Those Latter-day Saints: What’s in a name?

ROYCE WONDERS: (Paraphrasing) What’s the origin of Mormonism’s official name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and do those two “of” phrases mean Saints are on equal footing with Jesus, or that Jesus was Mormon, or what?

THE GUY RESPONDS: The founding Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. originally called his group “the Church of Christ.” The scriptures that Smith added to the Bible say that in an 1831 revelation God pronounced this to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30).

Thus, God revealed a new and final church name to Smith in Missouri on April 26, 1838: “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (D & C 115:4). Some historians say this combined “The Church of the Latter Day Saints” used by Smith’s flock in Ohio with “The Church of Jesus Christ” preferred by his newly acquired Missouri followers.

According to Mormon Doctrine, a widely consulted though non-official reference book by an LDS apostle, the name is all-important because the “authenticity of any church” must be determined by whether it has “some combination of the names of Christ as its name.” (With the other listed marks of authenticity, only the LDS Church qualifies.)

In recent years the LDS Church has changed its official typography to put JESUS CHRIST in larger capital letters marked off from the rest of the name in order to defend itself against the charge that Mormons are not true Christians. LDS headquarters is quite particular about use of its name and officially “discourages” the “Mormon Church” and “LDS Church” nicknames that are commonly used by Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

The Guy has never really thought much about those two “of” phrases that apparently can be confusing for some. However, the are crucial to the Saints.

To the Saints, this says first that it’s Jesus’ church, while the second “of” means this church consists of Saints who have restored the original true religion of Jesus that had been corrupted by what Mormon Doctrine calls the “universal apostasy” in ancient Christianity following the death of Jesus’ apostles. The Saints do not think they’re on Jesus’ level or that Jesus was literally a Mormon, since their church did not exist until 1830, just that their teachings are what Jesus taught.

A much smaller rival body that accepted most of Smith’s revelations but denied his polygamy revelation was led by Smith’s son Joseph III. Its chosen name was “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (no hyphen). In 2001 this denomination, based in Independence, Missouri, renamed itself the “Community of Christ” to express its current self-understanding. Implicitly, the change downplays end-times awareness and further distances the church from its Smith heritage and from the better-known Saints based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In case you were wondering, these are by no means the longest official names among denominations. For instance, Philadelphia is the headquarters of the “House of God Which is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Inc.,” which nicknames itself “The Church of the Living God.”

Here's the Utah-based church’s policy on name usage.

The Missouri-based Community’s self-definition in a .pdf.

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