Is It Okay To Be a Mormon?
29 November 2018 (updated 30 November 2018)
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During the Sunday 7 October 2018 general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church), President Russell M. Nelson encouraged members and friends of the Church to stop using nicknames like “Mormon” to refer to the Church or its members. To emphasize that point, he stated that, “To remove the Lord’s name from the Lord’s Church is a major victory for Satan.” I’m concerned that many will interpret this statement poorly, with negative practical ramifications.
Now, to be clear, I sustain President Nelson’s leadership of the Church. And I’m generally a huge fan of the changes that he is making, and the pace at which he’s making them. He has simplified the structure of the Priesthood, at the local level, making it parallel in structure with the Relief Society, which will, in my estimation, increase the local influence of the Relief Society over time. He has reframed Home Teaching into Ministering in ways that may revitalize our efforts to serve each other at the local level. He has shortened Church services on Sundays to two hours, to make more time for families. And he is bringing to completion the multi-year launch of new methods and aids for teaching at Church, to encourage broader participation and more meaningful engagement with each other. I love all of this.
However, rightly or wrongly, I sense that President Nelson’s statement about the relation between “Mormon” and Satan will cause some members of the Church to lower or even reverse their esteem for some aspects of the Church, its history and scriptures and their broader culture context, that many of us have long found beautiful and identified with on a deep level. And I fear that this will strain relationships. Some members will continue to find divine inspiration in those aspects of the Church, while others will begin to find diabolical perversion in those aspects of the Church.
I want to emphasize that I agree with President Nelson’s encouragement to use Jesus’ name when referencing the Church. I love and revere the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later in this article. And I trust President Nelson’s revelatory claim that, “The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” So no one should construe my concern to be about anything beyond interpretations of his statement about “Mormon” and Satan. Like President Nelson, I don’t think the name of the Church should change. And like him, I think that we should use Jesus’ name more often when referencing the Church. In other words, I think President Nelson is leading the Church in a good direction. But I don’t think he has extended his revelatory claim to his statement about “Mormon” and Satan. And I think there are good reasons for that.
Excessive Use of “Jesus” Is Disrespectful
First, it is not practical or respectful to include Jesus’ name in every reference to the Church. President Nelson exemplified this himself, in his statement, using “Lord” twice instead of Jesus’ name. In fact, looking at his whole talk, if we exclude six references to the Church in quotes from the scriptures, four references to the Church in quotes from the new style guide, and six examples of how not to reference the Church, President Nelson included Jesus’ name in only three out of his 36 references to the Church. So he omitted reference to Jesus’ name from 92% of his references to the Church.
It is not even practical to include Jesus explicitly in every reference to the Church. Again President Nelson exemplified this himself. Using a variation of “His” or “Lord,” President Nelson included Jesus explicitly, by pronoun or title but not by name, in twenty of his references to the Church in his talk. He did not include Jesus explicitly in thirteen of his references to the Church. One was “restored Church.” One was “Church restored.” And eleven were simply “Church.” So President Nelson omitted explicit reference to Jesus from 36% of his references to the Church.
Likewise, the scriptures don’t include Jesus explicitly, by name or otherwise, in many references to the Church. These usually take the form of “church,” without any qualifier. However, there are cases when the writer needs to distinguish between parts of the Church. And the writer cannot do so merely by mentioning Jesus, because all parts of the Church have equal claim on that distinction. So the writer mentions an identifier for the people associated with that part of the Church. For example, in his epistles, Paul refers to parts of the Church as the “church of the Laodiceans” and the “church of the Thessalonians.” Similarly, the book of Revelation refers to parts of the Church as the “church of the Laodiceans” and the “church of Ephesus.”
I don’t consider these omissions to be victories for Satan. Some may construe them to be removals of the Lord’s name from the Lord’s Church. In them, the savior’s name is absent. But imagine what it would have been like if President Nelson used Jesus’ name 36 times, without exception, each time he referenced the Church. It would have quickly become silly, and then eventually irreverent, thereby resulting in exactly the opposite of his interests.
In that spirit, the scriptures discourage careless or excessive reference to divine titles. Perhaps most well known is the Old Testament command, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The Doctrine and Covenants elaborates on that principle, after stating that “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God” was the original name of one of the priesthoods in the Church. “But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.”
I can imagine people asking Jesus, “Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this priesthood; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter.” And I can imagine Jesus answering, “Have they not read the scriptures, which say ye must take upon you the name of Christ, which is my name? For by this name shall ye be called at the last day. Therefore, whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name; therefore ye shall call the priesthood in my name. And how be it my priesthood save it be called in my name? For if a priesthood be called in Melchizedek’s name then it be Melchizedek’s priesthood; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the priesthood of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my priesthood, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel.”
Maybe Jesus would have corrected the ancient church, despite their reverent intentions. Maybe Jesus would have encouraged them to include his name in references to the ancient priesthood. But I can only imagine that Jesus, like President Nelson, would not have engaged in careless or excessive repetition of divine titles in references to any priesthood or church, ancient or modern.
“Church of Jesus Christ” Is Ambiguous
Second, we need practical ways of distinguishing between the general Church of Christ and our particular Church. Many times and in many different ways, the scriptures reference the Church of Christ in a sense that is more general than our particular Church. The former encompasses or overlaps with the latter. The latter, wholly or to some extent, manifests the former. There are ambiguities between the two. But they are, nonetheless, different concepts.
Our particular Church is a relatively distinct institution that has existed since the 1800s, either from the time of Joseph Smith or that of Brigham Young, depending on how you want to account for the early institutional evolution. We use “Latter-day Saints” to distinguish ourselves from Christians of earlier times. That’s the most obvious distinction. But there are other distinctions that are important too, even if they are less explicit or even entirely implicit.
The general Church of Christ is a relatively ambiguous concept. In the broadest sense, it may be the Light of Christ, the glory of the church of the Firstborn in and through all things. It may be the Body of Christ, a unity of all who the Spirit baptizes at diverse times and places. They might receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost before ritual baptism by recognized authorities. They might receive the Spirit and authority from God to baptize themselves ritually. And they might not even know about or have a ritual baptism.
I don’t think the Bible or the Book of Mormon explicitly references our particular Church. Any references to our Church that may be in the Bible are, clearly, at most implicit. And persons who are not members of our Church would, understandably, generally disagree with such interpretations.
Some may think there are explicit references to our particular Church in the Book of Mormon. Notably, 1 Nephi 14 contains a prophecy about a future church and describes it in ways that sound a lot like our Church. But if we interpret that passage as a reference to our Church, exclusively, then it would relegate everyone in our day who is not a member of our Church into the church of the devil. And that seems out of line with scriptural accounts of the Church of Christ. So I understand the scripture to be a reference to the general Church of Christ. And I think we should also apply this interpretation to 2 Nephi 9: 2, 2 Nephi 25: 14, 3 Nephi 21: 22, and Mormon 8: 37.
In the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C), it’s not always clear whether the text is referencing the general Church of Church or our particular Church. For example, D&C 10: 67-68 uses the voice of God to explain, “Behold, this is my doctrine — whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.” This sounds like a reference to the general Church of Christ. As the general Church of Christ is ambiguous, so are requirements for membership in it.
I think that this ambiguity is intentional and generally good because it reflects and encourages a progressive revelation of the general Church of Christ within and from our particular Church. The restoration is not complete. We still have work to do. For example, as D&C 128: 24 puts it, “Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.” And the prophecy is that, by doing our part, we’ll eventually join with something greater than ourselves. “Wherefore,” as D&C 65: 6 describes it, “may the kingdom of God go forth, that the kingdom of heaven may come.”
However, the ambiguity sometimes makes it difficult for us to distinguish between our particular Church and the general Church of Christ. And sometimes that difficulty results in poor behavior. For example, some members of our Church use 1 Nephi 14 or D&C 1: 30 as grounds for claiming that persons who are not members of our Church are, thus, not members of’ the general Church of Christ – or worse. But, as explored above, such sectarianism simply doesn’t square with all of the scriptural accounts of the general Church of Christ. And our Church’s own authoritative tradition contains support for a more ecumenical approach.
The Church’s style guide suggests use of “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ,” when we need a short reference to the Church. Either or both of these are sufficient when the subject matter does not include other churches. However, when the subject matter includes other churches, and especially when it includes other Christian churches or otherwise attempts to address the distinction between our particular Church and the general Church of Christ, the style guide is not sufficient. A responsible news organization, for example, would not engage rhetoric that privileges one Christian church above another as “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ.” And, as explored above, it also cannot practically or respectfully use the full name of our Church each time.
Like the writers of the New Testament needed a practical way of distinguishing between parts of their Church, we too need practical ways of distinguishing between parts of the general Church of Christ. It includes both their Church and our Church, among other parts. And of course there are sometimes good reasons to talk about them all as one Church. But there are also sometimes good reasons to distinguish between them. We cannot do that by mentioning that which we have in common. We must mention that which actually distinguishes us. And we usually do that, as the New Testament writers did, by mentioning the name of the people of which a particular part of the general Church of Christ is composed.
“Mormon” Has Beautiful Connotations
Third, there are many good and beautiful applications of “Mormon.” President Nelson certainly did not intend to discourage all uses of “Mormon.” As the Church’s style guide points out, “‘Mormon’ is correctly used in proper names such as the Book of Mormon or when used as an adjective in such historical expressions as ‘Mormon Trail.’”
The style guide also says that “‘Mormonism’ is inaccurate … when describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” But note the word “unique.” That word is important. Because of that word, the style guide is not saying that “Mormonism” would be inaccurate when describing the broader culture, inclusive of but not exclusive to the Church, that reveres and identifies with the immersive discipleship of Jesus Christ that the Book of Mormon presents. That broad culture includes both non-ecclesiastical organizations such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association and the Mormon History Association, and ecclesiastical organizations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Community of Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), Church of Jesus Christ with the Elijah Message, Apostolic United Brethren, and Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Thus, a person may identify as both a Mormon and as a member of the Church, and not mean the same thing by both identifications. Similarly, many members of the Church identify as Christians, but few consider that to mean the same thing as their identification as Church members. We generally recognize that Christianity is broader than the Church. And we can likewise recognize that Mormonism is also broader than the Church.
Some may be tempted to think that “Christian” is more appropriate than “Mormon” because the former stems from the word “Christ.” But “Christ” is not Jesus’ name, at least not in any exclusive sense. It is one of Jesus’ titles, describing one of Jesus’ roles. In the Bible, he invites us all to share in that role with him. And in the Book of Mormon, he invites us all to take on that title with him. So Christ is not even an exclusive title or role.
And Mormon is not only the name of a prophet in the Book of Mormon. The prophet is named after the Land of Mormon, “in which Alma did establish the church among the people, yea, the first church which was established among them after their transgression.” The land shares its name with the Waters of Mormon, a “fountain of pure water” where Alma “did baptize every one that went forth to the place of Mormon; … yea, and they were baptized in the waters of Mormon, and were filled with the grace of God.” The waters share their name with the Forest of Mormon, where “the church of God, or the church of Christ” ministers to each other. And all of these receive the name of Mormon from a king, a christ in the Hebrew tradition. Similarly, in baptism, each disciple of Christ receives from Christ the name of Christ. So, beyond the name of a prophet, “Mormon” symbolizes the same function that “Christ” symbolizes. That function is not Jesus’ name, but it is Jesus’ function, as it should be our shared function, together as the “church of Christ … in Mormon.”
Over the years, some have speculated about the etymology of “Mormon.” Joseph Smith observed that “the word Mormon stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation.” And responding to a satirical debauchery of “Mormon,” he suggested that “the Bible in its widest sense, means good” and that Mormon “means, literally, more good.” Others have observed that the Book of Mormon may suggest an etymology when it says, “all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer.” It’s as if this passage intends to confirm and elaborate on another reason for understanding “Mormon” to mean “beautiful.”
Although some used “Mormon” as a derogatory label for his followers, the prophet Joseph Smith embraced it. He associated “Mormonism” with “grand fundamental principles.” And he encouraged his followers to be “true Mormons.” On one occasion, he stated, “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principle of ‘Mormonism.’ … We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.’” And on another occasion, he stated, “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” And today, reflecting Joseph’s embrace of the word to describe a people and culture, our scriptures continue to refer to “Mormonism” in a positive way.
All Members of the Church Matter
Fourth, both Jesus’ name and our name as a people are important parts of the full name of the Church. As President Nelson is concerned about the removal of “Jesus Christ” from the name of the Church, so I suspect he would be concerned about the removal of “Latter-day Saints.” After all, the same scripture that instructs us to include “Jesus Christ” in the name of the Church also instructs us to include “Latter-day Saints.”
In Joseph Smith’s lifetime, the name of the Church changed several times. Its first name was “The Church of Christ” from 1830 to 1834. In 1824, to distinguish itself from other Christian churches that used the same or a similar name, the Church changed its name to “The Church of the Latter Day Saints.” Then the name of the Church evolved in official publications, through names including “The Church of Jesus Christ,” until 1838. At that time, Joseph Smith recorded the revelation that established the name to be “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” Brigham Young later standardized the uppercase “T” and a hyphen and lowercase “d” in “Latter-day.”
I find a great deal of beauty and meaning in the evolution of the name of the Church. The first name appears to be an appeal to the general Church of Christ, as referenced throughout the scriptures. The second name appears to be a practical recognition of the need to distinguish our Church from the general Church, the Body of Christ, not so much by removing Christ but rather by referring to Latter Day Saints as the relevant part of the body. The third seems to reflect a resurgent acknowledgement of the importance of explicitly mentioning Christ and emphasizing Jesus as the principal example of Christ. And the last seems to bring all of these symbols and concerns together. Our Church is not exhaustive of the Body of Christ, but it is explicitly part of that body. And Jesus is the principal example of what it is to be a member of that body, but he is also not the only member of that body.
It wasn’t enough for Joseph Smith and other early members of the Church to reference it only as “The Church of Christ.” That was too vague, in part because there are many other churches that rightly claim to be part of the Body of Christ to some extent or another. It also wasn’t enough to reference only “The Church of the Latter Day Saints” or “The Church of Jesus Christ” because the former is too vague about Christ, and the latter is too vague about the importance of all members.
Maybe history is repeating itself, to help us learn again the lessons that our ancestors had to learn. Perhaps the Church has been in an extended second phase, where we were emphasizing the “Latter-day Saints” or “Mormon” portion of our name. Perhaps we’re now going into an extended third phase, where we will emphasize the “Jesus Christ” portion of our name. If so, hopefully that will lead to a conclusive fourth phase, where we emphasize both equally in the name of our Church.
Here are some recommendations about how to proceed:
1) When referring to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a context that does NOT include other churches, use its full name in the first reference and “Church” in subsequent references. This comes from the Church style guide.
2) When referring to members of the Church in a context that does NOT include members of other churches, use “Latter-day Saints.” This also comes from the Church style guide.
3) When referring to the unique culture of the Church in a context that does NOT include cultures of other churches, use “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.” This too comes from the style guide. I think this one is too long and hard to apply in many cases, but I intend to do my best to respect it.
4) When referring to the broad culture that includes both the unique culture of the Church and the unique cultures of other organizations that revere the Book of Mormon, use “Mormonism.”
5) When referring to persons who identify with Mormonism, use “Mormon.”
6) When referring to the broader culture that includes both the unique culture of the Church and the unique cultures of other organizations that revere the New Testament, use “Christianity.”
7) When referring to persons who identify with Christianity, use “Christian.”
8) Encourage the Church to provide practical and mutually-respectful guidelines on how to refer to the Church, its members, and its unique culture in a context that DOES include other churches, their members, and their unique cultures. Maybe these would work:
(a) JCLDS Church
(b) JCLDS members
(c) JCLDS culture
Finally, to summarize, it’s okay to be a Mormon. President Nelson’s statement about the use of “Mormon” was only about the Church, its members, and its unique culture. As he exemplified, it’s not practical or respectful to include Jesus’ name in every reference to the Church. And both Jesus’ name and our name as a people are important parts of the full name of the Church. Beyond that, we need practical ways of distinguishing between the general Church of Christ and our particular Church. And there are many good and beautiful applications of “Mormon.”
In my mind, something like “The Church of Jesus Christ of Mormons” would have been just as appropriate as “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” But the name of the Church is specified in the Doctrine and Covenants. I respect that. And I’m fine with the Church’s current preference of “Latter-day Saint” over “Mormon” when referring to members of the Church.
Beyond that, I am irredeemably Mormon. I identify deeply with the broad culture that reveres the Book of Mormon. My Mormon identity complements my identity as a member of Church, just like my Christian identity complements them both. I’m a Christian Mormon member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Maybe there are other members of the Church that don’t identify with Mormonism and/or Christianity. But I do. And when you talk with or about me, I invite you to refer to me as a Christian, a Mormon, and/or a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are one in me.