This infographic by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explains what it means to be a Mormon. (Infograph by LDS Church)
This infographic by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explains what it means to be a Mormon. (Infograph by LDS Church)

They first referred to themselves as “the disciples.” Outsiders called them “the new sect” or “Gold Bible apostles.” But within a year of the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its members were widely known as “Mormonites.” Now, almost two centuries later, the Church’s nickname is much the same.

Name change

For the first eight years of its existence, the Church’s official name took on a few varieties — Church of Christ and Church of the Latter-day Saints are just two. At that time, it was customary to label a movement after its founder or principal leader. So the movement should have been called, by outsiders, the Josephites or Smithites. But a local newspaper editor dubbed believers “Mormonites” after the book that animated them.

“It was a remarkable choice, because his name selection downplayed the translator and emphasized the book. A choice that believers apparently felt comfortable using,” said Mark Staker, lead curator from the Church History Department. “The term spread quickly and within a few months was used widely across the United States so that members called themselves ‘disciples’ in the ‘Church of Christ’ and outsiders called them ‘Mormonites.’”

Within a year, even Church members were using the term to identify themselves with outsiders, though they commonly placed the word in quotation marks when written down.

“Church leaders began embracing the label ‘Mormon’ pretty early on, but they recognized the label had some negative connotations,” said Blair Hodges, public communications specialist for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. “Brigham Young and other leaders would sometimes refer to the ‘Mormons’ with scare quotes around it, or say ‘we Mormons, so-called.’”

Worthy of the name

 The current official name of the Church was designated by Joseph Smith after an 1838 revelation from God — now found in section 115 of the Doctrine and Covenants. As time went on, and through the 20th century, Mormons became more comfortable applying the label “Mormon” — despite the full name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Mormons have ‘reappropriated’ the term, sort of like what you see with the word ‘queer’; a pejorative label is taken over and used in a more positive way by the group it refers to,” Hodges said. “This can happen on a popular level, but the Church institution also reappropriates the label sometimes, like in the recent ‘I’m a Mormon’ campaign.”

And Hodges points out that the current reappropriation effort by the Church is nothing new.

“About 50 years ago the Church produced a series of commercials promoting general Christian ideals, like family togetherness or honesty, and they would end by saying, ‘From the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You know, the Mormons!’ So the Church recognized then that they wanted to be known by the full title, but that practically speaking, people knew them as Mormons. I think we’re seeing that again in the recent ‘I’m a Mormon’ campaign, although we use the label today with some tension,” Hodges said.

Protecting the name

As is the case with any organization, the name and image of the Church matter greatly to its leaders and members.

“Some of this is the result of general anxiety over image control (for instance, the sort of uniforms missionaries wear and the name tags and clean-cut hair styles), but some of it has a more theological impulse,” Hodges said. “You see this in the redesign of the Church’s logo to emphasize Jesus Christ’s name in the title, which happened as Evangelical and other Christians sought to label the Church as a non-Christian cult. ‘Mormon,’ as a label, can be seen as displacing the name, and symbolically the importance, of Jesus.”

Over the last few decades, starting with a 1982 statement from Church leaders asking members to emphasize the name of Jesus Christ, the Church has attempted to simultaneously be known by its full title, but also protect the brand name of “Mormon” — even though members have been discouraged from referring to themselves as such. A similar statement in 2001 publicly encouraged the news media and the public to use the proper name of the Church. But this time, they left more space for the use of the term “Mormons” in referring to Church members. That same year, the Church launched the website Mormon.org.

A 2010 blog post on the Church’s Newsroom website says, “The Church has frequently and prominently used the term during the past decade. … The Internet has brought an added dimension to this issue. Since people looking for information on the Church mostly enter ‘Mormon’ into their search engines, the Church has to accommodate that reality.”

Moving forward, Hodges said we can expect more reminders from Church leaders in the future. But we might also hear more discrepancies.

“What’s interesting is that Elder Ballard’s (2011) conference address discourages Church members from referring to themselves as Mormons, and that if they do, they should follow it up with an explanation,” Hodges said. “But the Church’s Style Guide says that although ‘Latter-day Saints’ is preferred, ‘Mormons’ is acceptable, and so is ‘Mormonism.’ Church members may be more responsive to name requests than reporters (are), but then again, they might not because some linguistic habits die hard. Language is funny that way.”

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