On the Term “Mormon”

Since the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many people have referred to its followers as “Mormons.” This is mainly due to the fact we believe the Book of Mormon to be scripture, in addition to the Bible. Recently, our current prophet, Russell M. Nelson, has instructed members of the church to move away from the term, asking us to refer to ourselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or simply as Latter-day Saints. On the blog, I’ve always just used the same word most non-members used to describe us: Mormon. I’m not going to do that anymore, and I wanted to establish why.

First off, an explanation of the word, for those of you who might not know what it means: Mormon was the name of a prophet who lived in ancient Americas. He was one of the last of his people, and he edited a collection of sacred writings: about 1,000 years’ worth of histories that had been written by other prophets before him. This included a record of a visit by Jesus Christ to the Americas, after his resurrection. Just as the ancient Jewish prophets kept a record of their lives and the history of their people, so did this group in the Americas. This edited compilation was finished off by Mormon’s son, Moroni, who hid it in a hole in a hillside before he died. That same Moroni appeared as a resurrected being to Joseph Smith, showing him where the compilation (written on golden plates) was hidden. Joseph obtained the plates and translated them with the help of God.

From the beginning of the church, it appears non-members referred to its members as Mormons and its tenets as Mormonism. That actual name of the church, given through revelation, was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (“Church of Jesus Christ,” because we believe it is Christ’s church restored on the earth, and “Latter-day Saints” to distinguish it from the earlier Saints when Christ first lived on the earth. We believe it’s the same church that existed back then, just now with members who live in the latter-days.) But by and large, “Mormon” was an epithet. It wasn’t used by non-members favorably. I’m rereading a new history of the church that was just published, and it’s fascinating (and more than a little horrifying) to see just what those early members struggled through. It explains much of how the church grew into the cultural institution it is today.

The church has had an on again/off again relation to the word ever since. Sometimes it’s tried to distance itself from the term, but recently it had embraced it again, even coming out with several ad campaigns that used it. “I’m a Mormon,” was one, and the movie “Meet the Mormons” was another. Basically, the church was trying to show its members are (for the most part) fairly normal people. Who knows if it worked or not. But even when the term was on the outs, it was still used by members. You only have to look at the long-standing “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” to see that.

Except this time, even that’s changing. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir” has just been officially changed to “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.” When the church takes steps like that, you know it’s not messing around with this anymore.

When I first heard of the switch, I’ll admit I did a bit of a mental eye roll. Trying to force people to saying the full name of the church goes against what language likes to do. “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” takes 16 syllables, after all. “I’m a Mormon” takes four. Wasn’t this just going to be another flash in the pan? We’d try it again, and be back to using the term again in a year or two.

But as I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t necessarily true. After all, the Seventh Day Adventists (six syllables) have been using that long term for as long as I’ve heard of them. It’s not like people have started abbreviating it to SDAs or anything like that. “Latter-day Saints” is just five syllables.

President Nelson gave a wonderful talk this weekend focused on why the name change is important. First, he said the official name was given through revelation to Joseph Smith, and so it’s important to follow that. But second, he stressed how using “Mormon” distances the church from its focus on Christ, a sentiment I agree with.

In a few weeks, I’ll be giving a public talk to my campus about what members of the Church believe and why. I’ll be joined by four others, who will be discussing their own religions. In the announcement that went out, the religions were listed as “Judaism, Islam, Paganism, Christianity, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” While I appreciate the thought and attention that went into making sure not to refer to us as Mormonism, I still couldn’t help feeling a little slighted. (Undoubtedly unintentionally.) Whether Latter-day Saints are “Christian” or not is a sensitive subject. We believe we most definitely are, as the teachings of Christ are foundational to our beliefs. Many other Christians believe we are not, mainly because many of our beliefs about Christ are different. (We believe God and Christ are two separate beings, for example. We believe Christ appeared to the people in the Americas. We believe he appeared to Joseph Smith and restored His church.) So many have said that while we say we believe in Christ, we actually believe in something we just happen to call Christ.

If the church had been stressing its full name for all its history, would this association between it and Jesus Christ be more clear? I have to think it would be.

Many erroneously believe we worship Mormon or Joseph Smith. In reality, those two men are simply prophets, the same (to us) as Isaiah or Daniel or Noah. Christians don’t worship Noah or John the Baptist. They revere them, yes, but the focus is always on Christ.

In the end, I believe people should be called what they want to be called. I think it makes sense for the church to make this request, and I hope it’s adhered to. (Likewise, I would hope members of the church would be respectful of calling other people what they wish to be called. Be that he, her, they, gay, lesbian, or anything else people request. That’s what nice, respectful people do. Treat people how those people wish to be treated. It runs both ways. When people goof up and call us Mormon, I’d like to think they’d apologize and correct themselves. The same thing I do when I make a mistake and call someone by a name they choose not to be called.)

If you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. Thanks for reading!

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