Russell M. Nelson draws a line in the sand over “LDS” and “Mormon” describing his church and people

By Eric Johnson

Viewpoint on Mormonism one-week series airing August 27-31, 2018 Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  

Bill McKeever is interviewed on this topic on Issues, Etc on 8/17/18

On August 16th, 2018, President Russell M. Nelson, the top leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made an authoritative statement in an article titled “The Name of the Church” located at mormonnewsroom.org.  The official statement read:

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. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will. In recent weeks, various Church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so. Additional information about this important matter will be made available in the coming months.

The article, which is ironically housed on the LDS website mormonnewsroom.com, includes a link to an “updated Newsroom style guide.” These are the requests of the church regarding this issue:

  • In the first reference, the full name of the Church is preferred: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
  • When a shortened reference is needed, the terms “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ” are encouraged. The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged.
  • While the term “Mormon Church” has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use. Thus, please avoid using the abbreviation “LDS” or the nickname “Mormon” as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church,” or “Church of the Latter-day Saints.”
  • When referring to Church members, the terms “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “Latter-day Saints” are preferred. We ask that the term “Mormons” not be used.
  • “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 term “Mormonism” is inaccurate and should not be used. When describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is accurate and preferred.
  • When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, it should be stated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not affiliated with polygamous groups.

The next morning’s edition of the Deseret News, a daily paper owned by this religious organization, made an interesting point in the front page article with the banner headline reading “A Seismic Shift from Salt Lake City.” It reads:

The announcement and style guide raised questions about the future of the names of famous church institutions like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, LDS Business College and the Mormon Channel. . . . What will happen to the names of mormon.org, LDS Charities, Mormon Messages, the “Meet the Mormons” movies or LDS Philanthropies? (August 17, 2018, A1).

The journalist reported that church leaders “declined to comment on specifics, pointing to its statement, which added, ‘In the coming months, Church websites and materials will be updated to reflect this direction from President Nelson.’”

As of August 29, 2018, the church’s two main websites (lds.org and mormon.org) as well as “mormonnewsroom.org” have not had their domains changed, an obvious contradiction to the edict. (One would have thought the leaders would have made these format changes before making the big announcement.) At this time, the choir’s name is the same as well as the college and TV channel. Apparently, though, changes will be coming soon. It seems strange that the church would mess with such a recognizable brand name (“Mormon”) that is obviously more familiar to outsiders than the church’s official title. (Can anyone imagine a prospective convert searching on the Internet for “missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” Obviously, not.) Could the leaders have made a terrible mistake similar to what the Coca-Cola leadership did in the mid-1980s when it created “New Coke” and abandoned the traditional formula? The similarities are very similar.

Wanting to avoid unnecessary conflict

Before anything else is said, it should be pointed out that we at Mormonism Research Ministry never intend to be rude or impolite when it comes to attempting to engage Latter-day Saints. Over the years, we have referred to this religious organization and its members of “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (a massive 47 keystrokes just to type out the entire name!) as LDS and Mormon. We have also referred to the religion as Mormonism. (Even the name of our ministry has “Mormonism” in it.) Yet, according to these new rules, there really are few to no nicknames that can be used to satisfy the directives of Nelson. To show how we have really tried our best, consider the introduction to our newest book Sharing the Good News with Mormons (“Should Christians Share the Good News with Mormons”) released by Harvest House Publishers in June 2018. On pages 13 and 14, I wrote:

Before we go any further, let’s explain how we will refer to the Salt Lake City-based church—known officially as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and its membership throughout this book. According to LDS Church member Gary C. Lawrence: “Our members are properly referred to as Mormons or as Latter-day Saints. Our church may be referred to by its full name or as the LDS Church. We prefer not to be called the Mormon Church.” (Mormons Believe…What? p. 7). Thus, to be respectful and prevent any unnecessary arguments, we will refer to those who belong to this religion as “Latter-day Saints,” “LDS,” or “Mormons.” While we will leave direct quotes using the term “Mormon Church” intact, we will not use this designation in our writing; instead, we will refer to the church using its full name or as “LDS Church.”

As it can be seen, our desire is to eliminate unnecessary offense to Mormons. Thus, we never referred to this religious organization as the “Mormon Church” once in this book. Certainly, using abbreviations and nicknames has been a convenient way to refer to the religious organization and its followers without having to continually repeat “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints” over and over again. In our opinion, repeatedly using this church’s whole official name might have sounded like we were mocking the church. And using the whole name takes unnecessary space. Now, it appears we are in a no-win zone.

The background to Nelson’s mandate

It seems that this “the-right-way-to-call-the-church” issue has been bothering President Nelson for at least three decades. In a general conference talk that he gave in April 1990 titled “Thus Shall My Church Be Called,” he said,

Today I would like to speak about a name. We are all pleased when our names are pronounced and spelled correctly. Sometimes a nickname is used instead of the real name. But a nickname may offend either the one named or the parents who gave the name. The name of which I shall speak is not a personal name, yet the same principles apply. I refer to a name given by the Lord: “Thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (D&C 115:4.) Note carefully the language of the Lord. He did not say, “Thus shall my church be named.” He said, “Thus shall my church be called.” Years ago, its members were cautioned by the Brethren who wrote: “We feel that some may be misled by the too frequent use of the term ‘Mormon Church.’” (Member-Missionary Class—Instructor’s Guide, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, p. 2.) Before any other name is considered to be a legitimate substitute, the thoughtful person might reverently consider the feelings of the Heavenly Parent who bestowed that name.

On August 22, 2018, the Salt Lake Tribune published an article six days after Nelson’s presidential announcement titled “Church’s Name is ‘Not Negotiable.” Nelson expressed shock at the amount of attention that his edict had generated. “My goodness, it’s caused a big furor,” he reportedly said. Despite his surprised reaction–and isn’t this man a “prophet” who should have foreseen this amount of attention?–Nelson maintains that the church would not change its position on this issue. He said:

We know that it’s going to be a challenge to undo tradition of more than a hundred years. The Lord has told us what his church shall be called. So, we’re not changing names, we’re correcting a name. We just want to correct an error. That’s all. The Lord said the name of the church shall be The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Period. And that’s not negotiable. So these errors that have crept in are only to be corrected.

A look at the style guide

Let’s consider each of the points in the style guide and respond to each:

  • In the first reference, the full name of the Church is preferred: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Typically, we at MRM try to follow Nelson’s request in most of our writing, whenever possible. Thus, we don’t have a problem with this first point and will continue to do this, as this is the authentic name of this church that we will recognize in the beginning.

  • When a shortened reference is needed, the terms “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ” are encouraged. The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged.

Bible-believing Christians believe that the church led by Nelson is not true. So why should we be expected to use “the Church,” or the “Church of Jesus Christ”? To call it the “restored Church of Jesus Christ” would be an admission that the Great Apostasy really happened and that we as Bible-believing Christians are bankrupt when it comes to the authority held by Latter-day Saints (as the qualified males are said to hold the priesthood). The terms requested by the LDS leadership will not be used by us at MRM. That is a guarantee.

I find it interesting that this point says this religious organization requests to be called the “Church of Jesus Christ.” There is a splinter group named The Church of Jesus Christ that has trademarked that very title. Perhaps the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ would object if they knew that another religious organization wanted to be known by that same registered name!

  • While the term “Mormon Church” has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use. Thus, please avoid using the abbreviation “LDS” or the nickname “Mormon” as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church,” or “Church of the Latter-day Saints.”

We normally try not to use “Mormon” as an adjective before the word “church,” especially in our newsletters and website. Even shorter for us is “LDS,” easily identifying this religious entity from any other church. Since we refuse to use the suggestions offered in bullet point 2, we would be forced to use the full name of the church, as cumbersome as that is with 47 keystrokes and 11 syllables. The idea has been ridiculed by the mass media. For instance, the Washington Post had an article on August 17th with the headline “Stop Calling the Mormon Church ‘Mormon,’ says church leader.” And CBS News reported, “Mormon Church leader wants people to stop using ‘Mormon.’” Irony at its finest.

  • When referring to Church members, the terms “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “Latter-day Saints” are preferred. We ask that the term “Mormons” not be used.

Although Nelson tipped his hat about his position on this topic at the April 1990 general conference, this didn’t stop him from referring to “Mormons” in the October 2012 general conference. He said,

In this great worldwide audience, many of you are not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and know very little about us and our missionaries. You are here or tuned in because you want to know more about the Mormons and what our missionaries teach. . . . Some of you may wonder about the name Mormon. It is a nickname for us. It is not our real name, though we are widely known as Mormons. The term is derived from a book of sacred scripture known as the Book of Mormon.

It would have seemed that, if he felt so strongly about this issue, he should have substituted “Latter-day Saints” for “Mormons” and just left it at that! Yet the nickname “Mormon” as a reference to the followers of this church has been used for more than a hundred years, including by the General Authorities of the church. For example, third President John Taylor said:

Now I come to us, Mormons. We are the only true Church, so we say. We have the only true faith, so we say and believe. I believe we have many great and true principles revealed from the heavens. I will tell you how I feel about it, and what I have said many times when I have been abroad among the priests, people, and philosophers. If any man under the heavens can show me one principle of error that I have entertained, I will lay it aside forthwith, and be thankful for the information (The Gospel Kingdom, p. 50).

Apostle M. Russell Ballard explained at a general conference,

While Mormon is not the full and correct name of the Church, and even though it was originally given by our detractors during our early years of persecution, it has become an acceptable nickname when applied to members rather than the institution. We do not need to stop using the name Mormon when appropriate . . . (“The Importance of a Name,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2011, p. 81).

Ballard recognized the impracticality of having to use the church’s full name when he said,

Some may ask, what about the Internet sites such as Mormon.org as well as various Church-initiated media campaigns? As I said, referring collectively to members as Mormons is sometimes appropriate. As a practical matter, those outside of our faith come looking for us searching for that term. But once you open up Momron.org, the proper name of the Church is explained on the home page, and it appears on each additional page on the site. It is impractical to expect people to type the full name of the Church when seeking to find us or when logging on to our website (“The Importance of a Name,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2011, p. 81. Emphasis mine.).

If Ballard recognized this just seven years previously, has he changed his mind in thinking that eliminating the use of “Mormons” seven years later would be practical? I highly doubt it.

  • “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.”

Why do “historical expressions” get a pass? After all, it’s not “Mormon’s” trail (the figure in the Book of Mormon) but rather a trail blazed by Mormons. This point doesn’t seem to be consistent with Nelson’s directive. If “Mormon Trail” is OK, then shouldn’t the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” be considered a historical choir? Why shouldn’t “Mormon” be allowed in this choir’s name? Again, I’m not sure Nelson understands what a great brand name “Mormon” is, as “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Tabernacle Choir” takes far too much effort to say. But now, it appears a change like this would be mandated.

  • The term “Mormonism” is inaccurate and should not be used. When describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is accurate and preferred.

To call this movement “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is a doctrinal position that Evangelical Christians will not make. I don’t believe Christianity has been “restored” (i.e., I reject the “Great Apostasy”) and I don’t believe this religion has the correct “gospel.” Why would I use “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ”?

When it comes to the word “Mormonism,” how are outsiders like us supposed to identify this religious movement? We are told not to use the words “Mormon” or “LDS.” The only way to identify this religion would be “the religion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Instead of using four syllables, we’re supposed to use sixteen? It’s too unwieldy and unnecessary. And “Mormonism” is a term that has been used since the very first president and founder of this religious organization. Church founder Joseph Smith said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church 5:499). He also said, “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism”” (History of the Church 5:499).

Other presidents have also freely used “Mormonism” when describing the religion, including:

  • 2nd President Brigham Young:
    • “You say you belong to the Presbyterians; it is no matter if you have got the truth. Are you a Calvinist, or a Wesleyan? It is no matter, if you have got the truth; that truth is also mine. Do you belong to the Methodist’s society? And have you got the truth? It is right, that truth is ‘Mormonism,’ it is my property. Are you a Quaker? It is no matter, if you have the truth, that same truth is mine. Are you a Catholic, and have got the truth? That is my doctrine, and I will not quarrel about it” (Journal of Discourses 1:243-244).
    • “’Mormonism’ is true, and all hell cannot overthrow it” (Journal of Discourses 4:40).
  • 3rd President John Taylor:
    • “How did this state of things called Mormonism originate? We read that an angel came down and revealed himself to Joseph Smith and manifested unto him in vision the true position of the world in a religious point of view” (The Gospel Kingdom, p. 6).
    • “John says: ‘And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads.’ (Revelation 14:1.) Their ‘Father’s name,’ bless me! that is GOD! Well done for Mormonism; one hundred and forty four thousand GODS, among the tribes of Israel, and, two living Gods and the Holy Ghost, for this world! Such knowledge is too wonderful for men, unless they possess the spirit of Gods” (The Gospel Kingdom, p. 29)
  • 6th President Joseph F. Smith: “I thank God for ‘Mormonism,’ so-called; it is the power of God unto salvation” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 97).
  • 7th President Heber J. Grant:
    • “Either Joseph Smith did see God and did converse with Him, and God Himself did introduce Jesus Christ to the boy Joseph Smith, and Jesus Christ did tell Joseph Smith that he would be the instrument in the hands of God of establishing again upon the earth the true gospel of Jesus Christ—or Mormonism, so-called, is a myth. And Mormonism is not a myth!” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, 2002, p. 16).
    • “Time and time again my heart has been melted, my eyes have wept tears of gratitude for the knowledge that He lives and that this gospel called Mormonism is in very deed the plan of life and salvation, that it is the only true gospel upon the face of the earth, that it is in very deed the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gospel Standards, pp. 197-198. Given in General Conference, October 1918).
  • 9th President David O. McKay: “As true Christianity should and as it did in the days of the Savior, ‘Mormonism’ combines the essential elements in the teachings of Israel’s prophets, priests and sages; and in accepting the Jehovah of the Old Testament as the Savior of mankind, it fulfils the noblest aspirations of the Hebrew race, thereby indicating a world-wide scope so far as Israel’s people and Israel’s God are concerned” (Conference Reports, April 1927, pp. 104-105).
  • 10th President Joseph Fielding Smith: “Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:188. Italics in original).
  • 13th President Ezra Taft Benson: The message of Joseph Smith—the message of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the message of Mormonism—is the most important message in this world” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, p. 110).
  • 14th President Howard W. Hunter: (referring to the First Vision) “My faith and testimony hinges upon this simple story, for if it is not true, Mormonism fails” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter, pp. 96-97).

Many additional leaders could be cited to make the point. If today’s God does not approve of the term “Mormonism” in referring to this church today, why did he accept the term being used by these leaders for more than a century? Remember, Nelson was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying that he was correcting the “errors that have crept in.” Is Nelson insinuating that the terms LDS, Mormon, and Mormonism are “errors” that should never have been used by his predecessors? It sure seems so.

  • When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, it should be stated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not affiliated with polygamous groups.

This church is very sensitive about being linked to polygamous groups, even though its leadership actively advocated this doctrine for many years. In fact, the church still holds that it is possible to be polygamous in the next life. Even Nelson has had two temple marriages solemnized for “time and eternity”and he fully expects to have both of these women as his wives in the next life.

Conclusion

Because Nelson says in the one-paragraph statement that “the Lord has impressed upon my mind,” for all intents and purposes, the announcement given on August 16, 2018 appears to be nothing less than a “revelation” from God.  According to that language, this is not Nelson’s opinion but God’s. Stuart Reid, who was a former public affairs official counseling the church on an earlier attempt to discontinue the use of “Mormon,” claims that this change is not just a “rebranding” but rather “is the result of revelation” as the Latter-day Saints are being prepared for the Second Coming of Christ (Salt Lake Tribune, “What Works Besides ‘Mormon,?’” August 27, 2018).

The leaders are apparently in agreement with the decision announced by Nelson. As Apostle Neil L. Andersen explained:

There is such unity in the [governing] First Presidency and the Twelve [apostles] on this subject. The president has spoken; the Lord has spoken to the president. And this is going to be an extended, multi-year effort, but this will not be something that will be attempted and then pulled back on.” (“Church’s Name is ‘not negotiable,’” Salt Lake Tribune, August 22, 2018, p. B5).

That is an important point. The Lord is said to have spoken to the church’s leader. The leadership has been put into a position that, if Nelson’s announcement was later deemphasized or even contradicted, there would be a question as to why a directive supposedly coming from God was disobeyed. Yet I do not believe that the other fourteen men in the hierarchy all are adamant about this change. If so, then why wasn’t the change instituted years ago? Could it be that Nelson is finally getting his way merely because he made it to the top of the food chain?

With everything considered, it sounds as if a Mormon who purposely uses “LDS” or “Mormon” since August 16, 2018 as a reference to himself or his church would be in sin and would need to repent of this wrong doing. If it hadn’t been for the fact that “The Name of the Church” and the style guide can be found on an official website, I would never have believed it. Surreal, it is. With so many issues facing the church today, is this really what the membership wanted to hear? And this was God’s highest priority? I highly doubt it.

Meanwhile, rest assured that we at “Mormonism Research Ministry” will not be changing our name anytime soon. And we will continue to use “LDS” and “Mormon” to reference the church in a way most people can understand. We’re not trying to be disrespectful, just practical.  Russell M. Nelson can request anything he wants from those who do not belong to his church, including most of the media and apologists like us at MRM. However, as Keith Walker pointed out in this meme, he is neither our prophet nor our president. Therefore, we are not subject to his demands. It will be interesting to see how this narrative pans out over the next few months and even years.

Image created by Keith Walker at Evidence Ministries.