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.

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Skeptical about the NYT’s Mormon skeptic piece

We joke about having guilt files here at GetReligion — folders full of stories that we’d like to look at and analyze but don’t get around to for one reason or another. I have one from May of last year headlined “Mormons struggling with doubt turn to online support groups.” I thought it such an intriguing topic and one handled well by focusing on a particular expression of doubt in a single religious community.

Doubt is a topic explored much more within religious communities than most people realize, and is seriously undercovered — or poorly covered — by the media.

I thought of that 2012 story today because we have another story along the same lines, this time in the New York Times, and headlined “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt.”

There is much to commend about the story and I encourage everyone to give it a read. I also will pass along some reader questions:

In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.

When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation.

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

I grew up in Mormon areas and have Mormon family members and ex-Mormon family and friends — the way this was worded struck me as slightly weird. Namely, while it’s true that polygamy might be more formally associated with Brigham Young, everyone is taught that Joseph Smith introduced the principle of polygamy. I’m not sure how much people get into how much he practiced his own teaching, but for those of us with some knowledge of LDS teaching on the matter, the idea that it would be foundation-crumbling to learn he practiced what he taught is — weird.

The story includes the explosive claim that “the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith.” The basis for the claim? We get a story built around one doubter, a vague reference to “interviews” and, uh, an internet poll. More on that in a little bit.

The story suffers from a general problem of not seeming to understand at all how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized. Namely, there is no “priestcraft,” which is sort of a derogatory term for traditional clergy. It’s proudly lay run. If you are a Mormon for any length of time, you will almost assuredly hold some type of leadership position. This is considered a feature, not a bug, of how the church is organized. We learn that Mattsson became an area authority but I’d like to know a little bit more about what that means. Is it paid? Is it organizational? We hear it involved organization and preaching, but for the context of the story — which hinges on this person being uniquely responsible for rocking the foundations of the LDS from within — I think the reader could be helped along with a bit more specificity.

The story does get specific about what questions resonate with the doubters including whether it’s “true that Smith took dozens of wives, some as young as 14 and some already wed to other Mormon leaders, to the great pain of his first wife, Emma?”

We’re told that Mattsson found the last question shocking. Presumably the shock of the question is related to wives being wed to other Mormon leaders and to the pain it caused his first wife rather than the polygamy itself. Or is that right? I don’t know. Later we hear from Richard Lyman Bushman, a Columbia University historian and Mormon. We’re told that his book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” set off Mattsson.

The story doesn’t mention something that is noteworthy — the book is sold by Deseret Book Company — a Mormon company. Not just a Mormon company but a huge Mormon-owned bookstore chain.

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Asking the Boy Scout questions that matter the most

If you know anything about the politics of gay rights, you know that there is absolutely nothing that the Boy Scouts of American can do right now that will not lead to major divisions in their organization. The key force that will cause a future split is, of course, the deep divide among mainstream religious groups on the moral status of homosexual behavior.

There is no safe ground for the Boy Scouts, none whatsoever.

It’s very clear where American public opinion is headed, at the moment. Thus, there are few if any surprises in the media coverage of that new Washington Post-ABC News poll, which asks two questions related to the Boy Scouts debate. Let’s walk through a short Post “On Faith” blog item on the results:

A wide majority of Americans support the Boy Scouts of America’s proposal to admit gay scouts for the first time, and most oppose the organization’s plans to continue to bar gay adults from serving as scout leaders, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The century-old group’s National Council will gather later in May to vote on the plan, unveiled last month, which would allow gay scouts but maintain a ban on gay scout masters. In splitting the decision, the group may be trying to modernize while continuing to appeal to a diversity of views on homosexuality — seven in 10 scout groups are chartered by religious institutions.

So, with that seven-in-10 statistic, what are the most crucial follow-up questions that the authors of this poll needed to ask? It’s clear what the real issue is here, but it does not appear that the poll team was interested in the hard facts (poll .pdf here) behind the news.

Opposition to banning gay scout leaders ranges by religious group and along well-worn political fault lines. A 56 percent majority of Catholics oppose the continued ban on gay scout masters, a number that rises to 75 percent among people who identify as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. By contrast, Protestants are closely divided, 49 percent supporting and 47 percent opposing the ban on gay scout leaders. While the new survey did not ask Protestants whether they identify as “born-again or evangelical Christians,” surveys have consistently shown evangelical Christians are more conservative than mainline protestants on issues of homosexuality.

Once again, it is absolutely useless to ask where American Catholics stand on just about anything without asking a detailed question about Mass attendance. It Boy Scout troops are hosted by Catholic parishes, that means that the key players in future decisions are almost certain to be people — parents with children — who not only attend, but help lead, those parishes.

How many sacramentally active, weekly Mass Catholics oppose the ban on gay Boy Scout leaders? If the goal of the poll is to investigate the future of the Boy Scouts, that’s the crucial question on the Catholic side of the aisle. Frankly, I was stunned at that anti-ban 56 percent number — stunned that it was not higher.

The key statistics that the poll did not investigate can be seen in a chart at the Boy Scouts website (the “On Faith” site does contain a link).

Where are most Boy Scout troops based? Total units linked to congregations in:

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