How the LDS Church worked and worked — and paid and paid — to get its name ‘right’ on the internet

President Russell Nelson’s edict against the “Mormon” moniker came with a sweeping mission to recast — if not rebrand — the faith online.

If you think it was easy to eliminate the “Mormon” term from use by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and replace it with the faith’s full name, consider the nightmare it was to do that on the internet.

After President Russell M. Nelson’s August 2018 mandate to make this change — even dropping “Mormon” from the church’s famed Tabernacle Choir — online alternations, one technology professor reports, “required a breadth of commitment,” given the scope of the church’s presence in these electronic spaces.

(Keith Johnson | Special to The Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson speaks at General Conference in 2018.

By February 2020, Latter-day Saint officials had reported renaming hundreds of web and mobile apps as well as making revisions to its social media presence, Spencer Greenhalgh, who teaches in the school of information science at the University of Kentucky, writes in a recent Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought article. “Even relatively straightforward changes (such as replacing the ‘LDSAccess’ wireless network name with ‘Liahona’) are mediated by technical constraints and standards outside of Latter-day Saint leaders’ control.”

In an October 2021 General Conference address, apostle Neil L. Andersen assured the faithful that these sites were purchased for “a very modest amount,” but Greenhalgh speculates the whole switch may have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And the most arduous move of all was the process of replacing the official lds.org URL with churchofjesuschrist.org.

It involved, the tech expert says, “a hugely complex system of technical and contractual coordination.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Neil L. Andersen speaks at General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

Indeed, Andersen even pointed to divine help in making it happen.

“For years we had hoped to purchase the internet domain sites ChurchofJesusChrist.org and ChurchofJesusChrist.com,” Andersen said. “Neither was for sale. About the time of President Nelson’s announcement, both were suddenly available. It was a miracle.”

It makes sense for the church — like other entities — to own domain names, says Latter-day Saint writer and researcher Jana Riess.

Leaders have taken “extraordinary pains to ensure the church is plainly associated with the name ‘Jesus Christ’ and downplay the word ‘Mormon,’” says Riess, a columnist for Religion News Service. “It seems the church has spent a fortune in the last five years to encourage people to use its full name and avoid shorthand terms.”

Given the recent Pew data on how Americans perceive Latter-day Saints or Mormons, which showed them to have the lowest favorable view of the religious groups studied, Riess says, “the strategy doesn’t seem to have paid off in the short term — though, of course, a religion’s name is only one of many factors that affects how the religion might be perceived.”

Like many large organizations, the church pursues domain names “to point those seeking information from the church to official resources, including websites or information pages devoted to specific initiatives,” says church spokesperson Doug Andersen. “Such an approach is common, helps to prevent potential confusion, and preserves the domain for future undetermined uses.”

The spokesperson did not comment on how much the church paid for any or all of the domain names it acquired from others.

David and Goliath battle

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Community of Christ chapel in Millcreek, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. The denomination long ago stopped calling itself “Mormon."

Although Latter-day Saint authorities have insisted that these changes are “not an issue of rebranding,” Greenhalgh says, “it seems clear that legitimacy has played a role in this increased attention to names and naming.”

In particular, leaders hope emphasizing the full name will bring the Utah-based faith greater acceptance as “Christian” by other religious traditions and will clarify its relationship to other groups with connections to church founder Joseph Smith.

The domain issue was particularly challenging on the second point, where it became a kind of David and Goliath battle with other communities tracing their heritage to Mormonism’s founding prophet.

Latter-day Saints make up by far the largest of these expressions, but many others also assert to be Smith’s true successors, Greenhalgh says, challenging the dominant group’s legitimacy as heirs to the 1830 church Smith started.

While the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) long ago stopped calling itself “Mormon,” many fundamentalist groups actively tout the label, he says, which has complicated perceptions for Latter-day Saints “trying to escape their polygamist past and its implications for present acceptability.”

Several also lay claim to the Church of Jesus Christ.

What’s in a (domain) name?

A website is a collection of files hosted on a computer and made accessible to other computers through the internet, explains Greenhalgh. It is assigned a numerical “address,” but those are not easily committed to memory.

So the Domain Name System (DNS) was developed in the early 1980s to establish recognizable sites, which, in turn, became part of established legitimacy.

Domain names have become, the scholar says, valuable markers of recognition and identity.

Early on, organizations, including the Community of Christ, secured several such names, while deciding which would best serve their needs.

Though there can be conflicts over the same name, he says, “the first-come, first-served market remains the primary means of determining the legitimate owner of a given domain name.”

To discover how the LDS Church acquired churchofjesuschrist.org, Greenhalgh looked through the Wayback Machine, an internet archive that captures historical versions of webpages.

The church’s first official website, lds.org, was launched in November 1996 and showcased the faith’s logo — in which the words JESUS CHRIST were larger than the rest of the name.

Later, two other sites, mormon.org and mormon.net, emerged, but both were managed by individual members, not the church itself. (Mormon.com turned out to be a pornographic site.)

In time, though, Latter-day Saint officials were able to bring both sites under their control, redirecting their traffic to lds.org.

“The seeming impetus for these online presence changes in 2001 was the upcoming 2002 Winter Olympics, hosted in Salt Lake City,” Greenhalgh writes, “and therefore perceived by Latter-day Saint leadership as an important opportunity to build acceptance.”

Back then, apostle Dallin H. Oaks (now first counselor in the governing First Presidency) told a New York Times reporter that it was appropriate to refer to the church as the “Church of Jesus Christ” as “no other major Christian body in the United States has laid claim to it.”

With such a statement, Oaks dismissed other religious traditions “as serious (‘major’) contenders,” Greenhalgh argues, “and conceals that denominations within [Mormonism] are prominent among these dismissed churches.”

‘I’m a Mormon’ campaign

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) "I'm a Mormon" ads on display in New York City.

In July 2010, mormon.org (not lds.org) received a major overhaul that put individual Latter-day Saints in the spotlight, with the lively “I’m a Mormon” campaign that leaned into the widely used nickname.

This reclaiming of “Mormon” was part of “a broader effort within Latter-day Saint public affairs,” Greenhalgh writes, “that responded to increased attention in the media and in pop culture during the late 2000s to polygamous groups also claiming the name ‘Mormon.’”

After Nelson’s 2018 announcement, “Mormon” was virtually extinguished from the church’s web presence.

At the time, though, “churchofjesuschrist.org” was operated by a Salt Lake City-based church called The Church of Jesus Christ in Zion.

It was established in 1984 by later-excommunicated Latter-day Saint Kenneth Asay, who asserted to be the reincarnation of Joseph Smith. After Asay’s death, the mantle was taken up by Roger Billings, who incorporated the church in Missouri in 1989.

In August 2018 (after Nelson’s instructions), The Church of Jesus Christ in Zion renewed its ownership of the site until 2022, but soon relinquished it, leading to speculation the Utah church paid for the site.

A simple ‘the’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building in downtown Salt Lake City in March 2022.

There is one domain name the LDS Church cannot buy.

The Church of Jesus Christ — founded by William Bickerton, based in Pennsylvania, and representing Mormonism’s third largest denomination — has used the domain names “thechurchofjesuschrist.com and thechurchofjesuschrist.org since the early 2000s,” Greenhalgh writes. “Given the importance that the church has placed on “The” in the full name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints … it is likely that Latter-day Saint officials have also been monitoring these domain names.”

To date, the LDS Church, spokesperson Andersen says, “has not sought to purchase this domain.”

Still, the global faith of 17 million members continues to use the digital universe to promote its values and to assert itself as the Church of Jesus Christ and the true heir of founder Joseph Smith.

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