The Use of the Term "Mormon"

11 September 2018 Written by   Matthew Bowman
Matthew Bowman Matthew Bowman Photography by Rachel Kearl

On August 16, 2018, Russell M. Nelson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced that henceforth the church would discourage use of its common and historic nickname, “Mormon” and such variants as “Mormonism” or “Mormons” in reference to members of the church, and rather would encourage the use of the full name of the church and the phrases “restored gospel of Jesus Christ” or “restored church of Jesus Christ.”

This move might be understood in two somewhat paradoxical ways.

First, it might be read as part of a much longer effort on the part of church leadership to emphasize the church’s claim to Christianity. The term “Mormon” derives from one volume of the faith’s unique scripture, the Book of Mormon, which Mormons believe was divinely delivered to Joseph Smith, their founding prophet, and which they treat as a volume equivalent to the Bible in authority. The name “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is the official name of the faith, which Joseph Smith claimed was revealed to him in 1838. But as other Americans applied the name “Mormon” to them, Mormons joined many other Christian faiths emergent in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, tagged with a name intended to be insulting. Shakers (members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing) and even Methodists (so called because of their presumably methodical, regimented moral code) were so labeled by outsiders who considered them strange and in some way un-Christian. So it was with Mormons, who were named for the work of scripture they revered—a work whose very existence was considered by many other Americans, devotees of the Bible alone, to be blasphemous.

In recent years, the church has redesigned its logo to foreground the name of Jesus Christ, added the subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” to the Book of Mormon, and emphasized devotion to Jesus Christ in a number of promotions, films, and performances the church seeks to share on social media. In a sense, then, this attempt to rebrand the church reflects the church’s ongoing efforts to stake a claim in the broader Christian landscape.

At the same time, though, like the Methodists or the Quakers, Mormons did eventually claim the name applied to them by others, and as recently as early this decade, the church embraced the term as a way to ingratiate itself in the broader American cultural landscape. Concurrent with Broadway’s successful musical The Book of Mormon, the church launched the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, a promotional effort that played along with the musical’s satire and sought to present Mormons as a diverse group of Americans comfortable in modern society.

In this context, then, Nelson’s effort appears to be less an effort at inclusion and more an act of boundary maintenance. His claim to have received divine guidance in making the decision emphasizes Mormon belief that Nelson, as president of the church, possesses access to divine guidance unavailable to most people. The use of the phrase “restored” in the church’s preferred nomenclature emphasizes Joseph Smith’s belief that the original Christian church founded by Jesus Christ had been corrupted beyond repair and required a divine restoration. While Mormons certainly claim to be Christian, and in one sense this move emphasizes their desire to join in that broader community, they also make exclusive claims about authority and truth, and this move reemphasizes those as well.

Will this move be successful? I doubt that the journalistic or academic communities will embrace it. The word “Mormon” is deeply entrenched in the American vernacular already, and, moreover, the language the church is suggesting to replace it bears theological meaning many people not affiliated with the church may be reluctant to embrace. This rhetorical shift has the greatest chance of success within the boundaries of the church itself—and its cultural and theological meanings may alter Mormonism more than they alter non-Mormon perceptions of the church.

Matthew Bowman received his PhD in history from Georgetown University. He is associate professor of history at Henderson State University, where he teaches courses in American history since the Civil War, race, and American religion. He is the author or editor of several books, including The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012), The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014), Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (University of Utah Press, 2016), and, most recently, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America (Harvard University Press, 2018), which explores the multiple ways Christianity in the United States has been mobilized in the political realm.

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