Updated: Jan 12
“If the Atonement is the foundation of our faith (and it is), then no one should be content with a casual acquaintance of this doctrine. Instead, the Atonement should be paramount in our intellectual and spiritual pursuits.”
- Tad R. Callister, “The Infinite Atonement”
In terms of historical linguistics, or the study of language change over time, the predominant and overarching term used to describe the Savior’s sacrifice in LDS vernacular is a fascinating archetype. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explains atonement in the following way:
“To atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God. Jesus Christ was the only one capable of carrying out the Atonement for all mankind. Because of His Atonement, all people will be resurrected, and those who obey His gospel will receive the gift of eternal life with God.”
The doctrinal principle is the very lynchpin of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the means whereby man may overcome spiritual and physical death brought about by the Fall of Adam. It is the overarching term used to describe the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, including his suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary.
The word atonement, in any variation (e.g., atone, atoneth), appears only once in the New Testament (Romans 5:11). Hence, the word is a hapax legomenon, a linguistic term from Greek hapax (“once”) and legein (“to say”), meaning “a thing said once,” or a term or word that appears only once in a body of text. This seems ironic, considering the high frequency with which it appears in the Old Testament and in LDS doctrine and teachings. The Atonement plays a pivotal role in Christian doctrine, yet there is a dearth of usage in modern Christian vernacular outside of the LDS Church.
A common characteristic of hapax legomena (plural) is the loss of meaning or understanding. For instance, when archaeologists discover an artifact with written text, linguists may fail or struggle to translate a term used only once in the text, even with context. The single appearance of a term often results in lost meaning and lost literal understanding or interpretation. Word frequency of atonement in its English form among scripture reflects this loss of understanding in Christianity. While the term appeared rather frequently in the Old Testament in reference to sacrifices at the altar in similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten, the term appears but once in the New Testament. Throughout early Christianity (following Christ’s death), the Dark Ages, and even the Great Awakening, this term was uncommon in written text or speech. Only after the Restoration of the Church and the publication of the Book of Mormon was there a resurgence in the usage of atonement. Modern revelation restored meaning to this term and fostered its revival.
Table 1: Frequency of the Term Atonement and its Variations in Standard Works
The usage of atonement and its variations in scripture vary. In the Old Testament, Jehovah uses the term frequently, mainly referencing sacrificial rituals. Jehovah uses the term with relatively high frequency and it is often closely associated with the term offering. Uses in the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, however, refer to the final sacrifice of the Lamb of God—not the blood sacrifices during the Old Testament era, predating Jesus Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane and at Calvary.
Following the translation of the Book of Mormon and the more frequent occurrence of the term atonement in the more recently-added standard works of the Church, General Authorities used the term in General Conference addresses. In the decades following the establishment of the Restored Church, this term became more prevalent in General Conference and in speech among members of the LDS Church, leading to its commonplace usage in modern times. Chart 2 displays the increasing prevalence of atonement and its variations in LDS General Conference between 1851 and 2020. Despite the term’s archaic nature and rare appearance in Christian sects, the atonement has become part of Latter-day Saints’ knowledge base and the term truly is an ethnolinguistic marvel.
Chart 2: Prevalence of words related to Atonement in LDS General Conference
“Atonement of Jesus Christ,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/atonement-of-jesus-christ?lang=eng (accessed 9 June 2020). Generated through a query of all General Conference addresses between 1851 and 2020 using the LDS General Conference Corpus developed by BYU professor Mark E. Davies, available at https://www.lds-general-conference.org/ (accessed 9 June 2020). Parameters included the search term aton*****, utilizing Boolean to account for associated terms in results (e.g., atoneth, atoned, atone, etc.). Of note, data for the decade of 2020s only includes material from the April 2020 General Conference.