Few periods in our Church history were more fraught with trial and tension than late 1837 and early 1838. There was a warrant for Joseph Smith’s arrest in Kirtland, Ohio, due to practices related to the Kirtland Safety Society. Key leaders were dissenting and questioning Joseph’s fitness to remain their prophet and president, leading to the painful release and later excommunication of top leadership in Missouri.1 An ever-tightening grip of poverty and indebtedness plagued the Saints, many of whom were beginning to migrate into Caldwell and Daviess Counties.2
During these challenging times, Joseph moved his family to Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri, and assessed the Saints’ bleak prospects for building Zion in that social, political, and economic environment. In the revelation now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 115 (dated April 26, 1838), the Lord addressed Joseph’s concerns about these uncertainties, giving poignant and optimistic declarations that stakes in Zion would offer refuge, a temple in Far West would provide a place of worship, and, as the Lord’s prophet, Joseph would be sanctified and continue to hold the keys of the kingdom (see D&C 115:6, 8, 19). In the opening verses of the revelation and prior to the Lord commanding the Saints to “arise and shine forth,” he declared that his Church should henceforth be called “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”3
Despite all the historical resources now available to members of the Church, it may still come as a surprise to many that, since its founding in 1830, the Church has had three official names (not including the fine-tuning of punctuation that came with the final refinement). Initially, it was the “Church of Christ,”4 then “The Church of the Latter Day Saints,” and then—as with so many other aspects of the Restoration—
a line-upon-line process led to the name “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This article charts the refining process by presenting a timeline of the Church’s official and unofficial names and explores the nature of human and divine collaboration along the way.
The Challenge of Name Convergence
The Book of Mormon tells of a challenge faced by those living during the time of Christ’s visit to the Americas. Although “they who were baptized in the name of Jesus were called the church of Christ” (3 Ne. 26:21), we hear their petitions in the very next chapter: “Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church” (3 Ne. 27:3). The Savior then replies with directness: “Have they not read the scriptures, which say ye must take upon you the name of Christ, which is my name? For by this name shall ye be called at the last day” (3 Ne. 27:5).
This wrestling for proper name recognition (both within and without the Church) characterized the first decade of the Restoration and continues into the twenty-first century, as noted by President Russell M. Nelson’s official statement released August 16, 2018,5 and then his subsequent remarks in the October 2018 general conference.6 President Nelson emphatically states, “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.”7
A Collaboration of Divinity and Humanity
Reconstructing, as carefully as possible, the path of convergence to an official name for the Church affords one a wider perspective of the collaboration of divinity and humanity. In the preface to his seminal work Great Basin Kingdom, Leonard J. Arrington writes that revealed knowledge “at least to the Latter-day Saint, is not static, but constantly changing and expanding. Revelation is continuous and expedient—‘suited to the people and the times.’ . . . The true essence of God’s revealed will, if such it be, cannot be apprehended without an understanding of the conditions surrounding the prophetic vision, and the symbolism and verbiage in which it is couched.”8
In terms of the inspired combination of human and divine influences, Blake Ostler ruminates that revelation “is the synthesis of a human and divine event. The prophet is an active participant in revelation, conceptualizing and verbalizing God’s message in a framework of thought meaningful to the people. Human freedom is as essential to revelation as God’s disclosure.”9
In a related way, Elder David A. Bednar teaches metaphorically that just as a light switch can immediately help us see the contents of a dark room, so too can a slowly rising sun illuminate our surroundings at dawn, albeit at a much different pace. He notes that some “revelations are received immediately and intensely; some are recognized gradually and subtly,” but that, more often than not, “revelation comes in small increments over time.”10 The revealed name of the Savior’s Church exemplifies the duality of Elder Bednar’s metaphor. The Lord clarified in both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants that his Church must bear his name, and yet one also observes the longer process of iterations and refinements (including President Nelson’s recent emphasis) that is analogous to revelation typified by a gradual dawn.
An Approximate Timeline for
Official and Referenced Name Variations of the Church
For organizational purposes, table 1 outlines the four official names of the Church (the last one being an orthographical adjustment) and table 2 lists five of the most commonly referenced names, which do not meet the status of “official.” To avoid the unnecessary complexities accompanying a discussion of legal incorporation (or lack thereof) in various locations and time periods of Church history, the four different official names of the Church are defined in this article to be simply those printed on the title pages of our canon of modern revelation: “Church of Christ” (Book of Commandments, 1833, Independence, Missouri), “The Church of the Latter Day Saints” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1835, Kirtland, Ohio), “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1844, Nauvoo, Illinois), and “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1876, Salt Lake City, Utah).11 The reason for the 1851 date (rather than 1876) in the final row of table 1 will be addressed later in the article. It should also be pointed out that the official name is completely capitalized on all four of the title pages of our modern-day scripture, obscuring the subtleties involving the definite article “the,” which will also be addressed later.
Table 1. A timeline of the refinements to the official names of the Church.
|Official Names of the Church||Dates of Official First Use|
|Church of Christ||June 1829 / April 6, 1830|
|The Church of the Latter Day Saints||May 3, 1834|
|The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints||April 26, 1838|
|The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints||February 8, 1851|
Table 2. An approximate timeline of the referenced names of the Church.
|Referenced Names of the Church||Year of First Use|
|Church of Jesus Christ||1831|
|Church of God||1831|
|Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints||1835|
|Latter-day Saint Church / LDS Church||1874|
The “referenced names,” on the other hand, are titles of the Church, found in scripture, conference addresses, minutes of meetings, resolutions, journal entries, correspondence between leaders, or other historical records. These referenced names are not formal names adopted by the Church but, rather, titles that have been used in communication among leadership and laity over the decades. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore all the name variants used among the general membership of the Church and obviously by those outside of our faith. Instead, for a more parsimonious analysis, the focus will remain on commonly referenced names found in Church publications or communications from its leadership. For a timeline that combines the official and referenced names of the Church, see figure 1.
During the early and mid-1830s, leaders of the Church, secretaries, recorders, and clerks used an assortment of structural and spelling conventions in referencing the Church. Some forms of referenced names (whether accidental or intentional) did not gain much traction. For example, the cover page for “Minute Book 2” (fig. 2) indicates the name “Christ’s Church of Latter Day Saints,” which is not found in any other primary documents of the Joseph Smith Papers.12
Similarly, the dates mentioned in tables 1 and 2 should not be construed as definitive or discrete points of introduction and termination of use. That is, a new iteration of a name listed in the timeline does not imply the previously listed name was immediately abandoned with later refinements. Instead, primary sources of historical documents seem to indicate an obvious overlap and fluidity over time for both official and referenced name variations. For example, the name “Church of Christ” was still being used in Church documents throughout the mid- and late 1830s, even as the other official names began to take on common usage. The first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (1835) demonstrates an example of the overlapping of names with “THE CHURCH OF THE LATTER DAY SAINTS” on the title page; “the church of Christ” in Section II, verse 1, of Part Second; and “the church of Christ of Latter Day Saints” in the Section V header.13
In terms of referenced names, we observe a wide variance of usage even to this day. President Russell M. Nelson counseled members and nonmembers alike to consider using “the Church,” “the Church of Jesus Christ,” or “the restored Church of Jesus Christ” when needing shorter alternatives to the official name.14 What follows is a careful description of each of the names of the Church outlined in tables 1 and 2. The chronology interleaves both official and referenced names rather than treating them in two separate sections.
(1829/1830) Church of Christ
The Articles and Covenants (now D&C 20) boldly opens with “The rise of the Church of Christ in these last days”15 and serves as a revelation for the organizing and governing of the newly restored church. Preceding the Articles and Covenants, however, Oliver Cowdery wrote (in June of 1829) a key document titled “Articles of the Church of Christ,” at the request of Joseph Smith.16 In the Joseph Smith Papers image of these Articles, we see in Oliver’s hand, “The Church of Christ” (fig. 3).17
Although the historical record lacks any direct command for Joseph and Oliver to name the church “The Church of Christ,” we do read of the Lord’s acknowledgement of the name on April 6, 1830, when he tells Oliver, “that thou mightest be an Elder unto this Church of Christ bearing my name.”18 Three years later, in the earliest published volume of revelations to the Prophet Joseph, the name “Church of Christ” appears in a bold font on the title page of A Book of Commandments, published by W. W. Phelps in Missouri (fig. 4).19
(1831) Church of Jesus Christ / Church of God
During the first decade or two of the Church, two of the more commonly referenced names of the Church (those not considered official by the criterion previously stated) were the “Church of Jesus Christ” and “the Church of God.” To pinpoint a precise date of first use for any of the referenced names in the timeline is far more problematic than for the official names of the Church. Keyword searches through the primary sources enable estimates of first usage, though the dates could be revised should other historical documents come to the forefront.
Church historian B. H. Roberts, referring to the revelation given to Joseph regarding the Church’s official name, stated, “Previous to this, the Church had been called ‘The Church of Christ,’ ‘The Church of Jesus Christ,’ [and] ‘The Church of God.’”20 Figure 5 is an example of the use of “church of God”21 in a revelation now canonized as section 107.22
Interestingly, there are no verses in any of our four standard works containing the name “Church of Jesus Christ.” Figure 6 shows what may be one of the earliest extant documents of the restoration period containing this title: a license appointing Edward Partridge as a bishop of the Church in February 1831.23
(1834) The Church of the Latter Day Saints
Unlike the titles “Church of Christ” and “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the title “The Church of the Latter Day Saints” does not appear in any verses of our standard works and is not acknowledged, directly or indirectly, by the Lord in the revelations. This particular change for members of the Church would prove to be significant and not without controversy. The name would remain official for less than four years.
Minutes of a conference of the elders of the Church of Christ (held in Kirtland, Ohio, on May 3, 1834) show Joseph Smith acting as moderator and Frederick G. Williams and Oliver Cowdery as clerks (fig. 7). After prayer, the record states, they began “to discuss the subject of names and appellations, when a motion was made by Sidney Rigdon, and seconded by Newel K. Whitney, that this church be known hereafter by the name of THE CHURCH OF THE LATTER DAY SAINTS. Appropriate remarks were delivered by some of the members, after which the motion was put by the Moderator, and passed by unanimous voice.”24
There are at least five possible motivations for this name adjustment—the first three being the most supported by the historical record and the last two being the weakest. The name change may have come about to
(1) distinguish the Church from other churches using Christ’s name.
Church historians at the Joseph Smith Papers outline contemporaneous arguments presented by Oliver Cowdery in the May and June 1834 editions of The Evening and the Morning Star regarding the reasonable desire of members to distinguish themselves from other faiths.25 Likewise, Richard L. Anderson wrote, “Since American Christians, including Congregationalists and reformers, frequently designated themselves as ‘The Church of Christ,’ that title did not distinguish the restored gospel from a host of Protestant sects.”26
(2) restore the notion of “saints” being followers of Christ.
Oliver Cowdery editorialized in June 1834, just one month after the name change, that the new name was also “meant to represent the people of God, either those immediately dwelling with him in glory, or those on earth walking according to his commandments.”27 Again, Richard L. Anderson points out that since “Paul and Peter used the Greek word saint (‘a holy person’) to refer to believers in Christ, the term Latter-Day Saints implied that Church members were modern followers of Christ. Thus it also asserted the claim of restoration.”28
Well before this major name change of the Church in 1834, the term saints was obviously familiar to the Prophet Joseph and his newly organized followers by way of not only biblical verses but also the twenty-nine occurrences found in the Book of Mormon. One of the earliest documents in the Joseph Smith Papers in which we observe the use of saints is a letter from both Joseph Smith and John Whitmer directed to the Church members in Colesville, New York, which is dated December 2, 1830. It indicates a belief in an imminent Second Coming with the statement, “Yea, even Enoch, the seventh from Adam beheld our day and rejoiced, and the prophets from that day forth have prophecied of the second coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and rejoiced at the day of rest of the Saints.”29 This term saints, as well as latter-day saints, would gain an even greater foothold in the modern canon of revelations over the next several years.30
(3) distance the Church from terms such as Mormon and Mormonite.
Sometimes it is challenging to decide whether a term is spoken out of contempt, since context, intent, and especially tone of voice have great weight. The terms Mormon and Mormonite most likely were viewed with different levels of comfort by various leaders and members of the Church, as is the case today. For example, Joseph used the terms Mormon and Mormonism occasionally, as evidenced by his reflections on July 9, 1843: “If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist or a good man of any other denomination.” Later in that day’s journal entry, he states, “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”31
On the other hand, some leaders were not as comfortable with the nickname, as can be inferred from Oliver Cowdery’s editorializing after the May 1834 name change, which stated that “the world, either out of contempt and ridicule, or to distinguish us from others, have been lavish in bestowing the title of ‘Mormonite.’ . . . But WE do not accept the above title. nor shall we wear it as OUR name.”32 Lest one consider that Cowdery merely considered “Mormonite” as the only derisive name of the two, we read three months later in the same paper: “Whereas the church of Christ, recently styled the church of the Latter Day Saints, contumeliously called Mormons, or Mormonites, has suffered many privations, afflictions, persecutions and losses on account of the religious belief and faith of its members.”33
Undoubtedly, a name change alone would not necessarily dissuade critics of the Church from using derisive terms to label its followers, but the new appellation “Latter Day Saints” would definitely rise to greater public prominence. From the Joseph Smith Papers, we read, “Despite the name change, some—both within and without the church—continued to refer to the organization as the Church of Christ and its members as Mormonites or Mormons, but after this conference, the use of the name Church of the Latter Day Saints became increasingly prevalent.”34
(4) emphasize Christ’s imminent millennial return to the earth.
Considering that Sidney Rigdon was the one to make the actual motion of changing the name of the Church, his background as a former Baptist minister and follower of Alexander Campbell’s movement may be worth brief commentary. Like many preachers of his era, his millennialist view of the world was shaped by biblical prophecy of the end times. In a biography of Rigdon, author Richard S. Van Wagoner writes that the “ardor of religious awakening resulting from the Reformed Baptist Movement led Rigdon and others to hope the Millennium would soon dawn.”35
The May 3, 1834, conference of elders took place in the middle of preparations for the Zion’s Camp march to Missouri, as members began to gather to Kirtland for the event. Joseph and Sidney spoke the next day at the Sunday services, motivating those who were leaving for the arduous trek. Van Wagoner writes that Sidney Rigdon, “in militant rhetoric, urged the men to deeds of valor” and then “announced that the prophet and high council had agreed to his suggestion to change the name of the church from ‘The Church of Christ’ to ‘The Church of the Latter-day Saints,’ emphasizing the proximity of the Millennium.”36
(5) distract Church creditors and avoid potential lawsuits.
In his book The Rise of Mormonism, researcher and writer H. Michael Marquardt conjectures that the pressure of deep debt—acquired by the United Firm in part to fund the construction of the Kirtland Temple and Zion’s Camp—could have played a role in the name change, providing a way to evade or discourage creditors. His circumstantial evidences include three primary points: (1) a new emphasis on Fayette rather than Manchester, New York, as the location of the April 6, 1830, organizational meeting of the Church; (2) an upcoming implementation (in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants) of code names to protect the identity of key leaders in the United Firm; and (3) a revelation given to Joseph just two weeks prior to the name change, in which the Lord states, “I will soften the hearts of those to whom you are in debt, that it shall be taken away out of their minds to bring affliction upon you.”37
It is crucial to be aware that after articulating these arguments, Marquardt does acknowledge the “evidence is too sketchy to reach a decisive conclusion, but this is an area of research worth pursuing.”38 Also, exploring these details of his conjecture reveals additional subtleties such as (1) in the same April 23, 1834, revelation that Marquardt quotes from, we read that the Lord explicitly tells Joseph, “And again, verily I say unto you concerning your debts; and it is my will that you should pay all your debts”;39 and (2) the new name for the Church may have actually been used by the United Firm prior to the Rigdon proposal.40
More than a half century after the 1834 name change to “Church of the Latter Day Saints” and less than a year before his death, the only surviving member of the Three Witnesses, David Whitmer, gave a scathing rebuke to the notion of changing the name from the original “The Church of Christ.” He reflected back on that era by stating, “We obeyed His commandment, and called it THE CHURCH OF CHRIST until 1834, when, through the influence of Sydney [sic] Rigdon, the name of the church was changed to ‘The Church of the Latter Day Saints,’ dropping out the name of Christ entirely, that name which we were strictly commanded to call the church by, and which Christ by His own lips makes so plain.”41 Whitmer’s comments were not made contemporaneously, reflecting a less-than-optimal objectivity and apparent bitterness after he had distanced himself from the Church over several decades. Also, although Whitmer’s claim undoubtedly refers to the Lord’s command to the Nephites, there is no extant record of a direct command from the Lord in this dispensation to adopt the name “Church of Christ.”
The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now known as Community of Christ, restored the words originally displayed on the entablature42 of the Kirtland Temple as part of a preservation project in the 1990s. The name “THE CHURCH OF THE LATTER DAY SAINTS” (fig. 8) is clearly indicated. We also observe this same name printed on the title page of the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (fig. 9).43
(1835) Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints
An organic blending of the original 1829 name of the Church and the 1834 revised name resulted in a hybrid referenced name, the “Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints.” It was never found in any revelatory text from the Prophet Joseph.44 As mentioned previously, both names of the Church (official and referenced) are printed in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (1835). That is, the title page states the 1834 name “THE CHURCH OF THE LATTER DAY SAINTS” (see fig. 9) while the Section V headnote45 contains “the church of Christ of Latter Day Saints” and the text immediately below the headnote refers to “the church of Christ” (fig. 10).46
Warren Parrish, acting as scribe to Joseph Smith, wrote the blended title of the Church in a copied marriage certificate (fig. 11).47 This name served both the leadership and membership well for a few years; however, by the spring of 1838, Joseph received clarification and confirmation from the Lord regarding the official name of the Church.
(1838) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
The historical record is silent on whether the Prophet actually asked what name the Lord wanted the Church to be known by officially. However, it is clear that Joseph was grappling with disaffection throughout 1837 and early 1838 in both Missouri and Ohio. The issue of the official name of the Church may have played a role in creating tension. Historian Richard L. Bushman points out that high leaders in the Church were trying to take over the organization “under the banner of ‘the old standard.’ The title implied the dissenters held to the original restored gospel while objecting to more recent developments.” Bushman adds, “The ‘old standard’ group’s choice of the first name of the Church, ‘the Church of Christ,’ may have influenced the expansion of the Church’s name to the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints’ in April 1838.”48 It was in this climate of opposition from within the Church and persecution from without, that Joseph was told on April 26, 1838, in Far West, Missouri, “For thus shall my Church be called in the Last days, even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”49
Recorder and secretary to the presidency George W. Robinson most likely copied the revelation into Joseph Smith’s “Scriptory Book” close to the time of dictation (figs. 12 and 13).50 Six years later, and only a few months after the martyrdom of the Prophet, this official full name of the Church was printed on the title page of the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (fig. 14). The actual revelation, however, was not canonized until 1876, as section 115.51
Prior Use of the Full Name or Potential Emendations?
We read in the Joseph Smith Papers, “The [April 26, 1838] revelation sanctioned the name for the church that JS [Joseph Smith] and others had recently begun to use: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”52 Other historians, writers, and religious educators have drawn similar conclusions that the full name of the Church may have already been in use prior to the April 26 revelation in Far West.53
Three documents are referenced in the Joseph Smith Papers as possible examples of the full name being used “in the early months of 1838.”54 The first document is the minutes from a general assembly of the Church in Far West, copied by clerk Hosea Stout in Minute Book 2 and dated February 5, 1838. The name of the Church is clearly written in its full form (fig. 15). However, historians from the Joseph Smith Papers comment that the name recorded by Stout may simply have been “a combination of the first two names of the church or may be an emendation made after the new name of the church was revealed.”55 The biographical sketch of Stout indicates he was living in Caldwell County during this period but was not baptized a member of the Church until August 24, 1838.56 It is not clear, despite the February 5 dating, exactly when he copied these minutes into Minute Book 2.
We find a stronger case of prior use of the full name of the Church in a copy of a letter (dated March 29, 1838), which the Prophet Joseph had dictated to the presidency back in Kirtland. George W. Robinson’s handwriting clearly shows “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (fig. 16),57 and then three pages later, signing on behalf of Joseph Smith Jr., Robinson includes “Prest of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints” (fig. 17).58 Robinson had arrived in Far West just two weeks after Joseph’s arrival (March 28, 1838) and was “immediately pressed into service. Within a day or two of arriving, he began writing.”59 Historians remind us there is not an extant original of the letter, and Robinson apparently made this transcript from a retained copy of the letter sometime in mid- or late April.60 Therefore, the possibility of Robinson making the copy in late April leaves the door slightly open for an anachronistic emendation of the name of the Church.
The final example of the full name of the Church being used prior to the April 26 revelation is a resolution passed at the quarterly Church conference held in Far West (fig. 18).61
Considering Robinson was appointed specifically as general Church clerk and also clerk to the First Presidency on April 6,62 the probability that the full name of the Church was an anachronistic emendation in this document is lower than in the other examples since he most likely would have started to catch up on the backlog of documents to copy. Church historians state that “Robinson probably inscribed the note shortly after the 7–8 April conference,” yet an anachronistic emendation is still possible since the “latest possible copying date was apparently 1 June 1838.”63
In reality, there is only a one-word difference (the name “Jesus”) between the 1835 hybrid name “the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints” and the April 26, 1838, name revealed to Joseph—“the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” As Richard L. Anderson explains, “The final version of the Church’s name was no radical shift from the previous practice of using both ‘Christ’ and ‘Saints’ in designating the restored Church and its members.”64
In a very visual way, the title page of the “Scriptory Book”65 (dated April 12, 1838, by George W. Robinson) demonstrates not only this literal one-word change to the name of the Church but also the difficulty of determining emendation within these historical documents (fig. 19). The insertion of “Jesus” outside of what appears to be a fairly clear and intentional left-hand margin could indicate a later addition as Robinson was perhaps getting more accustomed to using the full name after the April 26 revelation. On the other hand, because of the same saturation level of ink, omitting “Jesus” may very well have been a simple oversight followed by a contemporaneous correction. The writing at the bottom, with a different ink saturation, hints of Robinson potentially adding the last line later. It also illustrates the challenge for clerks and secretaries of spelling the Church’s new name consistently.
Studying these primary documents for clues regarding the prior use of the Church’s name also motivates one to investigate more carefully the text that matters the most—the original April 26, 1838, revelation to Joseph. In the first two verses, we hear the Lord’s voice addressing the members of the First Presidency (Joseph, Sidney, and Hyrum), along with the bishop in Zion (Edward Partridge). It is in the next two verses where we may gain a very subtle insight. In verse 3, the Lord addresses others: “and also unto my faithfull Servants, who are of the High Council of my Church in zion (for thus it shall be called) and unto all the Elders and people of my Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Scattered abroad in all the world.” Verse 4 continues: “For thus shall my Church be called in the Last days even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”66
When verse 4 is read in isolation, many members of the Church get the impression that this instance is the very first time the full name of the Church was used. However, the nuanced statement in verse 3, “and also unto all the Elders and people of my Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Scattered abroad in all the world,” may suggest the Lord is actually using a name which was already in existence among his Saints. In other words, with the backdrop of verse 3, one may ask the question, “Is verse 4 a declarative or a confirmative statement from the Lord Jesus Christ, or is it both?”67 The subtlety of verse 3, combined with the historical and documentary examples previously discussed, suggests the Lord is sanctioning the name his small group of early Latter-day Saints had already been inspired to start using while working their way through this refinement process.
(1840) Mormon Church
The origin of the commonly referenced name “Mormon Church” is difficult to pinpoint with accuracy. What might serve as a starting point is a letter between Elias Higbee and the Prophet Joseph on February 22, 1840. Higbee was a Church Historian and Recorder who traveled to Washington, D.C., seeking redress for the Saints’ grievances in Missouri. He uses the term “Mormon Church” in one of his letters to Joseph.68
A keyword search in the general conference corpus69 reveals that one of the earliest uses of “Mormon Church” from the pulpit may have come from Brigham Young’s second counselor, Jedediah M. Grant, on March 2, 1856.70 The use of “Mormon Church” peaked in the 1960s and 1970s with forty-seven uses in general conference in each decade and has tapered since. However, in recent years the use of “Mormon Church” has indirectly increased primarily due to the discussion of discouraging its use among our membership and striving for better alternatives.71
(1851) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The remaining adjustments to the official name of the Church were cosmetic rather than structural. After the 1844 succession crisis, the Church led by Brigham Young was the only one to adopt the British-styled spelling of “Latter-day Saints” instead of “Latter Day Saints.”72 This orthographical adjustment may have led some historians and religious educators to incorrectly assume that the refinement of the hyphen and the lowercasing of “day” was due to Brigham Young’s desire to differentiate the Church from other restoration groups. While the hyphen may help (even in the twenty-first century) to distinguish between the various faiths within the restoration movement,73 a keyword search of the hyphenated name of the Church in the Joseph Smith Papers indicates an earlier-than-expected chronology of this spelling. Numerous Church documents show the hyphen and lowercase “day” and various hybrid spellings that were in use well before the formation of other post-1844 restoration movements. For example, the very first edition of the Millennial Star (May 1840) includes a hyphen in the name “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” (fig. 20).74
In the salutation and third paragraph of the April 1849 General Epistle of the First Presidency, the name of the Church is presented as “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” rather than “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”75 This is probably one of the earliest instances of the official use of the hyphen and lowercase “day” in a published document by Church leaders after the succession crisis. This epistle was published in May 1849 in the newspaper the Frontier Guardian, edited by Orson Hyde (fig. 21).76
It is not until the legal incorporation of the Church in the February 1851 legislative session of the provisional “State of Deseret” that we see the definite article “the” as an official part of the name (fig. 22). The ordinance states that the Church was to be “incorporated, constituted, made and declared a body corporate, with perpetual succession, under the original name and style of ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’”77 For a demonstration of the realities of fluctuations in spelling conventions in that era, see the handwritten source document for the 1851 ordinance of incorporation with its slightly different spelling of the name: “The church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (fig. 23).78
Despite the capitalization of “The” in this 1851 incorporation of the Church—stated twice in the section 1 paragraph (see fig. 22)—it remained a lowercase “the” in verse 4 of the newly canonized section 115 of the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. It was not until the 1921 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, seven decades later, that section 115, verse 4, contained the name “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” as we now recognize it.79
(1874) Latter-day Saint Church/LDS Church
Just as the term “Mormon Church” took on its own popularity, members and nonmembers alike eventually began implementing “Latter-day Saint” or its acronym “LDS” as a descriptor in front of “Church” for an unofficial referenced name. A keyword search using the internet corpus of general conference talks80 shows, however, that only three leaders have used the term “Latter-day Saint Church” over the pulpit in a general conference. The earliest of the three was Orson Pratt on October 11, 1874, when he stated, “Then every quorum of the Priesthood in this Latter-day Saint Church will find its place, and never until then.”81 A similar keyword search indicates a slightly more robust use of the abbreviated “LDS Church,” with twenty-three occurrences over the pulpit. The first usage was in April 1972 when Elder Milton R. Hunter remarked, “Recently in South America, a lady missionary, who impressed me greatly, told me the story of her conversion to the LDS Church and her missionary call.”82 More recent usage in general conferences, however, simply reflects leaders who are either counseling members to consider alternative appellations or quoting someone else using this widely spread and commonly referenced name of the Church.
The Quandary of the “The”
Unless the name of the Church started at the beginning of a sentence, historical records seem to indicate the lowercase “the” was more commonly used than the capitalized “The” at the start of the name. Both Oliver Cowdery and George W. Robinson may have been ahead of their time when they inscribed the uppercase “The” (see figs. 3 and 19). The role of the definite article takes on new meaning when considering the names of other faiths that traced their origins back to the movement started by Joseph Smith. For example, with the omission of both the definite article and the hyphenated “Latter-day,” we arrive at the name “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” a restoration group headquartered in Voree, Wisconsin—informally known as the “Strangites,” since they were founded by James Strang during the succession crisis.83 And if one includes “the” in front of our newly acquired website address, churchofjesuschrist.org,84 the internet browser will load the home page of a religious group known as The Church of Jesus Christ, based in Monongahela, Pennsylvania—also informally known as the “Bickertonites,” since one of their founders was William Bickerton, a follower of Sidney Rigdon after the succession crisis.85
For many Latter-day Saints, this definite article is a symbolic gesture of the uniqueness of their faith. President Joseph F. Smith emphatically stated in an April 1918 general conference session (later printed in the conference report as “An Authoritative Declaration”) the following preface: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no partisan Church. It is not a sect. It is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the only one today existing in the world that can and does legitimately bear the name of Jesus Christ and his divine authority.”86 Almost four decades later, President J. Reuben Clark Jr. asked about the details of the name of the Church, including the issue of the capitalization of the definite article. In response to this inquiry, Church financial secretary William F. Edwards sent him a cogent memo regarding Joseph F. Smith’s statement and wrote that this authoritative declaration “may have influenced the fact that all editions of the Doctrine and Covenants since 1921 have read: ‘—even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’”87
Despite this declaration by President Smith, throughout the twentieth century, there were still inconsistencies in the capitalization of the definite article, even in official publications of the Church. For example, paying attention to the introductory page of each issue of the conference reports reveals the quandary that secretarial and publication staffs must have faced in terms of capitalization (fig. 24).88 From the April 1966 general conference onward, we begin to see a consistent use of the uppercase “The” for the official name on the preface page, though within the body of conference talks there still may have been inconsistencies, depending on who was speaking or transcribing the talks.
Adjustment to the Church’s Official Logo
A discussion of the refinements to the official name of the Church over the decades would not be complete without mentioning the December 1995 change to the logo and how it impacts name recognition. Figure 25 represents the older style (initiated in 1975), and figure 26 shows the updated version. Bruce L. Olsen, then managing director of public affairs for the Church, explained, “The logo reemphasizes the official name of the Church and the central position of the Savior in its theology. . . . The three-line design reflects the prominence of the Savior in both proportional sizing and position within the name of the Church. It not only strengthens the Church’s visual identity but divides the logo into distinct elements which make it easier to read and to identify in the electronic media.”89
A Case Study of Divine and Human Interaction
Exploring the name variations of the Church offers a panoramic view into the nuances of divine and human interaction. This exploration leads us along pathways of a living restoration, helping us to visualize and appreciate its rich history.90 We see in the construction of the name of our faith the imprints of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young, Joseph F. Smith, and others. We discover that the Book of Mormon not only provided a starting point for the name of the Church (see Mosiah 18:7) but also illustrates—through the very subtitle of its name, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ”—this interconnectedness of divine and human influences.91
Amid the turbulent change of the 1830s, we witness how Joseph tried to hold together a church that for a few years had two different geographic centers, one in Ohio and one in Missouri—separated by nine hundred miles and each having its own presidency, presiding bishop, high council, and print editor. In a pragmatic way, the Lord’s April 26, 1838, revelation to the Prophet Joseph at Far West may have acted as a soothing balm for these early Latter-day Saints, even “for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm” (D&C 115:6), giving them a heavenly sanctioned name by which they could gather and unify. Mark A. Scherer, historian for the Community of Christ, put it this way: “To use the name ‘Church of Jesus Christ’ must have made the Missouri Saints jubilant since it incorporated the name they had learned in early New York. Adding ‘the Latter Day Saints’ no doubt satisfied the Kirtland Saints because it acknowledged their strong dispensationalism.”92
In April 2018, with the responsibility of directing his first general conference of the Church, President Russell M. Nelson reminded us that the privilege of receiving revelation “is one of the greatest gifts of God to His children.”93 He taught that personal inquiry and problem solving requires the steady and patient seeking of good information and inspiration to ultimately bring heaven’s confirmation. Later, in the fall of 2018, President Nelson instructed us about the importance of better understanding our official name and more properly using it in our conversations and publications. He noted that if “we will be patient and if we will do our part well, the Lord will lead us through this important task. After all, we know that the Lord helps those who seek to do His will, just as He helped Nephi accomplish the task of building a ship to cross the sea.”94
In a similar fashion to how the Lord did not provide Nephi and his family a prebuilt ship for their journey, Latter-day Saints were not given a polished and official name at the outset of the Restoration. Rather, they arrived at the name “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” through a collaborative and revelatory process that continues today.