Adapting 'Mormon' to Emphasize Christianity

New York Times/February 19, 2001
By Gustav Niebuhr

Salt Lake City --The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has long been concerned that it be understood as a distinctively Christian institution, will step up efforts to discourage use of the term Mormon Church and instead emphasize the name Jesus Christ in references to the church, a leading Mormon official said in an interview on Thursday.

It will urge that the church be called first by its full name and then, in subsequent references, the Church of Jesus Christ. The church will also urge that it not be identified by two other labels common in Utah, the Latter-day Saints Church and L.D.S. Church. The decision at a meeting of the church's top leadership, also taken with an eye to the international news media interest the church expects to attract during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, will primarily affect how the church's officials refer to the institution, especially in dealings with the news media, and how missionaries refer to the church in their work overseas. But church leaders also hope to encourage members at large to do likewise.

"I don't mind being called a Mormon, but I don't want it said that I belong to the Mormon Church," said Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Council of the 12 Apostles, which, together with the church's three- member First Presidency, exercise the highest level of authority within the 11-million-member church. Elder Oaks said the church would not discourage use of the term Mormon for church members, although he said it officially prefers they be known as Latter-day Saints. Nor, he said, will the church seek to change names like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Mormon Trail and the Book of Mormon.

The word Mormon is taken from the book, where it refers both to a geographical area and also to a prophet of that name. He said the decision, taken by the First Presidency and the Council of the 12, but not yet announced to church members, needed to be seen in context, as a "deliberate reaffirmation" of a long effort in favor of wider use of the church's full title. "We haven't adopted a new name of the church," Elder Oaks said, noting that Mormons regard the full name as having been revealed by God to Mormonism's first prophet, Joseph Smith. "We have adopted a short-hand reference to the church that we think is more accurate."

Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon expert on the church who is professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said efforts to discourage the use of the term Mormon Church represent "the desire of Latter-day Saints - and not just the leadership - to be understood as a Christian tradition." Although the church has always seen itself as Christian, she said, its image has been "cloaked" by distinctive practices - like building temples, as Mormons still do; referring to members as "the gathering of Israel," as church leaders once did; and, most controversially, sanctioning polygamy, which the church ended more than a century ago.

In recent years, Professor Shipps said, an evolution in language within the church has been under way, so that Mormon as a noun is being replaced by "an adjective, as in Mormon Christian." "That's a dramatic shift that's taking a very long time," said Professor Shipps, the author of "Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons" (University of Illinois, 2000).

Although the Mormons tend to be highly regarded among a wide public for their emphasis on family ties and personal rectitude, the church's teachings are viewed critically by other churches, especially by evangelical Protestants, who say much of Mormon theology - dealing with God, the Trinity, salvation and the nature of the Christian church itself - falls outside orthodox Christianity.

The church, for example, teaches that God has a physical body, that members may progress toward "deification" after death, and that in founding the church, Smith was "restoring" true Christianity. Three years ago, the Southern Baptists, holding their annual convention in Salt Lake, began an effort to evangelize Mormons. On a more subtle level, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) published a study guide in 1990 to show Presbyterians where Mormons part company theologically with Protestants. "At first glance, they seem to be like us," the guide stated, noting that the two churches use similar terms for theological concepts. "But we will see in this study they are not like us."

In 1995, the church altered its logo so that "Jesus Christ" appears in larger letters. More recently, the church's public affairs office released a statement, bluntly saying there was nothing officially called the Mormon Church. None of this controversy seems to have impeded the church's rapid growth, particularly overseas, where a majority of the world's 11 million Mormons live. (Utah claims 1.6 million Mormons, or about 15 percent of the total.) But the overseas growth has also put pressure on the church to pay closer attention to what it wants to be called. "And," said Elder Oaks, who is a former Utah State Supreme Court justice and, before that, was president of Brigham Young University, "this is brought to focus and given a kind of timeline by the Olympics, when we're going to have an invasion by your associates in the media the likes of which no continental Western city has ever had before." Church officials say they expect close to 10,000 journalists for the Olympics.

Elder Oaks said church leaders decided it was possible to begin using the abbreviated name of Church of Jesus Christ because no other major Christian body in the United States had laid claim to it. (Some have come close, as in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, the Churches of Christ and the United Church of Christ.) He said it was possible that some churches might take exception to the Mormons using the abbreviated name. "This decision is right-oriented, not result-oriented," Elder Oaks said. "We're only trying to do what the Lord wants us to do."

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