A Multi-Denominational History of Latter Day Saint Responses to 3 Nephi 27 (Or a Story of Church Names)
At the October General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Russell M. Nelson made a scriptural case for using the full name of the Church. He cited the resurrected Christ’s response to those Nephites who asked him what the Church should be properly called:
Ye shall call the church in my name; and ye shall call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake. And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church…(3 Nephi 27:7-8)
He also cited a revelation Joseph Smith dictated 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)
Based on these scriptural injunctions, President Nelson declared “thus the name of the Church is not negotiable.” He called for a “restoration” of the name of the Church.
In the past several decades, Latter-day Saints have been inconsistent in our use of the full name of the Church and inconsistent with our discomfort with the term “Mormon.” In fact, President Nelson spoke on this very subject—citing the same scriptural precedence—in an April 1990 General Conference talk entitled, “Thus Shall My Church Be Called.”1 Even while there have been periodic pleas to avoid using the nickname, “Mormon,” in recent years, the Church itself has made use of it for public outreach, most strikingly, the “I am a Mormon” campaign and the Meet the Mormons movie. It has been fascinating to see efforts to rid the Church of the moniker after President Nelson’s August announcement. The Mormon Newsroom dropped the “Mormon” and most recently, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been renamed the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. President Nelson did not ignore these trends but stated he had become disturbed as we had “unwittingly acquiesced in the Lord’s restored Church being called by other names each of which expunges the sacred name of Jesus Christ.”
There will undoubtedly be a plethora of articles and blog posts considering or inspired by President Nelson’s encouragement to use the full name of the Church. Most of these, as President Nelson noted, will opine one way or another as to whether this effort is futile or even important. I do not aim to tackle that here. My goal instead is to offer the perspective of a historian who researches not only The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but also other denominations that use the Book of Mormon, accept Joseph Smith as a founding prophet, or that have a heritage within the tradition. I am intrigued by how the entire branch of religious movements that stem from Joseph Smith’s original vision respond to the scriptural revelations that he brought forth. In what follows, I briefly introduce the longer history of denominational responses to 3 Nephi 27 and D&C 115. Of course, church names become all the more complicated and confusing when dozens opt for similar names, while keeping in mind the need to separate themselves from their competitors.
Church of Christ versus Church of the Latter Day Saints
I imagine many readers will be familiar with the fact that the Church has had three official names. The small organization officially founded on April 6, 1830, was called simply the Church of Christ. In 1834, that name was changed—oddly removing the name of Christ altogether—to the Church of the Latter-day Saints. In 1838, the name was changed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (whether there was a hyphen between latter and day has varied.) The initial name change was not an attempt to de-emphasize the name of Christ, but has been presumed to have been an attempt to differentiate the 1830 Book of Mormon-believing Church of Christ from the larger restoration movement Churches of Christ. Yet, this 1834 change and the 1838 change designed to rectify the unfortunate loss of Christ in the Church’s name, was deeply controversial to many Saints eager to abide by 3 Nephi 27 and assuming that the original name was the Lord’s chosen response.
We know something about this early controversy based on an 1837 schism, the Church of Christ, in Kirtland, Ohio, led by Warren Parrish. According to the apostle Thomas B. Marsh, the group “claimed themselves to be the old standard, called themselves the Church of Christ, excluded that of saints.”2 According to a later account, the movement had the “name recorded upon the records of the county. This alarmed the Leaders of the Latter Day Saints, and they, in conclave assembled, altered their name, and called themselves the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, and hastened a man to get that recorded also.”3 Perhaps the criticism of this schism reminded the Saints of 3 Nephi 27’s charge. What we know is that on April 26, 1838, a revelation dictated the complete and current name of the Church.
The fact that the controversy was not entirely resolved with the 1838 name change was brought out again after the martyrdom. While initially all three major divisions of the Church—those aligned with Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles, James Strang, or Sidney Rigdon—all used the 1838 name, Rigdon’s Philadelphia-based community would eventually opt for the Church of Christ. For a time, they sought to separate themselves as “Latter Day Saints” as opposed to the polygamous “Mormons,” but as of April 1845 it was a matter of religious faith that “the ‘Church of Christ’ is the only appellation of that organization acknowledged of God as his Church, known in the revelations of Jesus Christ, or by which it shall be known at the last day.”4 After this change, Sidney Rigdon issued a statement denying that the Church of Christ had any association with the “Latter Day Saints.” “The Church of Christ in her ecclesiastical organization, is the same as the Church of Christ was, before the existence of the Church of ‘Latter Day Saints.’”5 He urged newspaper editors to publish his announcement. For Rigdon, the choice of name separated his community from other churches he considered apostate. It also served to place his movement in the tradition’s past to represent an earlier incarnation of the faith. What he does not seem to have done was condemn the actual use of “Latter Day Saints” on the basis of a rejection of D&C 115.
If the “Rigdonites” had no moral qualms with the use of “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” the former apostle William McLellin revived the earlier objections. McLellin organized the Church of Christ in 1847 in Kirtland, Ohio. He published several articles in his Ensign of Liberty that addressed the original name change. McLellin believed the Saints had fulfilled a passage of Isaiah when they changed the Church’s name. “And ye shall leave YOUR NAME for a curse unto my chosen: for the Lord God shall slay thee, and call his servants by ANOTHER NAME.” (Isaiah 65:15) Later in this same essay, after quoting from 3 Nephi 27, he asked:
Did the Leaders in the church of Christ REMEMBER what Jesus said to the Nephites, respecting the NAME by which the church should be called? If they had, do you suppose that they ever could have thrown away that new, that holy NAME, which was given by the mouth of the Lord himself? And then take upon them from the church the name of Latter Day Saints? And then when they saw their mistake, through the testimony and labors of Elder Martin Harris and others, why did they not return to the Lord, and take that new name—that name which came down from heaven, shorn of all appendages and alterations.6
Later in the century, David Whitmer, who then led yet another organization called the Church of Christ, became the primary critic of the Church’s 1834 name change. This was the subject of the concluding chapter of his An Address to All Believers in Christ, where he quoted 3 Nephi 27 as it appears above and noted that the Church of Christ was used throughout the Book of Mormon. He even took on the use of Jesus Christ in the 1838 name. “If [Jesus] had wanted them to call it by the name Jesus Christ he would have said so, but he said the name Christ.”7 Apparently he was troubled that when he pointed out the 1834 Saints willingness to remove the Lord’s name, they were not as disturbed as was he. “It is nothing short of trifling with a strict commandment of Almighty God, and setting at naught the decision of Christ himself when He decided the matter so plainly and so positively, when there were disputations regarding it. I say, that any man who sanctions the name of the church being changed from the name which Christ gave it, setting aside the decision of Christ in this matter, is in utter spiritual blindness, and should repent speedily.”8 The intensity with which he approached the topic, as he suggests, was likely shocking to Latter-day Saints.
In each of these cases above, use of the Church of Christ positioned an institution with those doctrines and ordinances that were part of the early days of Joseph Smith’s ministry—before what these leaders considered objectionable traits such as polygamy and militarism had become part of the tradition. McLellin and Whitmer considered the simple name as a key religious test that could determine one’s standing before God, based on the Savior’s directions on naming the Church. These teachings would endure most prominently in the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) with their headquarters in Independence, Missouri.9
The Latter-day Saints Churches
Many Restoration churches have taken Smith’s April 26, 1838, revelation at face value. As already mentioned, this was the case with the three major divisions of the 1844 succession crisis. It was also the case with William Smith’s church and others. The faith now called Community of Christ has a fascinating history surrounding their relationship with the founding names. In the early 1850s, a group coalesced around the expectation that one of Joseph Smith’s offspring would take leadership of the organization. They considered themselves a reorganization of the original Church and made no objection to the term Latter Day Saints, although they were often called the “new organization.”
Initially, while the term “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” was used as a descriptor, believers merely spoke of themselves as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It was not until 1872 that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints became its legal name and even then it would take another generation before it was in common use among adherents. Eventually the name took on a sanctity among believers. In the words of the RLDS “radio minister,” Evan Fry:
Yes—the name of the Church is long and inconvenient, but each part of it is essential. It is the Church of Jesus, who is the Christ, composed of Latter Day Saints, who were Reorganized after the scattering of persecution and apostasy. So, we are proud to take a long breath and reply, when asked about our church affiliation, “I am a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”10
After a century of being the Reorganized Church, a World Conference held in 2001, selected a new name: Community of Christ which reflected a major theological shifts that had come about over the second half of the twentieth century. The new name was selected to enable the Reorganization to “move forward as a Christian denomination” while removing the prominent reminder of their historic ties to the larger Utah-based Church.11 At the same time, the selection of Community of Christ “honors the church’s early heritage, paying homage to the original Church of Christ name.”12 That this name was designed to bring about a real impact on the personal understanding of members and was itself a call for further change was verified by a revelation added to the Doctrine and Covenants:
“Community of Christ,” your name, given as a divine blessing, is your identity and calling. If you will discern and embrace its full meaning, you will not only discover your future, you will become a blessing to the whole creation. Do not be afraid to go where it beckons you to go.13
Significantly, as we will see below, Community of Christ would continue to recognize the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for legal matters.
When there have been schisms from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints/Community of Christ with headquarters in Independence, Missouri, new churches often simply add a descriptor before the original name. For example, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In other cases, their names follow a similar structure—including using a synonym for Jesus Christ and “Latter-day Saints.” Two examples: in 1955, the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times was organized in Salt Lake City; in 1993, the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days was founded in Manti, Utah.
Yet in some cases the very name of the Church has such importance that divisions have wanted to maintain the original name. The “Restoration Branches” are a group of dissenters from the Reorganized/Community of Christ who began to meet in independent congregations beginning in the 1980s. They were opposed to the introduction of female ordination and theological liberalism which they insisted was based on an apostasy among Church leadership. Even as they separated themselves from the institution, they insisted that they continued to be members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and refused to institute a formal hierarchy. When the mother church changed its name to Community of Christ, many Restorationists considered this an admission that they were in fact a different church.
Except Community of Christ was not eager to allow another to pick up the public name of the Reorganization. For starters, they had not entirely abandoned it, but also the name had become imbued with sanctity. Twice court rulings had proclaimed the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as the rightful heirs of the original pre-martyrdom Church. Plus, by permitting its name to be used by these congregations, it allowed them a sort of historical legitimacy that was truly threatening to a church that was continually losing its conservative membership. In 2007, Community of Christ successfully sued the Devon Park Restoration Branch for trademark infringement. The name was too valuable to allow for its broader use.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
By considering the current effort of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to “restore” the full name of the Church in light of the various church names selected by Book of Mormon-believing Christians we are able to see such strivings as part of a longer history of responding to Christ’s command to name the Church after him. Each of these institutions have faced dual concerns of responding to scripture and of differentiating themselves from and in relation to other communities. These smaller churches have always had the monolith of the “Rocky Mountain Saints” in mind when they name their churches. What does it imply if they too call themselves Latter Day Saints? What does it mean to differentiate themselves from LDS and RLDS churches by refusing/ignoring the April 26, 1838, revelation? How will people not confuse their community with another, particularly if that other is the subject of public scorn?
The (Utah-based) Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had these same concerns about being confused with another institution. This was notably the case when the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to make news headlines after the 2008 raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. In response, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s style guide called for editors not to refer to FLDS members as “Mormon Fundamentalists,” despite the long-standing preference for that term among FLDS. This was perhaps understandable given that the Church had conducted a survey and had found that at the time, 36% of individuals believed based on media that the raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch was on members of their (Utah-based) Church.14 Yet, that was an unusual example—in most cases, the Utah-based Church has more at stake with others presuming that they are not Christian. As President Nelson stated, “Unfortunately many who hear the term, ‘Mormon,’ think we worship Mormon.” Thus, the “restoration” of the full name of the Church is also partly an effort to inform others of the Christian nature of the Latter-day Saint faith.
The names and terms one uses to identify themselves are of more significance than the mere title of a corporation. Naming is a means of crafting identity. Already news outlets have none-too-subtly mocked the urgency with which President Nelson imparted his message. Is there really such importance in a name? Could God and the Devil have opinions on what Church members call themselves? Perhaps the twenty-first century use of “Mormon” by Latter-day Saints served a purpose to humanize adherents of the tradition—to “own” what was once a pejorative. In the coming months it will become a part of religious practice for many Latter-day Saints who will enact and then re-enact the almost ritualized performance outlined by President Nelson:
Now if someone should ask, “Are you a Mormon?” You could reply, “If you are asking if I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Yes, I am.” If someone asks, “Are you a Latter-day Saint?” You might respond, “Yes, I am. I believe in Jesus Christ and am a member of His restored Church.
While some have pointed to this back-and-forth as an awkward exchange, what is certain is that the dialogue is not reflective of a strange or isolated moment in Latter-day Saint history. The response to the scriptural mandate to name Christ’s Church after him and to proclaim that name has been part of the tradition’s multi-denominational internal and external discourse since 1830.
2. Thomas B. Marsh, Letter to Wilford Woodruff, in Elder’s Journal 1 no. 3 (July 1838), 37.
3. William McLellin, “The Name of the Church,” Ensign of Liberty, of the Church of Christ (April 1847), 21.
4. Messenger and Advocate of the Church of Christ 1, no. 11 (March 15, 1845), 168.
5. “To the Public,” Messenger and Advocate of the Church of Christ 1, no. 14 (June 1, 1845), 220.
6. William McLellin, “The Name of the Church,” Ensign of Liberty, of the Church of Christ (April 1847), 23.
7. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Missouri: 1887), 73.
8. Ibid, 73-74.
9. Going back to the name “Church of Christ” made sense to denominations like those led by Rigdon and Whitmer that viewed Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet and thus had no attachment to his 1838 revelation. Surprisingly, the organization headed by Alpheus Cutler settled on the name the Church of Jesus Christ when they organized in 1853. Comments in their Church minutes seem to suggest they too condemned the Church’s subsequent name changes. The Church organized by William Bickerton would also eventually go by the “Church of Jesus Christ,” although it appears they did not object to the name “Latter-day Saints” in their early days.
11. Mark A. Scherer, “‘Called by a New Name’: Mission, Identity, and the Reorganized Church,” Journal of Mormon History 27, no. 2 (2001): 58.
12. John Hamer, “The Name of the Church,” Saints Herald: A Community of Christ Blog, April 24, 2009. https://saintsherald.com/2009/04/24/the-name-of-the-church/
13. Community of Christ, Doctrine and Covenants 163:1. https://www.cofchrist.org/doctrine-and-covenants-section-163
14. Ryan T. Cragun and Michael Nielsen, “Fight over ‘Mormon’: Media Coverage of the FLDS and LDS Churches,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 42, no. 1 (2009), 66.
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Christopher James Blythe is a Research Associate at the Maxwell Institute’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. Blythe comes to the Institute after three years of working for the Joseph Smith Papers as a documentary editor.