History of the church name and emphasis on official names within the LDS movement




The recent emphasis by the LDS church to be called by its full and official name has been met with some skepticism in the press.

One historian commented:

Nelson’s language asserts his revelatory authority and implicitly contrasts that authority with the common vernacular of the world. He frames language use here as a matter of discipline and loyalty. The nomenclature he offers stresses the uniqueness of the church.

..this effort seems to me an attempt to emphasize the distinctiveness of the church.[1]

In spite of it being seen as a strange move, it is consistent with previous actions by the LDS church and should be seen as a logical and natural progression by the group.  The move serves to solidify trends within the movement to displace the “Mormon” term from the vernacular and also serves to resurrect a core belief or teaching of a leader who has been elevated to the status of prophet.

From the start of the movement, Mormon leaders have taught that the name of their church is a sign of its divinity and as proof that they were the authentic form of Christianity.[2]  The Book of Mormon[3] states:

“And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man [like Mormon] then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel” (3 Nephi 27:8).

Historical names of the main branch of the Mormon Church are as follows:

  • Church of Christ – Apr 6 1830
  • The Church of the Latter Day Saints – 3 May 1834[4]
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – 26 April 1838
  • At various times, the following names have also been used (mostly between 1834-1838):
  • The Church of Jesus Christ
  • The Church of God
  • The Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints

In 1979 we have the first explicit attempt in the modern era for members to use the official name in a talk given by Marion G. Romney, a member of the 1st presidency.[5]  This direction was repeated in a handbook published in 1982 and reiterated in handbooks published in 2001 and 2011.  These early efforts were directed mostly towards the members and not to the news media or public at large.

In Apr 1990 Nelson addressed this topic in general Conference in a talk entitled, “Thus shall my church be called”.[6]  His remarks were reiterated in 1995 in the footnotes of another talk (“Children of the covenant” – see footnote 37[7]:

Speaking of correct names, we are reminded of a proclamation given by the Lord: “Thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (D&C 115:4). He did not say, “Thus shall my church be named.” He said, “Thus shall my church be called.” Members have been cautioned by the Brethren, who wrote: “We feel that some may be misled by the too frequent use of the term ‘Mormon Church’” (Member-Missionary Class, Instructor’s Guide, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, p. 2).

In 2001, The official policy was announced as follows:

Referring to the Church as “the Mormon Church,” “the Latter-day Saints Church,” or “the LDS Church” is discouraged.[8]

According to the minutes where the topic was discussed[9]:

The term “Mormon fundamentalist” is specifically discouraged because it  implies a connection with the Church by third parties who have no such affiliation and who espouse beliefs and engage in practices like polygamy that are forbidden by Church doctrine.[10]

According to an insider, the Mormon leadership unofficially dropped their concerns regarding the “Mormon” title in the 2005-2010 time-frame and they started using it more freely[11].

Between 2010 and 2013, the ”I’m a Mormon” campaign was launched in the US, England, and other countries.[12]  Millions of dollars were spent to improve the impression of the church.  Leaders were evidently concerned with the negative perceptions associated with the term “Mormon”.  During this period, Mormons were encouraged to use the official title within the movement, the externally in PR the church used the more common vernacular terms when referring to itself.

2011:  Russel M. Ballard reiterated the importance of using the official title of the church in his talk entitled “the importance of a name”

Let us develop the habit … of making it clear that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the name by which the Lord Himself has directed that we be known.[13]

The official statement

The latest press release reads:

The Lord has impressed upon my mind[14] the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will. In recent weeks, various Church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so. Additional information about this important matter will be made available in the coming months.[15]

The referenced style guide further elaborates:

  • In the first reference, the full name of the Church is preferred: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
  • When a shortened reference is needed, the terms “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ” are encouraged. The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged.
  • While the term “Mormon Church” has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use. Thus, please avoid using the abbreviation “LDS” or the nickname “Mormon” as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church,” or “Church of the Latter-day Saints.”
  • When referring to Church members, the terms “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “Latter-day Saints” are preferred. We ask that the term “Mormons” not be used.
  • “Mormon” is correctly used in proper names such as the Book of Mormon or when used as an adjective in such historical expressions as “Mormon Trail.”
  • The term “Mormonism” is inaccurate and should not be used. When describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is accurate and preferred.
  • When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, it should be stated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not affiliated with polygamous groups.

Looking at General Conference statistics for the past 150 years, we note the following:

  • The usage of the full name of the church by the early leaders was the exception and not the rule. However, by the 1870s it had reached a plurality and currently over 95% of the leadership references in General Conference use the preferred full name.

    Relative General conference usage of terms “Mormonism” and “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” in General Conference
  • Terms such as “the Church” and “the Church of Jesus Christ” are used within the movement and this recommendation is not surprising. However, the “restored Church of Jesus Christ” was first used in General Conference in 1924 and remains obscure, even within the movement.  Given the inherent ambiguity of the terms, it is hard to imagine how using this title would cause anything but confusion.

    Relative usage of terms in General Conference of “Mormon” vs a “member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”
  • The term Mormonism was commonly used early in the movement’s history, but its use has been dropping significantly and more than 90% of similar references use the church’s official title after 1970.
Relative usage of terms in General Conference by decade
  • When looking for a short term, most General Conference speakers use the term “Latter-Day-Saints” rather than “Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “Mormons”.
Relative usage of terms in General Conference by decade
  • When looking for an abbreviated term, speaker in conference use the phrase “the Church” about 99% of the time.
Total usage of the terms “Restored Church” and “Restored Gospel”
  • Terms such as the “restored church” and the “restored gospel” are fairly rare and recent in the mormon vernacular.

The trend for a newly called prophet to canonize a teaching that they have previously emphasized prior to becoming president is not new.  Emphasis on the church name by Nelson closely parallels actions of Ezra Benson as church president in 1986.  He gave a talk about the Book of Mormon which greatly increased its use within the church.[16]  The talk was a repeat of a talk he had given about a decade earlier while serving in the quorum of the 12.[17]  However, because he was now president of the church, it was taken more seriously and people changed both the teachings of the church and their personal religious study to a much larger degree.

References

[1] Matthew Bowman.  https://www.sltrib.com/news/2018/08/16/lds-church-wants-everyone/

[2] See for example: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2011/10/the-importance-of-a-name?lang=eng

[3] The book of Mormon is the foundational scriptural work of the religion, dictated in 1829, 1 year prior to the founding of the Mormon sect

[4] This is the name used on the Kirtland Temple.

[5] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1979/04/we-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng

[6] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1990/04/thus-shall-my-church-be-called?lang=eng

[7] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/04/children-of-the-covenant?lang=eng

[8] https://www.lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church/selected-church-policies/21.1?lang=eng&_r=1#211 section 21.1.34

[9] https://www.docdroid.net/LaF5sVU/executive-council-minutes.pdf.html#page=16

[10] The use of doctrine in this context is interesting.  In 2010 in a fireside, members of the 70 admitted that polygamy was in fact doctrine.  In 2013 the updated section heading to Official Declaration 1 was changed to reflect the idea that the practice of polygamy was an exception rather than a mainstream belief.

[11] http://traffic.libsyn.com/mormonstories/MormonStories-674-JesseStayPt2.mp3

[12] https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/-i-m-a-mormon-campaign and https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/18/us/mormon-ad-campaign-seeks-to-improve-perceptions.html

[13] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2011/10/the-importance-of-a-name?lang=eng

[14] This is language understood by insiders to mean that he had received a revelation from God.

[15] https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/name-of-the-church?cid=HP_TH-16-8-2018_dPAD_fMNWS_xLIDyL1-A_

[16] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1986/10/the-book-of-mormon-keystone-of-our-religion?lang=eng

[17] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1975/04/the-book-of-mormon-is-the-word-of-god?lang=eng

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