Follow the Prophet(‘s Name)

Do Mormons name our kids after the current Church President? I’ve known some people who have (or at least I’m assuming that was their inspiration–Hinckley seems like an unusual name to use for any other reason), but I wondered if it was a more general phenomenon.

Unfortunately, I don’t have Mormon-specific naming data, nor do I have data from outside the US. What I do have is the Social Security name database, which gives yearly counts of names used by state. So I thought it might be interesting to at least look at whether states with lots of Mormons use names of Church Presidents more often than other US states, especially starting around the time a Church President is called. I assembled the name data and the yearly birth count data from the CDC’s Vital Statistics reports as described in this post from last year. As in that post, I got data for the years 1960 through 2014.

I checked the first and last names of all Church Presidents since David O. McKay, although as he became Church President in 1951, I couldn’t check whether there was a change at that time. I compared the percentage of babies given those names in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona, and also the percentage in the rest of the US. The Social Security data reports counts separately for girls and boys, so I checked each name for both.  For nearly all the Presidents’ names, I couldn’t see any evidence of the pattern I was looking for. Either the states with lots of Mormons used the name less than the rest of the country, or they hardly used the name at all, or there was no change around the time the President having the name was called.

There are three exceptions, where there is at least a hint that something is going on. All (not surprisingly) are for boys. The names are Spencer (W. Kimball), (Howard W.) Hunter, and Thomas (S. Monson). Here is the graph for Spencer.

President Kimball was called at the very end of 1973, and Utah had a big uptick in the use of Spencer for several years right around that time. It’s not a clear cut case, though. The increase started before he got into office, and use of the name increased even more starting in the late 1980s after he had died. On the other hand, the 1970s increase occurred at a time when the rest of the US was pretty flat in its use of Spencer, whereas the 1980s increase followed a national trend. The 1970s increase also showed up in muted form in Idaho and Arizona. In summary, in answer to my question, I would call this a maybe.

Here’s the graph for Hunter.The timing for this one is pretty close, but again it looks like the trend preceded the call. President Hunter was called in mid-1994, and use of Hunter was already on the upswing in Utah. It also went up in Idaho, although the peak and levels of use occurred later than for Utah. Arizona had no effect at all, falling below the rate for the rest of the US. And of course the biggest complication is that rather than occurring against a backdrop of flat usage in the rest of the country, these increases in Utah and Idaho occurred as the name’s popularity was also increasing in the rest of the US. Utah and Idaho just jumped ahead and used the name more, but it’s not like it wasn’t being used elsewhere. I would call this one unlikely.

Here’s the graph for Thomas (also including Tom and Tommy):

Usage of Thomas has been in decline across the entire 1960-2014 period. Across most of the period, the name has actually been used less in the three states with sizeable numbers of Mormons than in the rest of the US. President Monson was called in early 2008, and in the mid to late 2000s, the decline in Utah flattened out, so that it went from being below the rest-of-nation average to being above it. A similar pattern might also be present for Idaho, as it moved near the rest-of-nation average after falling below it for a long time. If the pattern is present for Arizona, it’s very subtle. I think this qualifies as a maybe.

Overall, these results offer little evidence that we Mormons are doing much naming of our kids after Church Presidents. It’s possible that there’s a little of this going on, but given that I showed the clearest examples, and omitted all the names where there was no pattern at all, and there’s still not much evidence there, it seems unlikely that it’s a very big consideration for most parents choosing a name for their kids.

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This one surprised me — I would have expected a more definite pattern, at least with Spencer and Hunter. You have the coolest ideas for research!

  2. I am interested in more data using Q12 f/l names. Mormon names used to be unique in combining two family names together (like LaVar). I also think there’s a tendency to not name your kid after the current prophet (oh sure, they think they’re so righteous) but maybe the last 20 yrs as last names as first names bc more acceptable I think that names Maxwell and Kimball – or naming someone after your fave past church leader /q12 – was more ok. Now I also want to look up trends in BoM name data. See if all those Teancums from 20 years ago ended up naming their kids Nephi.


  3. Thanks, Ardis! I’m glad you enjoyed this.

    I agree, Kristine. That could be a fun set of questions to investigate. I’m planning to look at something with Book of Mormon names soon!

  4. So, all you young Mormon couples out there, be prepared to name your next baby “Nelson.” Got to get a trend going.


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