Commentary: There is room for another Church of Jesus Christ

(Keith Johnson | Special to The Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson speaks during the concluding session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 7, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

Last summer, I received a notification on my phone that my name was mentioned on Facebook. Of course, I was curious and clicked the link. Turns out, my friend mentioned that I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ (colloquially referred to as the “Bickertonites”). She also indicated that I recently wrote a biography of William Bickerton, one of the major claimants to Joseph Smith’s prophetic mantle after his untimely murder in 1844. I was happy to see that my new book, “William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet” (Signature Books, 2018) was receiving attention.

But I wondered why. Was it because this was the first biography to be written about a progressive, 19th-century Latter Day Saint who ordained African Americans and women to the ministry? Or was it because he fought against polygamy? Or was it because he believed a Native American prophet was going to arise out of Indian Territory to gather the lost tribes of Israel to help build the New Jerusalem and usher in the Millennium?

Or maybe, just maybe, was it because Alice Cooper (aka Vincent Furnier) had been brought up in my church, where his grandfather was an apostle and at one time had served as its president? Nope, actually, it was for none of these reasons.

As a matter of fact, it was because President Russell M. Nelson had just announced that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should no longer be referred to as the “Mormon Church” or “LDS Church.” This news was sending shock waves across the internet. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now prefers to be called by its full name on first reference, then “the Church,” the “Church of Jesus Christ,” or the “restored Church of Jesus Christ” on subsequent references.

This may seem like a long-awaited distinction for some, maybe a trivial matter for others, but what my friend was aptly pointing out was that my church is also called “The Church of Jesus Christ.” Currently, The Church of Jesus Christ is the third-largest church in the world that considers the Book of Mormon as scripture. It has approximately 23,000 members in 23 countries.

Then, on the afternoon of March 5, I received another email, this time from my editor at Signature Books, wondering if I heard the recent news that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was changing its main website from “LDS.org" to “ChurchofJesusChrist.org." Again, I was quite surprised. I checked online, and sure enough, this news was again blowing up the internet. Yet what I found most ironic about this announcement is that my church’s website is, in fact, “TheChurchofJesusChrist.org" (also “TheChurchofJesusChrist.com"). A mere definite article (“The”) now separates these two churches’ main websites, both of which are worldwide organizations that believe in the Book of Mormon. You just can’t make this stuff up!

So now, all this begs the question: Is it fair that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should also be referred to as the “Church of Jesus Christ” online and by the media?

Before I answer, I must first offer a playful observation. For over a century, the smaller churches of Joseph Smith’s Restoration movement have differentiated themselves by proudly declaring, “We are not Mormon!” It has been a badge of honor of sorts, a way of sticking it to an alleged rival that has converted more people than all the other Restoration churches combined.

How on earth are we supposed to differentiate ourselves from the Mormons if they don’t want to be called Mormons either? If President Nelson succeeds at altering the mindset of his church and the media, the rest of us “other” Latter Day Saints (with no hyphen) may very well have an identity crisis on our hands.

But with all jokes aside, I want to commend Nelson. He is simply following the instruction of Jesus Christ to His disciples in the Book of Mormon. When the Nephite disciples questioned Christ as to what they should call the church, the Savior simply responded, “Ye shall call the church in my name … And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church.” (3 Nephi 27:7-8)

Although jests and quips will certainly swirl the internet, from a spiritual perspective, what Nelson is doing is admirable. He doesn’t want his people to be considered Mormons, but latter-day followers of Jesus Christ.

In the end, the simple answer is that Nelson has the right to ask the world to reconsider what it calls The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is, after all, its prophet and president. The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), along with all the other Latter Day Saint churches, can handle it. However, The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) better get ready. I have a feeling its website is going to be getting a lot more traffic.

Daniel P. Stone, Ph.D., is the author of “William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet,” and host for the podcast series on Mormonism for the New Books Network.

Daniel Stone