What do you call two fellows dressed in black slacks and neckties with Books of Mormon in hand? If you answered “Mormon missionaries,” then you’re wrong. Well, at least according to a new LDS Church policy.
In a move decades in the making, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (CJCLDS) released an official statement discouraging the use of popular nicknames and terms associated with itself and its members, e.g. Mormon, Mormonism, and LDS. These terms, especially Mormon and Mormonism, are, according to the statement, “inaccurate and should not be used.” Ironically, the announcement was made through an official CJCLDS website, The Mormon Newsroom, which serves as an omen to how vast the change will be.
WHY THE CHANGE?
The president of the CJCLDS, Russell M. Nelson, claimed that God impressed on him the importance of the LDS Church’s official name, which members believe was revealed by God in its earliest days. Nelson identified the root of this conviction in an 1838 doctrinal statement (D&C 115:4) that provides context around why the name was chosen.
First, it is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in honor of its founder as revealed in the Mormon canon (i.e., Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants). Second, it is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because, at the time, members believed they were living in the end times during which they would gather in Missouri, construct a temple, and eagerly await the second coming (D&C 115:7).
In short, President Nelson desires to see the CJCLDS maintain fidelity in its self-description, and has invited the public to do the same. But, I sense a deeper motivation for the policy, which I’ll address later on.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN?
This change will be challenging for Latter-day Saints, and will likely take many years to accomplish. Indeed, uprooting Mormonism from Mormonism will be very difficult.
The Saints and their religion have always been described as Mormons who believe Mormonism. These terms play a tremendously influential role in their self-identity and history. Even though the term Mormon was coined as a derogatory slur, the Latter-day Saints nevertheless adopted it as a point of uniqueness and distinction among Christianity.
For Latter-day Saints, getting rid of these historical terms means abandoning a practice that dates back to the very beginning of their identity.
Uprooting Mormonism from Mormonism will be very difficult.
On the more practical side, the CJCLDS itself will be busy implementing the policy to fix their own usage. Both of its official websites, LDS.org and mormon.org, will need to adopt new names. An official PR website, The Mormon Newsroom, will also need to change. The popular “I’m a Mormon” campaign, found at mormon.org, will need to pivot or come to a close. The church-owned LDS Business College, housed in downtown Salt Lake, will need to rebrand.
So many other things also come to mind. I’ve spent time in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City for research, whose nickname, the “LDS Church History Library,” will need to become a thing of the past. The same goes for the “LDS Church History Museum.” And I wonder what will become of the historic Mormon Tabernacle Choir? And what about my membership in the Mormon History Association, a professional society of scholars?
These are simply the more visible changes. The popular Encyclopedia of Mormonism, maintained by Brigham Young University, is now in violation. Resting behind me on bookshelves are thousands of references to “LDS,” “Mormons,” and “Mormonism” from hundreds of authors and researchers, both members and non-members alike. Even my poor master’s thesis is guilty of adding to this new faux pas.
Of course, the language in Nelson’s announcement is filled with “shoulds” and “prefers,” mere recommendations for aligning with the new policy. So, perhaps some institutions and practices will be spared. But, that is yet to be seen as, according to the statement, the coming months will clarify how the policy will be implemented.
NOT SUBTRACTION, BUT SUBSTITUTION
With such a monumental task ahead, is it really worth it for the CJCLDS to make the change? What benefit can be gained from removing these nicknames?
One benefit is the prevention of slander. When Mormon is used as a pejorative term, it is being used in a damaging (and sinful) way. If you disagree with Latter-day Saints, then it’s not okay to call them names, slandering the imago Dei that you and they mutually bear. So, in once sense, subtracting a term like Mormon from our vocabulary could help us to love our Latter-day Saint neighbors as ourselves.
But, personally, I do not see this move as a subtraction from terminology, but a substitution. There is a parallel goal to aligning the CJCLDS name with D&C 115 that is driven by a desire to rebrand (or, better, remind) the public that the religion of the Latter-day Saints is the restored version of Christianity. You’ll notice that tucked away in the announcement is the suggestion that Mormon and Mormonism be substituted with restored.
Why restored? The central premise of Mormonism–indeed, its raison d’être–is the assertion that Christianity wholly apostatized between the apostolic era and the nineteenth century. Then, in the spring of 1820, God chose Joseph Smith to completely restore Christianity to its original form. All other forms of Christianity are mere echoes or distortions of the real thing, and an “abomination” in the sight of God (JS–H 1.18-19).
For Latter-day Saints, their Church does not represent a branch or denomination of Christianity; rather, it is Christianity, and the only form that can truly call itself Christian, the assembly (church) of Jesus Christ. The CJCLDS does not want to be seen as an off-shoot of Christianity (LDS Church) nor a new religion (Mormonism). Instead, it wants to be seen as Christianity, and is asking its members and the public to begin addressing it as such.
The LDS Church wants to author its own nickname; Mormon and LDS Church are out, but Restored Church is in.
Thus, to me, Nelson’s request aims to substitute Mormonism with restorationism, an observation made clear by the recommendation that Mormonism should be substituted with the cumbersome phrase “restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In other words, we are to speak about Mormonism in terms of restoration, e.g., “Sally believes in Mormonism” now becomes “Sally believes in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.” And this substitution comes despite the fact that, like Mormonism, the word restored is nowhere to be found in its official name given in D&C 115. If the CJCLDS is concerned with mitigating the use of terms that incorporate language outside of its official name, then why encourage the use of “restored”?
In part, but not in whole, Nelson’s announcement is not a move away from nicknames but toward a specific one. The CJCLDS wants to author its own nickname; Mormon and LDS Church are out, but “restored Church” is in.
Will the public respond positively to this request? Only time will tell.