“Mormon” is Back (and Just as Confusing as Ever?)

A few weeks ago when I was in Salt Lake City for General Conference, I overheard a conversation between a couple of journalists for the SLC media discussing an article from the Salt Lake Tribune about the proper use of the LDS Church’s name in media publications or transmissions. The title of the article, written by Peggy Fletcher Stack, is “The Name ‘Mormon’ Is Back, Thanks to Its Internet Popularity” and describes how, after about a decade of Church statements discouraging media representatives and Church members alike from using the term “Mormon” to describe themselves or the Church as an institution (while still desiring to steer the use of the term “Mormon” to itself and away from schismatic groups), the Church appears to have backed away from that stance and accepted its “Mormon” self. The article goes on to list several reasons for this change, including the Internet, but the upshot of it all was captured nicely by Church Spokesperson Michael Otterson:

“It’s simply a reality that people think of Mormons, they don’t think of Latter-day Saints…Mormon is here to stay.”

Based on the conversation between the two journalists I overheard, and then having read the Tribune article, it appeared that, as an institution, we were essentially adopting and encouraging people henceforth to call us “The Mormon Church.” Given our cultural hypersensitivity to brand-recognition and awareness, I was shocked by this change, and even more stunned that it didn’t seem to be getting much play in the media.

As it turns out, I was confused. Or the journalists were, anyway.

Yesterday, a post for the LDS Newsroom’s blog described the change, but included slightly more nuance. While acknowledging that the Internet age has effectively demanded continued use of the term “Mormon” in order to be picked up in search engines, social media applications, and other web applications, the statement in the Newsroom makes it clear that the Church still strongly prefers to be referred to as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that the Church is encouraged to that more and more writers “are correctly using the word ‘Mormon.'”

As hinted at in the Tribune article, there is a strong connection between statements about Church branding and the increased media spotlight on the FLDS Church, but it has always seemed (not just seemed?) that the discouragement of the term “Mormon” was linked to a desire among LDS Church leadership to separate discussions of the LDS Church from discussions of “other” Mormons–not just of the FLDS variety.

UPDATE 1.: Kristine Haglund points in the comments to an article published in the Spring 2009 issue of Dialogue which further illustrates the potential and/or actual confusion which has come about over use of the term “Mormon” in media, as well as some of the actions the Church has taken (including looking into trademarking) to eliminate this confusion. The article is authored by Ryan Cragun and Michael Nielsen, and is available here.

So, a few questions:

1. Does any of this really matter, or are people–LDS Church members included–always going to call themselves Mormons (or something else) regardless of what the institution prefer?

2. In your experience, is there really a significant amount of confusion about who “the Mormons” are, as opposed to simply confusion about what we believe? Or are those the same question, really? Does the answer change if we exclude the FLDS from the equation?

(As an anecdote, a missionary from eastern Kansas was in my home the other night for dinner, and he mentioned that, growing up, there was constant confusion among people unaffiliated with any of the restoration churches because of the presence of multiple “Mormon” churches in the area. Although I believe that may be true in very specific geographic regions, I’ve never really had the sense that there is widespread public confusion or knowledge about the smaller schismatic groups of Mormons–Strangites, Cutlerites, etc…Certainly John Hamer can correct my ignorance if that is untrue, and I hope he will.)

UPDATE 2. Cynthia L. points out that the LDS Church is not alone in the world of Mormons when it comes to trademarks and name confusion…

3. Am I the only Mormon who is likely more confused over this than anyone in the public possibly could be?


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  1. Probably not Scott. The fact of the matter is that usage of the words “mormon” and “lds” as search queries in Google have been decreasing for a number of years. However, people continue to use these phrases to find information about the Church. Check out the results in Google Insights for Search.

  2. Peter LLC says:

    All I know is that Mormon temples are a great place for cheapskates to find babysitters.

  3. Greg, I don’t think that the graph in your link represents an absolute decrease in number of searches. It represents a relative decrease compared to all searches. I would suspect that the absolute number of searches as increased.

    No one will ever type out “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”; and if they do, they likely won’t get the hyphenation right. The powers that be are caught in between several competing forces. They have to accept “Mormon” even though they don’t prefer it.

  4. Greg,
    What J said regarding relative searches vs. absolute searches. As an analogy, I noticed that, last April during GC, the #ldsconf tag easily reached the #1 Trending Topic spot; last October, #ldsconf peaked at #4, and during this month’s GC, the peak was #10. This says far more about the expansion of twitter than it does about the number of #ldsconf references.

  5. Peter LLC (2),
    It was to my great dismay that I realized the Newport Beach temple doesn’t have a visitor’s center. With no place to throw our kids for an hour or two, my wife and I haven’t been on a date in 3 years.

  6. John Mansfield says:

    I think the Church is mostly interested in identifying itself as The Church of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of one baptism interview, I asked a convert how she became acquainted with the Church. She said she had walked by one of its buildings and saw the sign reading The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She thought, “Jesus Christ’s church is the one I should belong to,” so she went inside.

  7. Here is an interesting explanation of a “rising line”:

    “Does a rising line simply indicate an increase in search volume? Usually, yes – a rising line for a search term indicates a growth in the term’s popularity. In most cases, the growth also indicates that the absolute volume of searches also grew, because we can assume that internet usage is continuously growing as well.”

  8. I can remember the last time I was instructed in general conference to refer to myself as a memeber of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

    The reason I remember it is because in another session, of the very same conference, the church proudly announced mormon.org

    I’ve been confused ever since then. I think when I have told somebosy what church I belong to it pretty much comes out in one breath as ‘the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints-i’m-basically-a-mormon’

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    We kind of had this same experience in microcosm over at FAIR. Originally we tended to favor the abbreviation “lds,” but found that internet searches use “mormon,” and lds doesn’t work internationally. So over time we had to change a lot of domain names and tags to include the word “mormon.”

  10. The official name of the church is a mouthful. It takes forever to say, it isn’t catchy, and as J. Stapley mentioned, there’s a hyphen to add extra confusion. Reporters writing stories will always use “LDS” or “Mormon” because if you use the full name there isn’t any room for the rest of the headline. Mormons simply say “the church” when speaking to one another, and when speaking to outsiders say “Mormon.”

    It’s just too late for the church to micromanage “Mormon” as a vocabulary term. It’s been in general use for 150 years. It’s easy to spell and instantly communicates the idea of a culture and faith system to the person that hears the word. The LDS church puts out these press releases from time to time, with wording that sound a bit like something from 1984. “We are no longer at war with Eurasia, we are at war with Eastasia.” “We are no longer Mormons, we are members of the ChurchOfJesusChristofLatterDaySaints.” The most orthodox try to make it work, but eventually everyone just gives up and sticks with what is easiest.

  11. I was intrigued to see the Church’s more nuanced approach in their rebuttal piece, ratifying the preference for the long name but accepting the reality of the need to use the nickname. This is consistent with the universal & immutable law that you don’t get to pick your own nickname!

    Count me as one who is happy to see the Church owning it.

  12. The Church actually tried to copyright the term “Mormon” in the aftermath of the raid on the FLDS compound in Texas. An article detailing these efforts appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Dialogue: https://bycommonconsent.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/cragunnielsen2009.pdf

  13. I would much, much rather someone call me a member of the “Mormon church” than “The Church of Latter-day Saints,” which I have seen a few times lately. If you’re going to go with the mouthful that sounds the most official, at least get it right (and not cut out the most important part!!).

    Ironically (or deviously?) one time I saw “Church of Latter-day Saints” was an article reporting on the debate of whether we are Christian/believe in Jesus Christ or not. Gee, thanks, reporter-man, for screwing that up…

  14. Molly,

    It’s easy to spell and instantly communicates the idea of a culture and faith system to the person that hears the word.

    That is precisely why I love referring to myself as a Mormon and not so much as a member of the LDS Church–because, for better or for worse–it communicates much more about my culture and heritage than simply organizational affiliation.

  15. Cynthia (14),
    Awesome. I’m glad to see that all Mormons are screwed up over this. I updated the post to include your link.

  16. In response to Question #2 — I still encounter people who have not heard of the Mormons. But I’ve also had people relieved when they hear me say “Mormon” after the long name.

    I remember years ago having a friend be impressed that our then-six year old could say the whole name of the church. (Of course she hadn’t listened to us sing it over and over and over and over and over…”I belong to the Church….”)

    All that said, this could only be a story in Utah.

  17. I’m still confused over whether or not we’re Christians.

  18. I’ve been trying to say I belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and honestly, most of the time when I tell people that they say one of two things: “Oh! Your Mormon!” Or “Is that that church over on 7th?” (The Jehovah’s Witness building). I think people are getting more used to all of our associated names. It is a mouth full, but it does let people know we believe in Christ!

  19. This reminds me of how in elementary school we were told to make sure we wrote “African Americans” when we wrote about black people in an essay for class, but by the time I was in high school, we were supposed to use “black” because not every black person is from Africa.

  20. I just introduce myself as a “Latter-day Saint” because nobody in Kentucky knows WTH that is and I like being the mysterious guy.

  21. Yes,

    Official use of the name “Mormon” is very confusing. I think we need to own the brand rather then run from it since we cannot replace the name in the English language.

  22. Butch Bowman says:

    I once went to this interfaith seminar, where my stake president spoke on the topic: “Misconceptions about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” He was very careful to use the correct name of the Chruch throughout his talk. During the mix and mingle after the presentation, a very nice nun said to me, “I didn’t know Seventh Day Adventists believed all that.”

  23. LOL Bowman!

  24. It seems like the only newspaper to follow the recommended name guidelines published by LDS Public Affairs is the Daily Universe. But most organizations deal with a similar problem — how many people say “I’m going to drop by the local United States Postal Service office and mail a package”?

    Then there’s the 3 Nephi 27 problem (“And how be it my church save it be called in my name?”). While that didn’t stop Joseph from endorsing “The Church of the Latter-day Saints” as the official name of the Church from 1834 to 1838, it does, I think, create a problem for present-day senior leaders. Maybe we could just sneak Mormon in the title: “The Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint.

  25. All I know is that I consider myself a Mormon and everyone I know looks at the people in our church as Mormons. We can say whatever we want, but that won’t change the label we have been given. We are the Mormons.

  26. Uh, Saints.

  27. Aaron Brown says:

    Scott, to answer your second question, I once spent about 45 minutes hometeaching a new member who had watched media reports about polygamous “Mormon” groups marrying off young girls, and who became very concerned about the doctrine of the “Mormon” Church he had just been baptized into. Fortunately, we were able to disabuse him of the connection between the mainstream LDS and FLDS churches, but his confusion appeared to be entirely the product of careless media usage of the term “Mormon.”

  28. Aaron, I’m not sure that the media use is careless. Unfortunate for LDS Mormons in terms of PR and global perceptions, sure; but also basically accurate.

  29. Eric Russell says:

    If the word usage is such that an intelligent viewer is genuinely confused as to the particular religious group that is being identified, then yes, that would be careless – pretty much by definition.

  30. Kristine says:

    Aaron–read the Dialogue article. The media are not as bad as we might think.

  31. I’m happy to use Mormon…people just know it by that.

    In my conversations with people who don’t know my faith, I just clarify that Mormon is a “nickname” for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Then they know what Mormon means. We don’t have a doctrinal discussion about it… they just now know what the term means.

    Works for me.

  32. I am hesitant to say that the media is careless–I’m more inclined to think that people listening to what the media is saying are not paying close attention.

    This would also explain why people like Glenn Beck, Jay Leno and Elmo have any audience whatsoever.

  33. I can understand how the Church’s PR department wants to get the word out during events (e.g., the Texas FLDS compound) that the Church is not affiliated with certain groups. All they need to do, then, is issue a release during an event that says just that: “we are not affiliated with X group.” But when they start flip flopping on what name to use in reference to the Church, it just creates confusion and silliness. The Church can’t expect journalists to spell out the full title of the Church; it’s too long for journalistic standards. So Mormon, LDS: what difference does it make? Pick one and stick with it, and then just issue press releases that we’re unaffiliated with such and such group as event arise.

    The etymology of the word “Mormon” in American culture and theology would be an interesting study. I actually think that it originates with anti groups and anti literature; its history suggests the nickname was given to LDS members and LDS members did not chose it as their nickname. It’s a nickname that has stuck because it distinguishes our faith without reference to Christ or any other generic Christian term. Any reference to us needs to have a distinguishing effect because our faith is so different from other “Christian” denominations. This “difference”, of course, is not always viewed or spun as a flatering one–especially among other Christian denominations. To me, then, the nickname “Mormon” in the last couple years has become both complimentary (I am glad to be one) yet suggestive of “you are not a Christian like we are Christian.”

    In terms of everyday shorthand, LDS and Mormon work fine. I don’t think the Church or anyone else could or should try and reverse these shorthand references.

  34. That’s absurd, Eric. That most media consumers lack the historical sophistication to understand the distinction between LDS Mormons and other Mormon groups is a result of carelessness on the part of reporters? Is there a more accurate shorthand for FLDS in Texas than “a polygamous Mormon group”?

  35. Kristine says:

    Guys, seriously–read the article. There’s actual _data_ about how journalists referred to Mormons and FLDS and how often they were sloppy (and not).

  36. Brad – As a stab at answering the question you ask (the first sentence you end with a “?” is not a question), yes, how about “FLDS in Texas”.

    I don’t understand your post, but I want to. Please elaborate.

  37. Kristine,
    Don’t trouble us with your “facts” and “data” and “truth” around here.

  38. Kristine,
    I’ve read the article, cross my heart. I’m actually writing something of my own, a more in depth sociolinguistic analysis of the back and forth between Church attorneys and the patent office RE: trademarking “Mormon.” Really fascinating stuff. And, no, media use was generally not very sloppy. Of course this doesn’t mean that readers/viewers were not still confused as to the relationship between Fundamentalist Mormons in Texas on the one hand and Amish/Jehovah’s Witnesses/white-shirted missionaries/Mitt Romney/etc, etc, on the other.

  39. Eric S. (37),
    I think Brad was referring to Eric Russell above. Too many Erics…

  40. Kristine says:

    Yeah, Brad, I know–there’s the sort of initial tallying of references that this article does, and then there’s the necessarily more theoretical and speculative analysis of how the transfer of meaning was negotiated. I’d love to read your stuff. Maybe you should submit it to Dialogue when you’re finished :)

  41. Eric S,
    The “Eric” my above comment was directed at was “Eric Russell.” The sentence in question, you correctly note, is not syntactically a question. It was a restatement of Eric R’s position, inflected as a question (“?”) as an expression of the fact that I don’t buy Eric R’s statement. My position is that it is entirely reasonable to use the term “Mormon” with a qualifier like “Fundamentalist” or “polygamist” to refer to the FLDS community or any other branch of the Restoration. I don’t consider such a usage to be sloppy or careless, though I certainly can appreciate, from a PR perspective, why LDS leaders wish to assert intellectual property rights to prevent “Mormon” from being used to refer to groups that no longer affiliate with us and whose behavior we find embarrassing.

  42. Kristine – Can you copy and paste here the “data” that you reference from the article? I’m not seeing those numbers. I just see search result numbers.

    But what is interesting is how the author seems to confirm (not sure what her basis is from the article) that “Mormon” stems from Church opponents, historically, and from other Christian-church critics, modernly. Complimentary term or knock? I think as members we use it in a complimentary way with each other while not fully appreciating that outside our LDS culture, especially in “Christian” circles, it carries a less-than-Christian connotation.

  43. Eric,
    You’re correct that “Mormon” began as an epithet during the Missouri war. The usage was somewhat akin to the use of “Haji” by US soldiers in Iraq. As is common with such usages, we appropriated the term as a strategy for sapping its potency as an insult. But I think the question here is less whether it is meant by some speaker or user in complimentary terms versus as a knock, as it is its descriptive mileage. “Polygamist Mormon group” is more succinctly and accurately descriptive to most readers than “FLDS,” I think. And, I think it’s worth noting that we probably feel about as strongly that these other groups should not be considered Mormon as most other Christians do about considering us Christians.

  44. Eric Russell says:

    Brad, no historical sophistication is required to understand that X is not Y.

  45. What about the historical understanding that imparts a substantive definition to X and Y?

    In the latest news out of the US, a community of *Fundamentalist polygamist Mormons was raided by child protective services…

    *In case this isn’t obvious to our readers, we are referring here to a group that broke off of the LDS (Formerly Known as Mormon) Church, which the latter finds rather embarrassing, and by the way the LDS/FKAM Church does NOT practice or condone polygamy anymore. Oh, and also they’re not the folks with buggies and weird hair — the LDS ones, I mean, because the polygamist NON-Mormons have, like, totally weird hair and stuff.

  46. Brad. That’s a great point re our (LDS members’) perspective of FLDS’ use of the word “Mormon” to describe themselves. It begs the question: “who has the ultimate definitive authority to say which group is (and thus which group is not) a “Christian” or a “Mormon”?

    I guess on a personal level, I’m really not bothered by FLDS referring to themselves as “Mormons” because I am secure in what I know and how I feel–so they can refer to themselves however they want to. But from a Church PR department perspective, yeah, it would bother me for them to refer to themselves as Mormons because it creates a likelihood of confusion for people that there is an association between LDS and FLDS. It’s just like an mP3 device manufacturer calling it’s product an iPod by Appel.

    I’m no TM attorney. But what’s really interesting–and probably troublesome to the LDS Church–is that any IP rights to “Mormon” in connection with the sale/use of religious garb probably most strongly lies with Joseph Smith’s heirs and the Community of Christ! All very interesting. I’d love to see whatever you put together once finished.

  47. Eric Russell says:

    Brad, whatever it takes so that a reasonable person isn’t misled.

    As to the question of what exactly that consists of, I don’t know. It would probably help if someone were to study the subject and publish their findings in a journal or something. But as far as I know, no one has ever done anything like that yet.

  48. Kristine says:

    Eric (not Russell),

    You might need to actually spend 15 minutes reading, but I’m sure you can find the relevant bits without having someone spoon feed it to you. I believe that the data the authors present, as well as the argument they make, addresses several of the issues at hand in this discussion.

  49. @ Brad (#39),

    I’m actually writing something of my own, a more in depth sociolinguistic analysis of the back and forth between Church attorneys and the patent office RE: trademarking “Mormon.”

    I know that there’s been some back-and-forth between the Church and the PTO over the past few years, but the Church has successfully registered “Mormon” as a service mark, correct? Go here and run a search for Serial Number 78977858.

  50. any IP rights to “Mormon” in connection with the sale/use of religious garb probably most strongly lies with Joseph Smith’s heirs and the Community of Christ

    Trademarks are something you can lose by non-enforcement. If you let others use the term in a generic sense for any length of time, it will lose its common law trademark protection, i.e. not be a trademark at all.

    Not only that, but religious organizations split all the time, and it is far more common than not for the post-split denominations to use variations of the original name, for descriptive reasons. And even if the new _denomination_ does not adopt a derivative name, the common name for the group of people that believe in the same things inevitably will be derivative in some sense or another. To some degree excessive use of trademarks is a war against the natural laws of thought.

    At this point, the suggestion that any organization could successfully trademark the term “Baptist”, “Mormon”, “Presbyterian”, etc. is almost comical. The term “Mormon” became cross denominational more than 150 years ago. About the best one might hope to expect is for authors to refer to small Mormon denominations as Mormon splinter or break off groups.

  51. the Church has successfully registered “Mormon” as a service mark, correct?

    Trademarks and service marks are divided into classes. A registration or use in one class does not generally preclude someone else from using or registering it in another class. In any case, the Church’s trademark application was split in two, and they were granted a trademark on the term Mormon in connection with educational services and genealogy services, in classes 41 and 42 respectively.

    The Church apparently has not been granted a trademark on the term Mormon in connection with religious services, which falls under class 45. The application (serial number 78161091) was abandoned in 2007, because the Patent and Trademark Office would not grant it.

  52. Aaron Brown says:

    “I am hesitant to say that the media is careless–I’m more inclined to think that people listening to what the media is saying are not paying close attention.”

    Admittedly, I can’t judge whether the media was careless, or the new member was a careless listener, in my example (#28), as I only know what he related to me. Also, I have no opinion about the media’s alleged carelessness in general; I was just offering up an anecdote that seemed on point.

  53. What Mark D said–the trademark was granted but only for “Mormon” as descriptive of educational and genealogical, and not religious, services. It was denied, despite repeated petitions, on the grounds that the term was generic for the services described.

  54. That seems right, Aaron. I responded to you, but it was meant more as a general thought, as the idea that it’s the media’s fault has been brought up a handful of times in this thread and in discussions I had with people before writing the post. In other words, I didn’t mean to suggest you were giving more than an anecdote.

  55. Bad idea.

    If you think “re-gaining” the word mormon is in any way gonna help with the the way the general public views the Church of Jesus Christ that person have totally misunderstood the way media works.

    Media love the word, because of the prejudice and the ineherent sect like feel of the word. The word sells because of the misguided and prejudical feelings it creates, and it will always be that way, and media will never give it up.

  56. Kristine – 49 – You are right that I generally need spoon feeding. But I didn’t mean to sound snarky or anything like that. I just honestly don’t see any raw data–numbers, stats–in the article re media usage in context. I see the parts that qualitatively explain in generalities how the media has responded to various Church descriptors over the years following media releases. But it’s all very fuzzy and general to me. It would be interesting to see a raw number of references and usage from various media and articles and how the terms have been used.

    Brad’s, I love the social satire a la Matt Groening that you excerpted in 46. Shows how silly the hair splitting can be. Marcus in 56 is right: the media love to spin silly stuff and “Mormon” works perfect for them because it has this bizarro mystere to it.

  57. I’ve seen the media manipulate LDS to have the same polygamous confusion…

    I don’t think we’ll loose the Mormon ever…so it seems silly to insist otherwise. It’s like naming a child Nicholas Gatsby the third then being shocked and appalled when people call him Nick.

  58. I think this article link is a perfect sample of how the term and concept of “Mormon” is perceived by those that are not of a Mormon faith. The rhetoric. The flippant tone. The culture shock. The negative connotation throughout. The utter amazement of Mormon belief and lifestyle. Classic social journalism regarding Mormons and Mormon culture. Although the word itself is only used a couple times, the concept is reinforced.


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