"A gentleman writing us from Boise, asks us, 'What is a jack-Mormon?' It is a nondescript between a Gentile and Mormon; in the animal kingdom known as the mule. In some countries it is better known as the What-is-it, and is without gender. In Utah it does the dirty work for the Mormon Priesthood, who first grease it, then pat it, and finally kick it because it has no friends. Tom Fitch, of Nevada, ex-Governor Fuller, of New Jersey, George Seizer, of Michigan, are all fair samples of the jack-Mormon. Others, fresh from the green pastures of the East, are traveling the same road. The jack is a dirty animal . . . ."
The Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 17, 1875.
The gentlemen mentioned in the article were "gentiles" on good terms with the LDS Church.
I always thought a Jack Mormon was a nominal member of the LDS Church who had outsourced his or her moral compass to hard-partying secular humanists. But the Tribune's definition from 123 years ago makes it clear it used to mean something quite different.
Sometime between then and now, "Jack Mormon" was transformed in popular usage from a non-Mormon who was friendly to Mormons, to a Mormon who is way too casual with regard to his church's values.
Several people think the term denotes Mormons with a fondness for Jack Daniel's. Actually, it goes back to early meanings of "Jack."
As early as the 14th century, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the term "Jakke fool." Jack of beanstalk fame was a gullible dimwit who traded the family cow for half a handful of beans. And, of course, there are jackasses of animal and human origin.
On the early frontier, "Jack Mormon" couldn't mean anything other than a dupe with some connection to Joseph Smith's new religion.
The Story of The Latter-day Saints explains, "Because of their friendliness toward the beleaguered Saints, the helpful citizens of Clay and other counties were criticized by hostile elements in Jackson County and dubbed 'Jack Mormons,' a term applied widely in the 19th century to friendly non-Mormons."
The first use of the term is credited to Thomas C. Sharpe, a ferocious anti-Mormon from Illinois. Sharpe lobbed verbal bombshells at nearby Mormon Nauvoo, Ill., from his newspaper, the Warsaw Signal. In 1846 the following item appeared in his paper:
"A certain Jack-mormon of Hancock county, we won't call him big-head, (but the Saints used to) is in the habit of shaving the hair off his forehead, in order to give it an intellectual appearance."-'Warsaw (Ill.) Signal,' 6 Feb., page 3/1.
Somewhere in the early 20th century, Jack Mormon came to its current meaning. LDS author Preston Nibley used the term, in its turned-on-its-head incarnation, in the 1940s. Since then, Jack Mormon is another term for those straddlers who, in LDS theology, fence-sat during the War in Heaven.
Jack Mormon is mildly derogatory, and can carry a sense of shame with it. The lapsed LDS fighter Jack Dempsey reportedly wrote, "I'm proud to be a Mormon. And ashamed to be the Jack Mormon that I am."
It is also a kind of war wound, proudly worn by many who are still technically "in" the dominant culture, but not "of" it.
* PAT BAGLEY is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.