An open letter to anyone who uses the term “Mormon”.
Every time I see the word Mormon written online, I grimace. Maybe it’s because I don’t know what the result will be when I click on a website, article or media content. It could be something that speaks positively of the faith that has defined my whole life or it could be painfully antagonistic.
I’ve been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since the age of 8 (which is practically my whole life). Typing out the whole name of the church nearly made my fingers cramp up and saying it out loud is no easier. Couldn’t they have found a way to shorten that in some way?
Well, of course they did. Ever since the organisation of the church on April 6th 1830, those looking to reference the church have sought to define its unique characteristics and attribute a title to it. It works for many of the other large denominations of Christianity. We call them Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, and Evangelical, so adding “Mormon” to the list is easy.
Why the name Mormon in the first place?
Well, I won’t rewrite the entire story but “The Book of Mormon” is a central part of the theology of the church. I’ve heard it referred to as the “Mormon Bible”, but that’s just off because we use the King James version of the Bible for our public and private worship.
In fact, the reason other ‘Christian’ denominations might think we have our own Bible is because they don’t read their own. Statistically, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know the Bible better than the other Christian faiths at least.
The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture and a key text for members of the church. In my experience, the teachings contained in it compliment and clarify those taught in the Bible. The book focuses heavily on Jesus Christ and his Atonement, outlining theological principles in a very direct and enthralling way.
The introduction to the book describes it as “a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains the fulness of the everlasting gospel.”
It also makes some audacious claims like:
- It was translated from actual gold plates (by an uneducated 24-year old Joseph Smith).
- Those gold plates had been given to him by an Angel.
- Christ appeared to people on the American continent.
- You can know it’s all true just by reading and praying about it.
Yeah, it’s wild.
There’s also a musical about it that’s become pretty famous now. When I mention it, people ask me if I’ve seen it and I say “yes, I have” and that’s usually followed by a nod that expects an explanation, so I’ll tell you what I tell them:
The play has two halves, the first I found beyond hilarious. I nearly wet myself laughing and got a cramp. People who aren’t members of the church and haven’t been a missionary themselves won’t get the nuances of the jokes like those who have lived the experiences. That’s why it hits the spot. I have no issue laughing at myself, so it didn’t even offend me.
The second half of the play just became generally blasphemous, without as much focus on the church, so it didn’t cause the ruptured spleen I thought was coming at the interlude.
Either way, having read the book and seen the play… I’d go with the book.
The Book of Mormon certainly isn’t the Bible and I know first hand because I spent every morning studying the Bible before school during my last two years of secondary school. I woke up at 5.30 am each day and jumped on a bus in South-East London to the church building for an hour-long course on the mysteries of Isaiah, all before 7.30am. What more could a 16-year-old want right?
Well, this magical program is called seminary and it’s a rite of passage for the adolescent youth of the church. It formed the foundation of my scriptural knowledge and perfectly brainwashed me into lifelong commitment to the faith, as it does for every participant… Obviously not.
Jokes aside, the teachers of those courses are adult volunteers who give up their time in the early mornings to teach and their evenings to prepare. They are some of the kindest, most dedicated humans and I am still grateful for the lessons I learned on those cold London mornings.
Members of the church have gone through a love hate relationship with the nickname “Mormon”. For a random religion that started in America and came to fruition in the state of Utah of all places, I think in all honesty they just wanted to get their name on the map.
The early members of the church were pioneers who left their homes in Europe based on the preaching of missionaries in the mid 1800s. They were converts who moved to join with those who shared their beliefs. To join a man who had claimed to have seen God and Jesus Christ in the flesh, had started a church and professed to have on-going communication with God. Word on road was he was an actual living prophet — like Noah, Moses or Abraham — but his name was Joseph Smith.
You’ve got to be pretty convinced to make that 7,000 mile trip. Many of them died on the way. Bear Grylls hadn’t made it big yet back then, so they were on their own.
I can barely wake up for church on Sunday and it’s a 10minute drive. Given we’re now in the middle of Covid-19, our weekly service is held on Zoom and even that is a struggle. Yeah… I’m a disgrace by comparison.
After the church was founded, the early Saints (members of the church) were persecuted pretty heavily, since apparently the locals didn’t take well to a ‘cult’ forming on their doorstep. Being driven from place to place was common during those early years; as was being tarred and feathered or even murdered. That’s the fate that befell Joseph Smith.
Flash-forward a couple hundred years later and nobody is chasing us anymore, which is nice. There are a few haters outside our general conference every year and a couple trolls online, but they’re harmless. As a wise man once said: “Haters gonna hate.”
However, to get out of obscurity and make a name for ourselves we did what I can only compare to how African-Americans (and now other black people it seems) treated the N-word. We took it and made it our own and said “yes, we’re the Mormons and we’re here to stay.”
There was even a PR campaign put out called “I’m a Mormon”. It was on buses around New York and London from what I can remember. It was now time to embrace our identity and be proud of it.
Truth is, we rocked that name for a while with pride. It was easy to introduce ourselves as Mormons. The name would naturally spark conversations and it was easy to segue to talking about our beliefs. Oh, you didn’t know? Yeah, we love to PREACH. Not with song and dance at church unfortunately, more mano-a-mano or by bringing cookies to our neighbours.
We were quite enjoying it. Our rap albums were about to drop and WHAM — we got told “nah kids, we ain’t using that word no more”.
Okay, context is key. The President of the Church — Russell M. Nelson released a statement in August 2018 saying:
“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.”
Reading this for the first time, my heart almost skipped a beat.
To be honest with you, I almost forgot about it due to shock. It sounds ridiculous but I didn’t want to have to start telling people to not refer to my religion as “Mormon” anymore. Worse, I’d have to say the name of the church in full, every time?
You might be thinking, ‘if you don’t want to do that, then just don’t. Nobody can tell you what to do’. The problem was, I knew it was the right thing to do in my heart. It made so much sense.
I’d always wondered why we’d stepped away from calling the church by it’s proper name in favour of some weird nickname. Like okay, there’s a book, but do you have any idea who Mormon is?
Side note: we don’t worship Mormon, he was a prophet who compiled the Book of Mormon. We also don’t worship Joseph Smith. We only worship God and Jesus Christ.
Now a few months fly by, I have a few more plates of chicken under my belt at Nando’s and life couldn’t be better. The October General Conference has arrived and we’re firmly cosying up on our sofa waiting for the livestream to start.
General Conference is like a series of Ted talks given by church leaders every half year. Inspiring messages about how to make it through life. They’re what I turn to when I feel low and they refocus me.
The livestream starts and the usual rituals take place; opening song, opening prayer and some announcements. The first few speakers deliver their talks and then we hear the magical words “and now President Nelson will address us.”
Smiles erupt on our faces as we watch 93-year-old prophet and president of the church — renowned heart surgeon Russell M. Nelson ascend to the pulpit. The popcorn is crisp and warm, my wife is cuddled up to me and it’s like a scene from a picture-book. (A particularly inclusive picture-book I might add, since I’m mixed race and my wife is Asian).
President Nelson comes up to the pulpit and goes straight for the elephant in the room:
“Today I feel compelled to discuss with you a matter of great importance. Some weeks ago, I released a statement regarding a course correction for the name of the Church. I did this because the Lord impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He decreed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…
Let me explain why we care so deeply about this issue. But first let me state what this effort is not:
- It is not a name change.
- It is not rebranding.
- It is not cosmetic.
- It is not a whim.
- And it is not inconsequential.
Instead, it is a correction. It is the command of the Lord. Joseph Smith did not name the Church restored through him; neither did Mormon. It was the Savior Himself who said, “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The pop-corn fell out of my mouth.
Why is this such a big deal?
Hiding behind the name, Mormon just devalues what the church stands for and represents, namely Jesus Christ, the creator and Saviour of the world.
Now, as part of the articles of faith that the church has, “we claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
People believe in nothing. People believe in astronomy. People believe in ‘the universe’. People believe in all manner of religions, organised, disorganised and everything in between. They are entitled to do so. We shouldn’t discriminate against people on any basis, regardless of how ludicrous their assertions are or how they live their lives.
What we’re now saying is that we believe that God has put the organisation of his church on earth in these times. It’s led by Jesus Christ through His living prophet, President Russell M. Nelson. It is the same church that Christ established whilst on the earth during his ministry. The same power that Christ used to heal the sick and raise the dead operates in His church today.
The Book of Mormon is evidence of all this, since if it isn’t true then the rest of it is also a lie. I’ll leave that up to you to decide once you’ve experimented with the message the book contains yourself.
The point is that being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is about being a follower of Jesus Christ. Don’t be confused though, members of the church are evidently not perfect — myself included.
Many are judgemental, fanatical and hypocritical. Some even voted for Donald Trump (only the Americans, don’t take it out on the rest of us).
The history of the church in these times is not perfect either. Members of the church have historically made some poor choices on occasion and the leadership of the church is not excluded from that assertion. Unfortunately, mere mortals are all God has ever had to work with and so where people are involved, it’s never seamless.
The teachings of Jesus Christ however are without flaw. They empower us to be better human beings. They help us understand where we came from before this life, why we are here on earth and where we go after this life. They outline the importance of family and it’s eternal potential. They bring lasting happiness.
The church has many people who really do love God and want to serve him, making the lives of those around them better. The why behind it all is Jesus Christ and they have built a personal relationship with him and want to follow his example.
Using the term “Mormon” is just not an accurate reflection of what our faith is about. It’s about Jesus Christ, it’s not about Mormon. Mormon didn’t die for our sins.
Q: So what do we call the church?
A: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “the church” or “the Church of Jesus Christ” for short when it’s in conversation. Gotta leave Jesus in the conversation.
Q: What do we now call “Mormons”?
A: Members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or “members of the church”.
Q: Why though?
A: It’s about Jesus Christ. This is his church and so the church has his name.
Q: Anything else I should know?
A: We’re never going to get offended if you get it wrong, especially if you want to understand. We love talking about the church and Jesus Christ, so just ask any member of the church you know.
Now to my fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ:
Stop calling yourselves “Mormons”, you’re making us look bad.
We’re members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Say it with your chest!
Thanks for coming on this journey, I’m just getting started. For more content like this, follow me here on Medium.