Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The name ‘Mormon’: Why all the fuss, and why now?

Me this week making soup for the missionaries in my retrofitted “Meet the Mormons” apron.

It’s been two weeks now since Russell M. Nelson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, devoted an entire General Conference talk to the now-verboten word “Mormon,” emphasizing the importance of using the full name of the church.

This has been tried before. In fact, it was a bête noire of President Nelson’s long before he assumed the religion’s top post in January of this year.

In the April 1990 General Conference talk “Thus Shall My Church Be Called,” then-Elder Nelson made many of the same points he reiterated more forcefully at this recent Conference:

1990, “Thus Shall My Church Be Called” 2018, “The Correct Name of the Church”
“I refer to a name 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.) Note carefully the language of the Lord. He did not say, ‘Thus shall my church be named.’ He said, ‘Thus shall my church be called.’ “It was the Savior Himself who said, ‘For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’”
“We are all pleased when our names are pronounced and spelled correctly. Sometimes a nickname is used instead of the real name. But a nickname may offend either the one named or the parents who gave the name.” “When the Savior clearly states what the name of His Church should be and even precedes His declaration with, ‘Thus shall my church be called,’ He is serious. And if we allow nicknames to be used or adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves, He is offended.”
“By divine directive, the title of the Church bears the sacred name of Jesus Christ, whose church this is. (See D&C 115:3–4.) He so decreed more than once. Nearly two thousand years ago, the Lord said, ‘Ye shall call the church in my name; …’” “When it comes to nicknames of the Church, such as the ‘LDS Church,’ the ‘Mormon Church,’ or the ‘Church of the Latter-day Saints,’ the most important thing in those names is the absence of the Savior’s name. To remove the Lord’s name from the Lord’s Church is a major victory for Satan. When we discard the Savior’s name, we are subtly disregarding all that Jesus Christ did for us—even His Atonement.”

 

The main difference between the two talks is not in their arguments, which are remarkably consistent, but their tone. President Nelson has adopted a far less conciliatory tone than Elder Nelson did 28 years ago.

Whereas once a nickname “may” have offended Jesus or his Heavenly Parents, now Christ is offended. Period.

Whereas the earlier talk offered the full name of the Church in the manner of a request (one that was gently redirected by President Gordon B. Hinckley in a subsequent General Conference address six months later), now it has been elevated to the status of a commandment.

This is not a name change or a simple rebranding, says President Nelson; “Instead, it is a correction. It is the command of the Lord.”

And whenever the nickname “Mormon” is used, he suggests, Satan wins.

Mormons—or rather, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—are being told to correct one another and anyone else who continues to use the convenient, short, time-honored, and Hinckley-approved nickname “Mormon.” It seems to be becoming a litmus test of obedience, and not just for church members. Journalists, for example, are being asked to use the nine words of the church’s full name on first reference, which major media style guides already advise. So that’s not any different. But ever after they’re asked to use “the Church of Jesus Christ” (implying that this is the only Christian church) or “the restored Church of Jesus Christ.”

This is problematic for reporters and writers. It is not the job of a religion-neutral media to adopt or validate the truth claims of whatever religions they’re writing about. Some denominational names do have truth claims already baked in—is Roman Catholic really catholic, meaning universal? Is Orthodox really orthodox, meaning doctrinally pure? Have Reformed Christians and Reform Jews actually changed from the traditions that preceded them? Etc.—but in those cases, the truth claims have been part of the religion’s name for centuries. With Mormonism, “the restored Church” is a term of comparatively recent vintage, as seen in this index of General Conference talks.

Word incidence of “restored church” in all General Conference talks of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by decade. https://www.lds-general-conference.org/.

What’s more, people outside the Church don’t associate this term with Mormonism, making it virtually useless to journalists who want to serve their readers’ needs. What does serve journalists’ needs is the term Mormon. For every time “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is searched on Google, “Mormon” is searched between 75 and 100 times. (Interestingly, the term “Mormon” enjoyed a noticeable spike of search activity during and after General Conference. That’s a lot of victories for Satan that seem to have been inspired by the church’s own insistence at correcting its name.)

A Google Trends comparison of searches for the full name of the church (blue line, at bottom), “LDS Church” (yellow line, near bottom), and “Mormon” (red line at top).

There are two fascinating aspects of the name correction. First, President Nelson has essentially rebuked the entire church and all of the deceased presidents who preceded him, particularly President Hinckley, for all those satanic victories. President Hinckley’s if-we-can’t-beat-em-we’ll-join-em attitude informed the notion that while “Mormon” was an incomplete nickname, members of the Church could redeem the word by doing “more good” in the world.

The idea that “Mormon means more good” informed the Church’s successful “I’m a Mormon” campaign and the 2014 church-sponsored film Meet the Mormons. Earlier this week on Facebook, what popped up in my timeline in that “on this day four years ago” schtick was this screen shot from the Deseret News in October 2014, as the newspaper was heavily promoting Meet the Mormons. What a difference four years can make.

A flashback screenshot of the Deseret News from October 2014.

Second, the name-change-that-is-not-a-name-change comes at exactly the same time that the LDS Church is gingerly dismantling some aspects of the hyper-systematic Correlation program that has defined Mormon life for the last half century. At the same General Conference in which President Nelson hammered home the One True Name of the church, the denomination shortened its weekly church meetings from three hours to two, opened the door for small groups to meet in members’ homes, and promoted the fellowship-oriented new “ministering” program that has replaced the checklist-oriented home and visiting teaching programs.

In other words, the church is becoming more relaxed in some areas, but is holding the line in others—specifically, its right to define itself through what it views as a unique institutional relationship to Jesus Christ. Emphasizing membership in that institution (“I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”) rather than the more capacious term “Mormon” (which includes individuals who are active in and no longer affiliated with the institution) means that the institution is, in the end, more important than the individual.

President Nelson is right that this “Mormon” name correction is neither cosmetic nor inconsequential. Rather, it may become a defining characteristic of a religion that is anxious to separate the wheat from the chaff in the pluralistic 21st century.


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This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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