthermore, we have record of many instances of individuals being addressed by their given names by God or by messengers sent from him. Mary and Zacharias are examples once again, as well as Adam, Abraham, Moses, Paul, Nephi, Enos, Alma the Younger, Joseph Smith, and many others.
We are told that Christ knows his sheep not only by face, but also by name (see John 10:3). Even before the Creation was complete, God had Adam name “every living creature” (Genesis 2:19). And both at the time of Christ and in modern times, the name of Christ’s Church has been given explicitly (see 3 Nephi 27:8; D&C 115:4). In God’s eyes, a name is a very significant thing.
A Name Reflects a Covenant
In many instances in the scriptures, a name reflects a covenant. Consider, for example, the many individuals whose names changed following the making of a covenant or their adoption of a covenant role—Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, and the wicked Lamanites to righteous anti-Nephi-Lehies. Similarly, Adam named Eve according to her covenant role as “the mother of all living” (Moses 4:26). And in the last days, the covenant people of Israel “shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name” (Isaiah 62:2).
In Deuteronomy, a name and a covenant are implicitly associated: “Thou shouldest enter into covenant with the Lord thy God, and into his oath, which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day. . . . [But if anyone should go worshipping idols] the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven” (Deuteronomy 29:12, 20). Similarly, the covenanting people of King Benjamin were invited to “take upon [them] the name of Christ,” a name “that never should be blotted out, except it be through transgression” (Mosiah 5:8–11). We understand from these passages that the blotting out of a name from the books in heaven is the same as the loss of a covenant—the two come and go together.
The temple, being inextricably tied to covenants, highlights further connections to names. In 2 Samuel 7:13, David is told that his son “shall build an house for my name.” This is in reference to the temple of Solomon, which would become a house for God’s name, but also a house for the sharing of his covenants. In the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith asked the Father for his name to “be upon [thy servants]” as they “go forth from this house” (D&C 109:22). Furthermore, we are told that to all those who enter the celestial kingdom, “a white stone is given . . . whereon is a new name written” that will have significance to them (D&C 130:11).
As a final piece of evidence in the connection between names and covenants, we can consider the use of one’s given name in the performance of earthly ordinances. All priesthood ordinances (and most types of priesthood blessings) are performed individually, with a statement of the recipient’s full name. In many of these ordinances, witnesses ensure that the name has been spoken correctly.
The Lord has provided us with names that reflect our covenants to serve as reminders, keywords, and tokens in helping us to remember them. With each new covenant, we enter a new stage of our eternal existence, with new responsibilities and roles. In many ways, with each new covenant, we become a new person, deserving of a new name. Accordingly, our new covenant names can help us to remember and remain true to our divinely inspired destinies.
The name of our ancestors. The first covenant name that should be examined is the name of our ancestors. When children are born to members of the Church, it is instructed that they be brought “unto the elders before the church, who are to lay their hands upon them in the name of Jesus Christ, and bless them” (D&C 20:70). At that time, the child is given the name by which he or she will be known in the records of the Church. In families where the parents are sealed, we say that the child is born in the covenant. Just as a child’s acts are recorded under its family’s name on earth, the blessings that the child is promised through the covenant are recorded in heaven. Similarly, in biblical times, newborn males were given a name at the temple only after they had undergone circumcision on the eighth day, which was a symbol of the covenant people of the Lord at that time (see Genesis 17:2; Luke 2:21).
Many covenants that we are promised as members of the Church come through our righteous ancestors. In Genesis 48, as Israel blessed his children, he said, “and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” Israel understood that the Abrahamic covenant, which continued through Isaac and himself, would be a blessing to his children and to his children’s children. We similarly understand that where seekers of righteousness are not literal descendants of the great patriarchs, they are “adopted” into that family, gaining the names of these righteous individuals and becoming joint-heirs in the covenants promised to them and their posterity. As we are frequently reminded in the standard works of the Church, all those who carry the name of Israel are a part of a special people with a unique identity, eternal covenant, divine mission, and a future that has been prophesied about more than that of perhaps any other family in the history of the world.
The people of the Book of Mormon knew that they carried the name of the house of Israel. They also often carried the names of their more immediate ancestors as an outward representation of the lifestyle that they had chosen to follow. In the book of Mosiah, we learn of the Amulonites, who “were displeased with the conduct of their fathers, and they would no longer be called by the names of their fathers, therefore they took upon themselves the name of Nephi, that they might be called the children of Nephi and be numbered among those who were called Nephites” (Mosiah 25:12). Desiring to unite themselves with those who lived in harmony with the covenants that God offers to the righteous, the Amulonites altered their names accordingly. After the coming of Christ, there were no “Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Nephi 1:17). Dropping the names of their forebearers, the righteous and united people took only one name to reflect their chosen way of life—the name of Christ, whose children they considered themselves to be. Many decades later, “a small part of the people . . . revolted from the church and [took] upon them the name of Lamanites,” demonstrating outwardly once again that they were throwing in their spiritual lots with the wicked ancestors of their people (4 Nephi 1:20).
The names of parents are also often given to children as a means of helping them “to pattern their lives after their forebears,” such as was the case with Nephi and Lehi in the book of Helaman (Helaman 5, chapter heading). These names direct the thoughts of those who bear them to righteous examples of men and women who succeeded in keeping their covenants as their children now strive to do. When this occurs, it is a partial fulfillment of the prophesied spirit of Elijah, which turns the hearts of the children to their righteous fathers, allowing both the children and the fathers to bless each other through the good fruits of that special bond that spans the generations. Soon after his call to apostleship, Elder George Albert Smith had a dream wherein he was approached by his grandfather and namesake, Elder George A. Smith who had also served as an Apostle decades before. He was given the soul-searching request “I would like to know what you have done with my name.” Then, having viewed “everything [he] had ever done” in an instant, “as though it were a flying picture on a screen,” Elder Smith was gratefully able to respond, “I have never done anything with your name of which you need be ashamed.” After this experience, and undoubtedly before it as well, President Smith was able to draw strength from a name—his name—by recognizing the significance that it held.
The name of our marriage. A second covenant name worth being aware of is the name of our marriage. It has long been the way of society in many cultures that when a man and a woman marry, they begin to share the same last name. It does not particularly matter in the eternal scheme of things whether they take on his name or hers; what matters is that they now share a name, just as they share a marriage covenant. At birth, we are new people on earth. At baptism, we are new people in Christ. And at marriage, we are new people who now share all aspects of what was formerly two separate individuals’ lives. Thus the pattern repeats—a new phase of life, a new person, a new covenant, and a new name.
At the time of marriage, a husband and wife indicate their willingness to throw in their lots together—to be identified, blessed, and responsible for the righteousness of their new family unit together. Through the powerful sealing ordinance, each husband and wife becomes transitively sealed to the ancestors of his or her eternal companion, gaining the spiritual heritage of those family lines as well. Children born to that couple have the potential to observe and learn from the examples of dozens of their predecessors, whose bloodlines they carry. In a truly miraculous fashion, the names, covenants, histories, and characteristics of one’s ancestors funnel and blend into one as they pass through a couple that has been sealed by proper authority.
This connection between the name and covenant of eternal families is also referenced in the book of Isaiah, as the Lord speaks of those who are unable to have children. “Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5). In the Lord’s house, the temple, all worthy individuals can receive an everlasting name, which is tied to an everlasting covenant. That covenant, which is even better than the blessing of sons and daughters on earth, promises that in the eternities, their posterity “shall not be cut off” and they shall not have cause to mourn anymore, saying, “Behold, I am a dry tree” (Isaiah 56:3–5). In other words, at the very least, the righteous are promised the blessing of sons and daughters in heaven and the eternities. The names associated with marriage truly have wide-reaching significance and the capacity to remind us of the covenant blessings in store for the righteous.
The name of our Savior. The final covenant name to be considered is the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. The name of our Savior should hold particular significance to us as a covenant-making people because we are taught from the scriptures that it is “only in and through the name of Christ . . . whereby salvation can come unto the children of men” (Mosiah 3:17). Indeed, when we reach that point after this life when we would like to enter into the Lord’s presence, only those who carry the Lord’s name will be permitted to enter.
Every covenant that we perform in this life is made in the name of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, as part of the sacrament, in which we participate weekly, we explicitly express our willingness “to take upon [us] the name of [Christ]” (D&C 20:77). This important structure of covenants serves as a simple and frequent reminder that the many blessings that we receive through covenants—as individuals, families, a Church, and a human race—come to us only through another source, whose name we are privileged to carry.
The church leaders in Christ’s time attested to the power of carrying his name in working miracles when, after returning from their brief missions, they joyfully reported that “Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name” (Luke 10:17). In modern revelation, the Lord has shared his vision for the restored Church, where “every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world” (D&C 1:20). With the historic Official Declaration in 1978 that all worthy male members may hold the priesthood, this prophecy was fulfilled in a very literal way, allowing every man to speak in the name of Christ in priesthood functions (see Official Declaration 2).
By direct instruction, the Church that was given to the Saints in various dispensations has included the name of Christ. To the Nephites, the Lord taught that “whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name.” Therefore, they were to name the church accordingly and “call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake” (3 Nephi 27:7). As the Lord further explained, “if [a church] be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church,” with the caveat that it must also be “built upon my gospel” (3 Nephi 27:8). In the current dispensation, the Lord gave the full name of the Church by revelation, once again including his own name within it (see D&C 115:4).
Finally, bearing the covenant name of the Savior corresponds to one’s willingness to be identified with him, both in the present and the future. As King Benjamin explained, we become eligible to be “called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters . . . because of the covenant which [we] have made” (Mosiah 5:7). If we should suffer trials in this life because of our association with him, then we, like the ancient Apostles, may “[rejoice] that [we] were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41). When the last days come, it will not be hard for the angels to know who the followers of Christ are, because “his name shall be in their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4), just as his law will be written in their hearts (see Jeremiah 31:33). By the name of Christ we shall “be called at the last day” (3 Nephi 27:5), because “there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 31:21).
Throughout the life of a covenant follower of Christ, he or she will take upon himself or herself many covenant names: at birth, the name of one’s ancestors; at baptism, the name of Christ; upon confirmation, the name of the Church; with ordination to the priesthood, the ability to act in the name of Christ; following a sealing, a shared family name; and in the celestial kingdom, a new name given by God. How fortunate we are that after the many injunctions of the prophets over the ages to “remember, remember,” [RU82] our merciful God has provided us with so many natural reminders of our own promises, and the promises made to our ancestors, through the names that he gives us and allows us to take upon ourselves. May our many covenant names become tokens of remembrance to us, bringing us ever closer to the loving Father who gave them to us.
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005), 8–9.
Keller, The Story of My Life, 15–16.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, act 2, scene 1, lines 85–86.
George Albert Smith, “Your Good Name,” Improvement Era, March 1947, 139.