Polygamists and other fundamentalists are happy to embrace and own the term ‘Mormon’

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune People attend a protest rally against H.B. 281 that if passed make polygamy a felony in Utah again. Members of the plural marriage community are not happy and rallied against the bill in the Capitol rotunda during the 2016 legislative session in Salt Lake City, Monday, March 7, 2016.

When Benjamin Shaffer left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to join a fundamentalist group, his old friends made jokes about how he wasn’t a real Mormon anymore.

“I get to say all those jokes back to them now,” Shaffer said Tuesday, “and watch them squirm.”

Latter-day Saint President Russell M. Nelson has told followers to stop using the word “Mormon” to refer to themselves and the church. Shaffer is glad “Brother Nelson” is trying to accentuate Jesus Christ in the church’s name, but Shaffer doesn’t plan to stop describing himself as Mormon.

“I love the fact that I get to be the genuine Mormon in the room,” he added, “and all of them are ex-Mormons.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson waves at the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 6, 2018. At left is Nelson's wife, Wendy Watson Nelson.

People from Great Britain to Utah who have long been called fundamentalist Mormons say they are comfortable with the M-word, though some have a dire warning based on their own history with changes announced by their religious leaders.

“I’m perfectly fine with being considered Mormon,” said Guy Timpson of Colorado City, Ariz., where multiple polygamous groups have been located. “It basically says I’m not Catholic and I’m not Protestant, and we’ve moved past all those and there’s a better way. It’s not a slight to our savior or anything like that.”

Even if Latter-day Saints haven’t always liked the term “Mormon,” there also was unease about fundamentalists using it. Then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1998 said, "There is no such thing as a 'Mormon fundamentalist.' It is a contradiction to use the two words together."

Sheila Riley, who lives in Nottingham, England, and left the LDS Church in 1997 to join a fundamentalist group, believes the name campaign is part of a long effort to distance the mainstream Salt Lake City-based faith from those who believe in polygamy and other fundamentalist principles. She remembers previous efforts by her former church to emphasize its belief in Jesus Christ.

She’s skeptical Nelson’s effort to erase use of “Mormon” will succeed among the public, especially when the word is in the name of the denomination’s own signature scripture.

“He’s still using the Book of Mormon,” Riley said. “When the missionaries knock on the door, the first thing people are going to see is the Book of Mormon.”

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) In this Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 photo, the word "Zion" is written at the entry way to a home in Hildale, Utah, in a community on the Utah-Arizona border that has been home for more than a century to a polygamous Mormon sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The community is undergoing a series of changes as the sect's control of the town slips away amid government evictions and crackdowns.

David Patrick, mission president for Christ’s Church, also known as The Branch and has temples in Utah and Nevada, sees the name in historical context.

The LDS Church created divisions, Patrick said, among those calling themselves Mormons when it issued two manifestos abandoning polygamy and disavowed what’s called the “Adam-God theory” — a belief still held by Mormon fundamentalists saying the Adam of Garden of Eden fame is also God and the Heavenly Father of the human race.

“I would like to think that we consider ourselves orthodox Mormons,” Patrick said, “and we’re staying with the original tenets of the faith, and that hasn’t changed and it’s not likely to change, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would like to evolve to a different way of being than the foundation that was laid by Joseph Smith Jr.”

The nickname push is more insidious for some former followers of Warren Jeffs, the president of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in Texas for crimes related to two girls he married as plural wives and sexually assaulted.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune George Jessop, a former member of the FLDS church, is responsible for restarting the community's large gatherings in Hildale, UT and Colorado City, AZ. Monday July 4, 2016.

On Facebook, former FLDS member George Jessop warned that his church had leaders who ordered sudden change in practices, too.

“This is a complete manipulation through religion,” Jessop wrote of Nelson, “no different than what went on in our religion.”

Timpson, who also used to worship in the FLDS, said Nelson’s move away from a long-held term “sounds a little bit Warren Jeffs-y.” He worries such big changes will create divisions among his friends in the mainstream church.

“They’re really on a path of conflict,” Timpson said, “whether they know it or not.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lex Herbert, Bishop of the Second Ward, which has separated from other members of the polygamous Apostolic United Brethren, shakes a youth's hand before the start of Sacrament Meeting for the Pinesdale Second Ward, in Pinesdale, Mont., in this October 2017 photo.

Lex Herbert, who lives with his two wives and their children in Pinesdale, Mont., points out that names change over time, whether it’s what to call a race or a religious group. Being called Mormon, LDS or fundamentalist is just semantics.

“There seems to be enough unprincipled people in every church," Herbert said, "so we might be better off spending more time living the Christian principles than worrying about the name of the organization preaching them.

"Let’s see how you live.”