LDS Church wants everyone to stop calling it the LDS Church and drop the word ‘Mormons’ — but some members doubt it will happen

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson announces the church will no longer have home teachers or visiting teachers during the Sunday afternoon session of General Conference on April 1, 2018.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really, truly, absolutely wants to be known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Not the LDS Church. Not the Mormon church.

It made that clear Thursday — even though the last attempt to eradicate those nicknames for the Utah-based faith flopped.

The new push came from God to President Russell M. Nelson, the church said in a news release Thursday.

“The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name he has revealed for his church,” Nelson is quoted as saying, “even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

The faith’s headquarters in Salt Lake City and Latter-day Saints across the globe have much “work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with his will,” the 93-year-old Nelson said in the statement. “In recent weeks, various church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so.”

Thursday’s statement — released on mormonnewsroom.org — referred readers to the “updated Newsroom style guide,” which calls on news organizations to follow these instructions:

• Use the full name — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — on first reference.

• Refer to “the Church,” the “Church of Jesus Christ” or the “restored Church of Jesus Christ” in shortened or subsequent references.

• Avoid using the abbreviation “LDS” or the nickname “Mormon” as substitutes for the church’s name, as in “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church” or “Church of the Latter-day Saints.”

• Refer to members as “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “Latter-day Saints,” not “Mormons.”

The new guidelines also state that “‘Mormonism’ is inaccurate and should not be used,” and that the term “‘the restored gospel of Jesus Christ’ is accurate and preferred.”

The style edict says “Mormon” is correctly used in proper names such as the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, or when used as an adjective in historical expressions such as “Mormon Trail.”

Still, many believing observers are skeptical that this drive will be any more successful than a similar effort to jettison “Mormon” that launched before the 2002 Winter Olympics. That attempt ended a decade later with a return to the long-standing and, in some quarters, beloved nickname “Mormon.”

Rocky Anderson, who was Salt Lake City’s mayor from 2000 to 2008, diligently followed the dominant church’s request back then — even using “the Church of Jesus Christ” on second reference, which sometimes earned jeers even from faithful Latter-day Saints.

“It was really awkward,” Anderson said Thursday. “I did find it a mouthful.”

What’s in a name?

For authorities such as Nelson, the faith’s name is more than branding.

After its founding in 1830, the church was known variously as The Church of Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ and even The Church of the Latter-day Saints. In 1838, it became The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when church founder Joseph Smith received what was recorded as a revelation from God:

“For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Smith declared in Doctrine and Covenants 115:4.

Blogger Steve Evans, founder of By Common Consent, sees Nelson’s effort as “fighting for the divinely revealed name of the church in the hearts and minds of the members.”

In a 1990 speech (a year after former church President Ezra Taft Benson sang “I Am a Mormon Boy” from the pulpit), Nelson, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke of the importance of using the church’s full name.

“He views it as something sacred, which I respect,” Evans said. “But the initiative won’t succeed — if success means getting everyone to stop using the terms ‘Mormon’ or ‘LDS Church.’”

Evans predicts this undertaking will only “confuse outsiders,” he said. “I don’t think it substantively alters external perspectives of the church, but I do think it makes us look a little persnickety.”

The church already has “a popular brand — why not embrace it and use it? … We should be leveraging those names instead, while simultaneously teaching the real name of the church and reinforcing why it is something holy to us.”

LDS blogger Jana Riess, a senior columnist for Religion News Service, also believes the drive may fail.

“It would be extremely unlikely for the majority of journalists to adopt this new style,” she said, “in part because the church has not provided a single-word term that is as descriptive as ‘Mormon’ or ‘LDS.’”

When people plug “the Church of Jesus Christ” into a Google search, Riess said, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “is not going to come up.”

And Latter-day Saints themselves likely will continue to use the only monikers they’ve used their whole lives, she said, but now “might feel guilty about it.”

In academia, “Mormonism” is by far the preferred term, said Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.

In addition to Claremont, there are three other professorships in “Mormon studies” — at the University of Utah, Utah State University and the University of Virginia.

“I cannot imagine a university approving a professorship in ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint Studies’ or ‘Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ Studies,’” Mason wrote in an email. “‘Mormonism’ and ‘Mormon’ will continue to be dominant in the academy.”

Mason has a personal stake in this. He has just published a book called “What Is Mormonism?” Still, the LDS scholar concedes that Mormonism “has always been a fraught and imprecise term.”

Beyond the main body

Does “Mormon” apply equally to members of the mainstream LDS Church, the Community of Christ, the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and all other religious descendants of Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saint movement, Mason asked, “or just to the LDS Church?”

Some people are upset when “Mormonism” is used synonymously with the LDS Church and its members — as if they are the only “Mormons” and all the other groups don’t exist, he said, while members of the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) say “they don’t want to be called ‘Mormons,’ because they associate the term with the Utah-based LDS Church.”

Such confusion may have been part of the reason for this move, said historian Matthew Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

“This strikes me as a move toward boundary maintenance, in both the manner of its presentation and the fact of it,” Bowman wrote in an email. “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.”

Bowman said that, in the end, “this effort seems to me an attempt to emphasize the distinctiveness of the church.”

A global faith

Wilfried Decoo, a Latter-day Saint writer and professor in Belgium, understands his faith’s desire to be seen as “Christian” by urging everyone to use its full name.

By rejecting “Mormon” as short for the church, Decoo wrote in a 2011 essay, “we give up the key element of our international brand name, recognizable in all languages.”

In another language, for example, “Latter-day Saints” is translated as: “I am a Holy Being of the Almost Final Period.”

“This policy kind of shows how parochial-American someone at the top thinks without any clue of international semantics,” he said Thursday from his home in Europe. “I don’t think it will have any effect outside of the church, and even inside … It’s just impossible to enforce.”

Gordon B. Hinckley, who became church president in 1995, understood the dilemma.

“‘The Mormon church,’ of course, is a nickname. And nicknames have a way of becoming fixed,” he preached in the October 1990 General Conference. “I suppose that regardless of our efforts, we may never convert the world to general use of the full and correct name of the church. Because of the shortness of the word ‘Mormon’ and the ease with which it is spoken and written, they will continue to call us the Mormons, the Mormon church, and so forth.”

Hinckley recalled a member in England telling him: “While I’m thankful for the privilege of being a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of the church which bears his name, I am not ashamed of the nickname ‘Mormon.’”

When someone asked him about it, the man replied, “‘Mormon’ means ‘more good.’”

Hinckley knew that wasn’t the actual meaning, but adopted the man’s thinking about the tag.

“We may not be able to change the nickname,” the affable leader concluded, “but we can make it shine with added luster.”

After all, Hinckley said, Mormon is the “name of a man who was a great [Book of Mormon] prophet who struggled to save his nation, and also the name of a book which is a mighty testament of eternal truth, a veritable witness of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.”