And Don’t Call Us Mormons: The LDS Church and Language Control
Earlier today the website Mormon Newsroom issued an “Official Statement” from Russell Nelson, the President and Prophet of the LDS Church:
The Lord has impressed upon my mind 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.
At the same time, the “Newsroom,” as it is now called, posted a revised “style guide” with directives for the terminology to be used in reference to the religion and its members. The “preferred” first reference should be the full name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The terms Mormon Church, Mormons, and Mormonism should be avoided. Members should be called Latter-day Saints, and the abbreviation LDS should not be used (not even in the expression LDS Church).
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…. 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.
The term Mormon is not being banned absolutely; it will still be used in the title Book of Mormon, as well as in such “historical expressions” as Mormon Trail (and, one supposes, perhaps Mormon Tabernacle Choir, though that remains to be seen).
I beg the reader’s forgiveness or at least understanding, but I will not be following these guidelines.
Nelson, at the age of 93, became the LDS Church’s 17th President and Prophet on January 14, 2018. Seven months later, we have what to my knowledge is his first “revelation” as the Prophet. This is what being the Prophet has come to mean—not speaking prophetically, but issuing policy changes. Nelson is not the religion’s prophet; he is its CEO, its Chairman of the Board.
These style guidelines may keep a lot of tech people employed for the next several months or longer. The two main, official websites of the LDS Church are LDS.org and Mormon.org. One wonders if they are going to change these domains. Currently the “Newsroom” resides at MormonNewsroom.org. On Facebook, within a few hours of the announcement, at least one Mormon-themed Group (LDS Apologia) changed its name to remove the offensive abbreviation LDS. One also wonders what the LDS Church will do with the numerous videos it produced in the “I’m a Mormon” public relations campaign.
Another thing: a lot of T-shirts proudly bearing the name Mormon are apparently headed for the thrift stores, or worse. And what will FairMormon do?
There is nothing wrong with a religion having an “official” name and wanting people to use it. There is also nothing wrong with objecting to a nickname, particularly if it is offensive. However, the reality is that many denominations, theological movements, and sects come to be known by names they did not originally choose. This is even the case for Christianity itself, since the term Christians was almost certainly a nickname used by non-adherents when the movement spread to Antioch (Acts 11:26; see also 1 Peter 4:16). Such terms as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Calvinists were originally nicknames used by non-adherents. Sorry, but if a particular religious group calls itself “The Church of Jesus Christ” or some variation thereof, it’s going to have nicknames stuck to it. The denominational movement that called itself “the church of Christ” came to be known as Campbellites precisely because Christians outside the movement were not about to concede that it was the church of Christ. Other Campbellites called themselves “the Christian church,” which invites the same sort of response. A Norwegian sect founded in the early twentieth century by Johan O. Smith (yes, another Smith) for years insisted it had no name, referring to itself as “the way”; outsiders dubbed the group “Smith’s friends.” It is now called the Brunstad Christian Church. Members of the LDS Church have been called “Mormons” essentially throughout its history.
There is an irony in Nelson’s supposed revelation: Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion, used four different names for the “church” in the span of eight years (see Susan Eastman Black’s entry “Name of the Church” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism):
- The religion was founded in April 1830 using the name Church of Christ (see Doctrine & Covenants 20:1, 38, 61, 68, 70, 71, 81). The Book of Mormon had used this same name for the true church (Mosiah 18:17; 3 Nephi 26:21; 28:23; 4 Nephi 1:1, 27, 29; Moroni 6:4), though other passages used the term Church of God (some 32 times). One passage in particular, 3 Nephi 27:3-8, states that the name of Christ must be in the church’s name.
- In 1834, however, to distinguish themselves from other groups calling themselves the Church of Christ, the LDS Church adopted the name The Church of the Latter Day Saints—thus omitting any reference to the name of Christ.
- The defect was fixed in 1836, when the name was changed to The Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints.
- Finally, in April 1838, Joseph Smith announced a revelation changing the name to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (D&C 115:3-4). (The form Latter-day, found in the current edition of Doctrine & Covenants, in place of Latter Day came later.)
Ironically, the equivalent of one of these names, The Church of the Latter-day Saints, is officially discouraged in the Newsroom Style Guide.
Ultimately, this policy directive is about controlling the language in order to control how people think about the LDS religion. It is not about making the language clearer, more informative, or more accurate. You can see this in the guideline that the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is to be used rather than Mormonism. This directive in effect asks outsiders to speak as though they agreed that Mormonism represents “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.” I have no problem referring to Mormonism as a form of restorationism; I will not call it “the restoration” or “the restored gospel,” because I don’t believe it is any such thing. Likewise, I am certainly not going to refer to the religion as “the Church of Jesus Christ.”
If Nelson wants to show himself to be a prophet, he’ll need to do better than this.