Those Latter-day Saints: What’s in a name?

ROYCE WONDERS: (Paraphrasing) What’s the origin of Mormonism’s official name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and do those two “of” phrases mean Saints are on equal footing with Jesus, or that Jesus was Mormon, or what?

THE GUY RESPONDS: The founding Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. originally called his group “the Church of Christ.” The scriptures that Smith added to the Bible say that in an 1831 revelation God pronounced this to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30).

Thus, God revealed a new and final church name to Smith in Missouri on April 26, 1838: “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (D & C 115:4). Some historians say this combined “The Church of the Latter Day Saints” used by Smith’s flock in Ohio with “The Church of Jesus Christ” preferred by his newly acquired Missouri followers.

According to Mormon Doctrine, a widely consulted though non-official reference book by an LDS apostle, the name is all-important because the “authenticity of any church” must be determined by whether it has “some combination of the names of Christ as its name.” (With the other listed marks of authenticity, only the LDS Church qualifies.)

In recent years the LDS Church has changed its official typography to put JESUS CHRIST in larger capital letters marked off from the rest of the name in order to defend itself against the charge that Mormons are not true Christians. LDS headquarters is quite particular about use of its name and officially “discourages” the “Mormon Church” and “LDS Church” nicknames that are commonly used by Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

The Guy has never really thought much about those two “of” phrases that apparently can be confusing for some. However, the are crucial to the Saints.

To the Saints, this says first that it’s Jesus’ church, while the second “of” means this church consists of Saints who have restored the original true religion of Jesus that had been corrupted by what Mormon Doctrine calls the “universal apostasy” in ancient Christianity following the death of Jesus’ apostles. The Saints do not think they’re on Jesus’ level or that Jesus was literally a Mormon, since their church did not exist until 1830, just that their teachings are what Jesus taught.

A much smaller rival body that accepted most of Smith’s revelations but denied his polygamy revelation was led by Smith’s son Joseph III. Its chosen name was “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (no hyphen). In 2001 this denomination, based in Independence, Missouri, renamed itself the “Community of Christ” to express its current self-understanding. Implicitly, the change downplays end-times awareness and further distances the church from its Smith heritage and from the better-known Saints based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In case you were wondering, these are by no means the longest official names among denominations. For instance, Philadelphia is the headquarters of the “House of God Which is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Inc.,” which nicknames itself “The Church of the Living God.”

Here’s the Utah-based church’s policy on name usage.

The Missouri-based Community’s self-definition in a .pdf.

QUESTION FOR THE GUY? Leave it in our comments pages or at his site.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Darren Blair

    I think the answer might have over-simplified a few things.

    According to Mormon Doctrine, a widely consulted though non-official reference book by an LDS apostle,…

    Bruce R. McConkie originally intended “Mormon Doctrine” as a personal project along with other various works that he was doing at the time (1950s, IIRC). However, because it was a personal project rather than an official work, it didn’t receive any sort of theological vetting until *after* it was already in print. As a result, much of what was McConkie’s personal theology was published alongside or in lieu of official church teachings.

    McConkie was forced to begin a series of revisions to the work, the first revised edition landing sometime around 1966. Additional revisions took place during the late 1960s / early 1970s, culminating in the 1978 / 1979 edition. The “final” edition was published in 1994, and remained in print until a few years ago when sales finally began to decline by such a margin as to indicate that the market was flooded.

    Most active members of the church will use the newest edition that they can get their hands on, which is usually the 1994 edition (a few will go by the 78 / 79 edition, while every once in a while someone will have a ’66 edition).

    However, most critics of the church prefer the 1950s edition because it’s something of a gold mine for questionable, if not controversial, theology. In fact, in my personal experience, more critics of the church cite the 1950s edition of “Mormon Doctrine”, “The Seer” (declared heterodox in its day and personally regarded as heretical by Brigham Young himself and several other members of the church), and “The Journal of Discourses” (never subjected to the canonization process) than any reference the church itself actually puts out. As a result, MD has a somewhat tenuous place within church history.

    A much smaller rival body that accepted most of Smith’s revelations but
    denied his polygamy revelation was led by Smith’s son Joseph III.

    Although polygamy was a key point of difference between the main body of the church and the RLDS faith, the proximate cause of the rift was the question of succession. With both Joseph and Hyrum murdered at the same time, there was no clear leader. The majority of the membership accepted Brigham Young, with several – including one of my ancestors – testifying of a miraculous occurrence when he stepped forward during a public meeting to plead his case to the members. However, the members who chose to join what ultimately became the RLDS branch believed that the line of succession was meant to remain within the Smith family.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    The Guy does a good job explaining the complex name. Among other things, he correctly calls attention to the hyphen and the lower-case “d” in “Latter-day Saints.” Even many members of the Church will get that wrong.

  • Y. A. Warren

    This is very illuminating and amusing, right up my alley in education.

    I wish more religions that proclaim they are “Christian” would illuminate exactly what version of the examples of Jesus as their supposed Christ they are following.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I just have to object to this who response. To claim Smith “added to the Bible” is not the best way to put it.
    To quote Mormon Doctrine today is to show that Ostling does not keep up with current thought in Mormondom. It is out of print, in large part because people want to distance themselves from some of the things McConkie said. Actually McConkie himself said that anything he said there, or anywhere else, on certain matters before June 1978 was incorrect, and that was in August 1978. A much better source would be to look to the Book of Mormon where Jesus tells his disciples that if the Church is called in Jesus’s name, it is Jesus’s church, and if it is called in Moseses name it is Moses’ church. Especially since Ezra Taft Benson’s seminal 1985 talk on the Book of Mormon, this is the passage on the name of the Church members will be most familiar with. 3 Nephi 27:7 is the key point of this.
    On the issue of the Community of Christ, the real disagreement that would resonant with modern Mormons was there assertion that the endownment was not started by Joseph Smith but was instituted by Brigham Young.

  • Tyler

    I believe the author is trying to deliver unbiased information, and I appreciate the effort. There are some small corrections that are important to point out. First:

    “To the Saints, this says first that it’s Jesus’ church, while the second “of” means this church consists of Saints who have restored the original true religion of Jesus that had been corrupted”

    This is close, but not entirely correct. This phrasing is incorrect: “… consists of Saints who have restored…” Members of the LDS faith believe that Christ did the restoring, not Saints. He did this through people/members/saints, but the saints themselves, did not have the authority or power to do the restoring. We can get technical that others were involved (Peter, James, and John; John the Baptist, etc.) but it should be sufficient that all parts of the restoration were under the direction of Christ. I understand that others may not agree or see it that way, but the author started this paragraph stating “To the Saints,…”, as in from the Church or members’ point of view or their beliefs. So, to the Saints his original description is incorrect.

    Second: “The Saints do not think they’re on Jesus’ level or that Jesus was literally a Mormon, since their church did not exist until 1830, just that their teachings are what Jesus taught.”

    I agree that saints do not think they are on Jesus’ level. Whether Jesus was literally a Mormon is a little more subjective. If you define Mormon as being recorded a member of the church, or baptized, since the Church’s restoration in 1830, then I would agree. However, for something to be ‘restored’ it would have had to exist previously; by extension members of the LDS church think of themselves as members of Christ’s original church that he established during his mortal lifetime and their current church being that same church. Being the head of His own Church, I would consider him a member of that church. By that definition Christ, his apostles, and all followers prior to the apostasy mentioned could also be considered Mormons.

    Again, this commentary is based off of the author stating “To the Saints,…” and seemingly trying to convey what members of the LDS faith themselves believe. I’m not trying to argue here what is correct and what is not, simply what is reality.


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