Mormons, the Mormon Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: A Spiritual Taxonomy

I am a Mormon. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  And I am a proud part of the Mormon Church. These identities overlap, but they are not identical. I could imagine being one or two of these things without being all three. I know Mormons who are not members of any Church. And I know people who are firmly committed to the Mormon Church who have disaffiliated, or all but disaffiliated, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Substantial overlap is not the same as equivalence.

Taxonomies are always arbitrary, for course. They involve the creation of dividing lines and distinct buckets among phenomenon that are much messier than any flowchart can represent. But they also capture distinctions that would otherwise be lost. Somebody else might create different categories, or call them different things. What matters is not what the things are called, but that their thingness, and their separate thingness, be acknowledged and precisely defined. Here are my definitions.

Mormons are people who have been shaped by a very distinctive cultural tradition with its roots in the 19th century charismatic movement lead by Joseph Smith Jr.. Mormons belong to a dozen or so different religious organizations that have their roots in Joseph’s work, but many Mormons belong to no religious organization at all. “Mormon” is the noun whose adjectives include liberal-, orthodox-, fundamentalist-, practicing-, non-practicing-, disaffected-, excommunicated-, ex-, dry–, and post-. There is tremendous variety among, and within, these different kinds of Mormons, but we all share a culture, a history, and a set of beliefs that we either accept or do not accept–but that partially define us whether or not we accept them.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest of the formal institutions based on Joseph Smith’s legacy. It has a corporate office in Salt Lake City, and a formidable organization worldwide. It sends out missionaries, collects tithes, operates temples, and formally assesses its members’ worthiness to enter temples and hold callings.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a set of rules that must be followed in order to join it or to participate fully in its practices. It has full legal authority, at its discretion, to withdraw its institutional fellowship from members or to formally excommunicate them for behavior judged to be immoral or disloyal. It owns copyrights and trademarks and has recently asked, quite reasonably, that everybody call it by its proper name.

Both Mormonism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are important parts of my life, but neither one is the core of my spiritual identity. My core spirituality is that of the Mormon Church, which is neither a cultural identity or a formal institutional affiliation, though it has elements of both.

The Mormon Church is not a Church in an American non-profit corporation sense, but it is a church in the New Testament sense of an ekklesia, or an assembly of people who come together to strengthen each other spiritually—to mourn with each other, comfort each other, and share each other’s burdens. An ekklesia is what happens when two or three are gathered in His name. Nobody is in charge, and the people entirely constitute the thing.

When I was baptized, my name was entered on the records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but part of my covenant, as I now understand it, was to the Mormon Church, or the ekklesia that I became part of by my spiritual choices. I know some of the people in my church from the formal meetings of the institutional Church. I know others, from the various roads that I have traveled in my life, who are Mormons but who have no formal affiliation with any religious organization—or who now have formal affiliations with religious organizations outside of the Mormon tradition.

The Mormon Church is not another variety of Benign Whateverism. It believes things—and these things are drawn from the Mormon scriptures and the Latter-day Saint tradition. We believe in Zion and in the pure love of Christ. We believe in atonement and redemption. We believe in sacred covenants and in the divine potential of human beings. We believe in agency and consequences. We believe in eternal families and divine parents. We believe that the Church is the body of Christ.

Formal affiliation doesn’t matter in the Mormon Church, but participation is only meaningful if people have been animated, in some way, by the doctrine of Zion, or the possibility that the world we live in can be something celestial—something fundamentally different than what it is now.

Nobody cares what it is actually called. Nobody has the authority to insist that it be called something else. I use the term “Mormon Church” only because it recently became available. The Mormon Church is not the sort of thing that one can be kicked out of, because it is not the sort of thing that one joins. It is simply a way to describe the interrelationship among disciples committed to using a Mormon spirituality as the basis for loving each other and building the Kingdom of God.

When President Russell M. Nelson announced that the correct name of the Church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I felt profoundly grateful to him for helping me to clarify this important distinction in my own spirituality. My membership in this Church is an important part of that spirituality, but it is not the only part. It is not even the only part that is animated by the Mormon tradition and the doctrines of the Book of Mormon and the other standard works.

The Mormon Church—a collection of my sisters and brothers bound to each other by covenants of love and a desire to build the Kingdom of God—is a thing. It is not the same thing as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but that does not make it a lesser thing. It is a thing that we can all be part of and that nobody controls. And such things can be difficult to define, even when they are the most important things in the world.



  1. Whoa. I am a Mormon, part of Mormon Church.

  2. I like this a lot, Michael. Not sure if I agree with how you employ these taxonomies, or at least I’m not sure if I would be comfortable applying them as you do in my own self-understandings, but I like them nonetheless.

  3. “I use the term ‘Mormon Church’ only because it recently became available.”


  4. I think these are very important and useful distinctions. Thank you.

  5. always loved by mom says:

    When are we going to see a list of the tops things related to this Mormon/LDS/etc debate Steve?

  6. A useful taxonomy. Of course the Mormon Church is the most interesting. “Mormon” is readily understood and not a matter of choice. One either is or isn’t Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints IS a matter of choice with clear boundaries. But it seems to me that the Mormon Church is a thing but is very likely no one person’s definition or explanation (including Michael Austin), and is not something one can choose directly. Rather, it is a consequential matter. As a result of a series of choices about what one does and does not do, what one chooses to pay attention to, the people one associates with, and more, one is or is not a participant in the Mormon Church.

    I am inescapably Mormon. I remain a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I would like to think I am a communing member of the Mormon Church. I am tempted to say a “poor” member or a “bad” member, but I am much more strongly inclined to reject adjectives generally and to think “commune” (all forms—noun, verb, adjective) is the one right feeling qualifier.

  7. Better said than I could. Amen, and amen.

  8. The choice still remains whether to follow the prophet or not…to move forward or stay with an old tradition and use the word Mormon.

  9. Michael, I like this. Kind of. I’m not sure that a universalist spiritual Mormon Church works as well as a Catholic one. Mormonism is so anti-creedal, and so grounded in temporal community and practice that I’m not sure a Mormon Church based (mostly) on a set of beliefs can work. Then again, I think we’re (inevitably?) drifting towards creedalism as the CoJCoLdS becomes too geographically attenuated to sustain the kinds of communities that historically constituted the movement.

  10. The request from President Nelson is a bit like requesting that an orange never be called a fruit. It was “named” orange for a reason so we should not just “call” it a fruit. Fruit doesn’t properly represent what a orange is. The term “orange” represents so much more than the term “fruit” making fruit an almost offensive term.

    The point of this OP is to show that the word Mormon has a much broader meaning than just a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is silly to make the word Mormon obsolete and attempting to make it even insulting because it suddenly makes everyone who uses the term Mormon someone “not following the prophet” as Barb implies instead of someone using the term more precisely to describe a movement or culture that incapsulates and moves beyond the Latter Day Saint Church.

    Another quick point, in 1 Nephi 14:10, an angel tells Nephi that “..there are save two churches ONLY; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil.”
    Either the Lord is referring to a hand-selected group of covenant people beyond just members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that he will arm “with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory” or the Lord is not that hung up on the names Mormon or Latter Day Saint.

  11. Michael H. says:

    I’m just hoping the moment doesn’t arise in church when I can contain myself no longer and spontaneously erupt into Monty Python’s Life of Brian quotes—Judean People’s Front, People’s Front of Judea, etc.

  12. Another interesting question is the status of people who have proxy baptisms performed on their behalf. A lot of the distress caused by this is related to the idea that people are being enrolled as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or that they become Mormons. My thinking is that people who accept a proxy baptism on their behalf are not being enrolled in an earthly denomination or organization, or even being initiated into something so limited as “Mormonism.” To me, it’s something much bigger. We are offering what we believe to be authorized Christian baptism and membership in what might be termed the Kingdom of God. “Mormonism” and “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” are a subset of the Kingdom of God. Adam, Moses, Alma, and John the Baptist were not Mormons or Latter-day Saints, but they were part of the Kingdom of God. They performed divinely-authorized ordinances without being Mormons. Heck, even Mormon wasn’t a Mormon. You certainly do not have to be a Mormon/member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in order to receive and perform authorized ordinances, or to be saved/exalted in the Kingdom of God. If you receive and accept a proxy baptism, you skip the whole being a Mormon/whatever and have the possibility of going straight to salvation/exaltation.

    I know that we do confirm people by proxy as “a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” My way of thinking is that this has more to do with the source of our authority to perform the temple ordinance than it does with enrolling someone in a church. We might instead confirm them as a member of “The Church of Jesus Christ of Former-day Saints” or “The Church of Jesus Christ of the Lehite Saints” or “The Church of Jesus Christ of Ancient Israel” or “The Church of Jesus Christ of the Saints of the Lost Tribes” or The Church of Jesus Christ of the Spirit Prison” or “The Church of Jesus Christ of the Celestial Kingdom” or whatever we might call other legitimate manifestations of the Kingdom of God. The effect would be the same. But we confirm them members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because that is where WE get OUR authority and that is (like the others) an authorized path to exaltation. Aside from the fact that we’re stamping their passport so to speak, there is really no sense in which recipients of proxy baptism become members of our earthly version of the Kingdom of God. They’re not here any more. They have to participate in some other form of the Kingdom of God.

  13. Michael, Kristine’s reservation is one I partly share. You define the “Mormon church” as an “ekklesia, or an assembly of people who come together to strengthen each other spiritually,” and yet you distinguish that from any actually, formally organized gathering of people called Mormons. Which means it’s is just people who believe in Mormon things hanging out together and supporting one another. Which is wonderful! But also, not, I think, particularly robust.

  14. “Just people who believe in Mormon things hanging out together and supporting one another” is the most important thing in my spiritual life. This is what BCC is, and the numerous email lists and blogs and Facebook groups we have been involved in over the years. It is what you and I and our families have done for thousands of hours over our lifetimes. It is the parties, the book clubs, the discussion groups, the time we drove to Nauvoo to hang out with other Mormon scholars who occupied different places in the institutional Church. All of these things are examples of people who believe Mormon things hanging out and supporting each other in ways that don’t require the approval or involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    The real question I am asking, of course, is “who controls Mormon spirituality?” This is a very similar question to, “Who controls Catholic spirituality?” “Who controls Lutheran spirituality?” “Who controls Muslim spirituality?” and etc. In every case, the answer is going to be that some part of the spirituality is controlled by an institution, and some part is controlled by a group of people with various orientations towards the institutions hanging out and supporting each other.

    In my experience, Mormons feel less comfortable than just about any other religion or denomination being spiritual in unapproved ways. Most people that I know in other religious traditions see “the Church” as something not entirely made up of structures and hierarchies–they also see it as simply the collection of believers. I think that we concede far too much to the institutional Church when it comes to how we relate to each other, how we talk about our shared beliefs, and how we experience the unique elements of our doctrines and our heritage. I do not think that this is healthy.

    This is why I welcome the opportunity that we have now to distinguish between “Mormon spirituality” and “The spirituality of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” One of these is wholly mediated through an institution. The other is not. Both of them are “churches,” but they are churches in different ways, or they rely on different connotations of the word “church.” Both, I think, are important.

  15. Michael Austin says:

    Left Field,

    Catholic theology recognizes three Churches, each of them made up of a collection of believers at different stages of their eternal development: the Church Militant (all of the people on Earth struggling towards salvation), the Church Penitent (the souls in Purgatory working out their sinful natures and perfecting themselves), and the Church Triumphant (the Saints in Heaven who have become perfect). The Mormon view of the afterlife, with a spiritual prison and a celestial kingdom does not map onto the Catholic view completely, but it is close enough that we might use the terms. Thus, the people who are baptized by proxy in the Spirit World would be the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Penitent.

  16. Left Field says:

    That works for me.

  17. Michael, I really appreciate that elaboration; it makes me see a lot more in your taxonomies, and see a lot more of my own spirituality in them, than I did originally. One can’t away from, I think, the reality that ” a group of people with various orientations towards the institution hanging out and supporting each other” requires there to be, in fact, an “institution” that is the locus of their various orientations, and that means we can’t away from asking if “hanging out and supporting each other” is sufficient to keep the necessary-but-not-in-itself-sufficient institution flourishing, thus allowing for the aforementioned hanging out. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Either way, though, you’ve given me a new way of thinking about my Mormon spirituality, and for that I thank you.

  18. Michael Austin says:

    Russell–I am not actually convinced that you need an institution in order to have people believing things hanging out and supporting each other. Neither Islam nor Judaism has anything like an official institution, and yet Jews and Muslims do a lot of hanging out and supporting each other. Protestantism generally does not have a single governing body, yet most Protestants speak of “the Church” as something like “all of the believers from the various denominations in their collective unity.” Really, it is only Catholics and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsians who have a strong corporate organization that declares doctrine, regulates worship, and mediates spirituality through its official pronouncements. Well, and Scientology.

  19. Michael, maybe you don’t need centralized control, but I think you do need liturgy. (Well, *I* do, anyway).

  20. Michael Austin says:

    Kristine, I would agree with ritual, which liturgy is a subset of (but also sacrificing stuff and Church basketball). I also think that a common sacred text (Bible, Torah, Qu’ran, Book of Mormon) goes a long way in creating the second kind of “church” that I am thinking about.

    But this kind of “church” does not preclude the other kind. Though it doesn’t require it either.

  21. Being a convert(30 years) i like to focus on following the savior and i really can’t get caught up in
    whether they are a “mormon” or a latterday saint or what have you.
    I will not judge someone for their core beliefs as i myself am striving to work out my salvation.

  22. Michael, I think you’re eliding some important distinctions here. You acknowledge Kristine’s point (which I think it correct) that, absent some kind of liturgy/ritual, or at least a recognized foundation in such (even if it is rejected by various individuals within the group), the mutual hanging out and supporting actions of believers (and others) really can’t quite be the sort of ekklesia you’re talking about. At the same time, you imply (or at least appear to, on my reading; please correct me if I’m wrong) that looking for some sort of organizer or provider of said liturgy/ritual, however historically contextual or limited in its authority, is essentially opening the door to a “strong corporate organization that declares doctrine, regulates worship, and mediates spirituality through its official pronouncements.” There’s a LOT of gray area in between there, with lots of mediating institutions playing important (however informal) organizing roles. (For example: yes, Islam has not overarching organizational authority, but then again, the next time your local iman introduces twerking as part of the mosque’s daily worship services, and some parishioner complains, let me know if and when the iman says “What, you’re throwing decisions of the Ulama at me? Who cares about those losers?”)

  23. Geoff - Aus says:

    I recently asked a person who was questioning my worthiness/righteousness because I did not agree with his views on gay marriage, whether he was an ex mormon. He came back that he was an active mormon. I pointed out Pres Nelson said he was not that any more so he could proudly claim to be an ex mormon. Which as you point out leaves us to be mormons if we want.

  24. A longish test question, that may really push the limits of what Michael has in mind.

    My daughter left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints years ago, in her college years if not earlier. This after a full program childhood and most of her teens in the LDS Church. She left not by resigning (to my knowledge, although I think it not relevant to this discussion) but by joining and actively participating in First Church Cambridge (Congregational, UCC). Later she met her husband there, while singing together in the choir.

    Christina arranged for a naming and blessing for her first daughter at First Church. A naming or christening service is not traditional at First Church. It was arranged (happily and cooperatively) only because my daughter asked, because she wanted to follow the pattern she knew, because it was meaningful to her. The service was performed and conducted by their gay married woman minister, but my daughter wrote it and it was full of phrases and allusions that only a steeped in Mormonism person would recognize, while also incorporating phrases from the UCC liturgy and from generically Chiristian sources. It was moving and beautiful (pardon me—this is my daughter and granddaughter in question and I’m delighted by and proud of both). Family and friends, including from the local LDS ward where she grew up were in attendance. Both parents and all four grandparents stood together for the blessing.

    And here’s the test. Granting all the differences and complexity, judging by the way I felt, the way I resonated, and most importantly by what my daughter asked for and intended, I believe we all attended a (third sense) Mormon service that day. I’m sure many in attendance would be shocked to hear that. But I’m not sure whether it would be the traditionally Mormons or the traditionally non-Mormons who would be the most surprised. I do know that I would draw the circle, I would include the diaspora, at least that big.

    Another test case. I know a couple of men who were active contributing returned missionary members of a CoJCoLdS ward until they decided to live together and ultimately marry. Friends of mine. In conversation one day one of them told me “I will never be allowed into a Mormon temple again in my lifetime. So I am going to make of my home a place where I am reminded, where I remember.”

    I can’t not recognize that friend and that impulse as (third sense) Mormon.

  25. “It was moving and beautiful (pardon me—this is my daughter and granddaughter in question and I’m delighted by and proud of both).”

    It’s not just Christian’s pride talking–I can corroborate. It was lovely in every way.

  26. Ironically, there are a LOT more (third sense) Mormons than there are active, TR-holding members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Imagine if we got more organized!

  27. Tyler Scott says:

    This is fantastic! You have articulated, in a way I have been unable to, what I feel I belong to and what I do not.

    The subjugating, patriarchal, and arbitrary definition for goodness offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has brought forth increasingly bad fruit in my life. Christ taught me that I can then infer that the tree which produced that tree is bad (at least for me).

    However the more universal notion of the Mormon Church continues to yield really good fruit. The broader theologies of divine parentage, the incredible capacity of the human condition, and the opportunity for eternal growth are delicious to me. Even more wonderful are my many close associations within the body of this less formal church which add great meaning and worth to my life.

    Thank you for offering a rubric that works for me. It feels good to belong.

  28. Seth and Aiden, I hope one day you stumble upon this and read it, and realize that what you are going through is not your fault. You were always both good kids, and you are both growing into strong and intelligent young men with good hearts, and I am very proud of you. Your sister Haley misses you both very much, and she hopes very much that she can be reunited with you one day.

    As for me, I am broken. I can’t fight anymore. You have both been on my mind and in my heart every single day. While I cherish my memories of you, missing you has been almost unbearable. My grief and longing for my sons has consumed me, every single day. I can’t go on like this anymore. I have to put it away and focus on other things. I have to accept that you are gone, and get back to living my life. My door and my heart will always be open to both of you. Please believe that I don’t blame you for any of this, and I’m so sorry for what you’ve had to go through. I am also sorry for the mistakes I have made along the way, and I hope you can find peace and healing from the hurts I have caused by failing you.

    Remember to be kind and forgiving to each other. The turmoil, strife, and distance between you two is not because of who you are, but because you have been played against each other. Don’t let the fact that you are treated differently drive a wedge between you. You are brothers, and you are both my sons, no matter what. I love you both – yesterday, today, and always.

    With love from your father,

    Walter Singleton

    PS: Should you ever decide to see me, I will be in Orlando, like always, and not hard to find. You can look me up on the Orange County Clerk website, , and find the name of my lawyer, who can put you in contact with me. Also, if you ever find yourselves in trouble, please seek me out. My door will always be open to you, and I will do whatever I can to help you.

  29. Rob Perkins says:

    Michael, I like what you’ve done here on many levels, with the idea of a Mormon Church as an organic “ekklesia”, because it describes how I consider my home ward.

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