What is a Jack Mormon?

By Bill McKeever

The following was originally printed in the May-June 2011 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

When and where the term Jack-Mormon originated appears to be a bit of a historical controversy. According to the LDS Church manual Church History in the Fulness of Times, the term goes back to the persecution of the Latter-day Saints in the 1830s  when non LDS members offered comfort and help to members of the LDS Church in Clay County, Missouri.  On page 137 it states, “Hostile elements in Jackson County dubbed these sympathizers ‘Jack-Mormons,’ a term applied in the nineteenth century to friendly non-Mormons.”

The Encyclopedia of LDS History, edited by LDS historians Donald Q. Cannon, Richard O. Cowan, and Arnold K. Garr, agree with this assessment.  Under the heading of “Jack-Mormons,” it states,

“The term Jack-Mormon was originally used by residents of Jackson County, Missouri, to describe nonmembers of the Church in Clay County, Missouri, who sympathized with the plight of the Saints.”

In their second edition of The Story of the Latter-day Saints, Mormon historians James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard concur.

“Because of their friendliness toward the beleaguered Saints, the helpful citizens of Clay and other counties were criticized by hostile elements in Jackson County and dubbed ‘Jack Mormons,’ a term applied widely in the nineteenth century to friendly non-Mormons” (p.98).

According to Mormon historian B.H. Roberts, the term Jack-Mormon came about in the 1840s. He credits Thomas C. Sharp with the term. Sharp was an attorney who, along with a partner, took over as publisher of the Western World newspaper in Warsaw, Illinois in late 1840. They later renamed the paper the Warsaw Signal. Sharp eventually became the sole owner and earned a reputation as a fierce critic of Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church. Roberts states in his Comprehensive History of the Church that it was Sharp

“who coined the phrase ‘Jack-Mormon,’ an opprobrious epithet applied to such non – ‘Mormons’ of Illinois who did not favor the illegal procedure and mob violence of Sharp and his associates against the ‘Mormons’” (2:322).

In the book The Carthage Conspiracy, co-authors Dallin Oaks (a current Mormon apostle) and Marvin Hill (an LDS historian) also attributed Sharp with the phrase.

“Sharp is also credited with coining the term ‘Jack Mormon’ to describe non-Mormons who were friendly to their Mormon neighbors” (p.57).

The exact time and place regarding this term is really not all that important given the fact most agree that its original intent was to describe non LDS members who were sympathetic to members of the LDS Church.

Over the years the definition of a Jack-Mormon has changed dramatically. Mormon historian Leonard Arrington, writing for the “I Have a Question” section of the March 1974 Ensign magazine, stated that “after World War I, the term came to have another meaning. Once anti-Mormon literature and agitation began to disappear, it was no longer possible to refer to all those who were friendly to Mormons as ‘Jack-Mormons.’”

Leonard went on to state that in the 20th century,

“Latter-day Saints began to use the term in reference to persons who were only nominal members of the Church; that is, members who were not valiant in conforming to Church standards. Just as the early Hancock County ‘Jack-Mormons’ were friendly to the faith but did not feel any compunction to live Church standards, pay tithing, and heed the advice of the Prophet, so there were Latter-day Saints who, although members, consistently violated the standards of the Church. These came to be called ‘Jack-Mormons’” (p.25).