Christians, Mormons, and Latter-day Saints: Religious Identity and Self-Determination in Religious Movements and Institutions

Who gets to decide what my religion is? Who gets to decide what my religion is called? Who gets to decide who gets to call themselves a Mormon, or a Christian? Should the church have anything to do with those who aren’t members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, but who call themselves Mormons?

Something I’ve been thinking about over the past several months since President Nelson’s announcement about the name of the church is the relationship between the right of religious institutions to define themselves, and the right of individuals to choose their own religious identity.

Sometimes these rights are in tension with one another, and it’s a tension that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members have experienced from both sides: from the outside as we claim the right to call ourselves Christians, despite our non-compliance with the creeds that historically defined what it meant to be Christian, and from the inside as we have sought to claim the right to define what it means to be Mormon, and to exclude any who aren’t members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from calling themselves Mormons.

From the outside: We claim to be Christians because we have the right to choose for ourselves what our religious identity will be. We call ourselves Christians because we believe in “the scriptures, which say ye must take upon you the name of Christ” (3 Nephi 27:5). But some of those Christians who hold to the historical creeds that defined what it meant to be a Christian say we can’t be Christian because we reject those creeds as non-scriptural. We object to this because we identify ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ, and it feels wrong to us for someone to tell us that that’s not enough to call ourselves Christians.

From the inside: Polygamist groups in Utah call themselves Mormon Fundamentalists. But we don’t want to be associated with them. So President Hinckley once said, back in 1998, that “there is no such thing as a Mormon Fundamentalist. It is a contradiction to use the two words together.” President Hinckley’s statement makes perfect sense if you are defining “Mormon” to mean a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (this was before President Nelson asked us not to call ourselves Mormons). But while I have serious objections to many of the beliefs and practices of Mormon fundamentalists, I have to admit that this always felt a little wrong to me: it felt inconsistent to say that the Christian world had to allow us to call ourselves Christians, despite their objections to our beliefs about Christ, but that Mormon fundamentalists were not allowed to call themselves Mormon because of our objections to their beliefs about ecclesiastical authority.

Movements vs. Institutions.

When it comes to whether we can call ourselves Christians, and whether people who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can call themselves Mormons, part of the issue is a lack of clarity about the difference between institutions–churches–and religious movements. Churches can set and enforce boundaries to define themselves. Movements are more organic and lack a central authority that can set and enforce boundaries. Institutions can self-determine by setting prescriptive rules of definition that say who is in and who is out. But because movements lack a central authority, they can’t really have prescriptive rules, they can only have descriptive rules that describe who is in and who is out. To the extent that movements collectively self-determine, they do so by consensus and persuasion rather than by prescription.

Take Christianity. As long as the Christian movement was more or less synonymous with the institution of a Christian church–that is, as long as enough members of the movement recognized the authority of the institution, acting collectively through the consensus of the bishops, to define the movement and to eradicate heretics (by peaceful means or by violence), the church could basically make the rules about what is required to be called a Christian–those rules were called the creeds. But when an institution fragments, or when large numbers of the members of the movement no longer recognize the authority of the institution, the movement and the institution are no longer the same thing. When that happens, it’s convenient for the institution to treat the schismatics as though they don’t exist, and excommunication can be an attempt to do that–to make them non-existent–at least within the community of the institution. But while the institution can define, clarify, or redefine its boundaries to exclude the schismatics, unless it physically kills them off, it cannot make them not exist. And if they continue to claim their identity as members of the movement, then a version of the faith that ignores them may tell the story of the institution, but it will be an incomplete picture of the movement.

What role does a church have to play within the movement?

This is not to say that we necessarily have to just accept that at the level of the movement, everything we believe in as the essential elements of our faith will be watered down. We can and perhaps should labor not just to maintain our own institutional boundaries, but also to advocate for what we believe ought to be the legitimate boundaries of the movements we believe in. But movements’ boundaries are organic and can’t be enforced by institutional means.

If my church believes that belief in the physical resurrection is essential to be a Christian, for example, it can insist that its own members confess that belief if they want to continue being its members. It cannot insist that Christians belonging to other churches, or to no church at all, confess that belief or stop calling themselves Christians. But it can argue that the physical resurrection is the heart of the Christian story and can labor to try to persuade other Christians that that is true. It could simply ignore the rest of the movement and focus solely on its own institutional members, but if it wants to try to make an impact on the movement beyond its own institutional boundaries, that won’t be a very effective strategy.

For a fascinating look at these different strategies in the context of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, look at the story of the Third Convention in Mexico. The Third Convention was a schismatic group that left the church in protest in the late 1930s and formed their own institution. The reasons for the schism were complex, and had to do with church leaders in Salt Lake’s perceived neglect of the church in Mexico, but the demand that church leaders call a native Mexican mission president to lead the church in Mexico became the battle-cry around which the Third Convention coalesced. When the Church denied that request, the Third Conventionists formed their own organization–including branches, Sundays Schools and a missionary program–and continued on with their religious life. The Church’s immediate reaction was, predictably, to excommunicate the leaders of the movement and declare them outside the boundaries of the institutional church.

That could have been the end of it, but a few years later, a new mission president adopted a new strategy. President Arwell Pierce could have easily written off the Third Conventionists and considered them irrelevant unless and until they repented and recognized the authority of church leaders, but instead he listened to their complaints, spoke at their meetings, worshipped with them, invited them to worship with him, became their friend, and advocated for them with church leaders in Salt Lake. Almost a decade after the excommunications, President Pierce convinced the First Presidency to revisit the excommunication decisions, and when they did, they changed the discipline imposed from excommunication to disfellowshipment. This meant that not only were the Third Conventionists part of the Mormon movement, they were once again officially recognized by the institution of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as members of the institutional community. They were still considered to be out of fellowship with the church–they were heretical members of the community, but they were members of the community, and that meant that reunification would be easier. Church leaders also made reunification easier by stipulating that while baptisms performed by Third Conventionists while they were outside the community of the church would have to be re-performed, they would only have to be “ratified” by a new baptism, instead of declaring them invalid altogether.

From a strict institutional perspective, there was no reason to compromise on the excommunications or on the terminology applied to baptism of those that had never been properly baptized by someone with authority of the institutional church. From a strict institutional perspective, by severing their institutional ties to the church, the Third Conventionists severed their ties to the Mormon community altogether. But treating them as pure strangers would have likely done nothing but solidify the schism. I think there was wisdom in President Pierce’s decision to treat the Third Conventionists, though they were not members of the church, as members of a larger community of a Mormon movement to whom he still had a ministering role. I think the story of the Third Convention’s journey back into the church is one that illustrates the value of a church’s role not only as the shepherding institution for its own members, but also as a member that has some role to play in ministering to members of the larger movement that are not its own institutional members.

Now, the Third Convention is not a perfect example. Because the Convention’s differences with the church were largely about administrative policy, not doctrine, it was relatively easy to find compromise on certain key issues without having to compromise on core doctrines. (But on the other hand, the difference between doctrine and policy can sometimes be elusive, and schism is arguably always more about authority than it is about substantive doctrine). But either way, I think the story of the Third Convention demonstrates the value in recognizing that the institution and the movement are not always coterminous, and that the institution and its members may have an important ministering role to play in the movement as well as in the institution.

Mormonism is a Movement, not an Institution.

We sometimes forget that Mormonism is not just part of the movement of Christianity, but it itself a movement. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest and most well-known institution within the Mormon movement, and so for a long time it was more or less synonymous with Mormonism, and saw itself that way. The vision of itself not only as an institution within the movement, but as the movement itself, is probably (along with public relations concerns) what led the church to deny for a long time, that anyone not a member of the Church could legitimately call themselves Mormons.

But President Nelson’s decision to change the popular name of the Church from “Mormon” to the formal name of the Church potentially changes this. By deciding to use its formal institutional name rather than identify itself as the Mormon movement, the church is giving up its exclusive claim over the Mormon identity. By so doing it is opening space for other institutions and non-affiliated individuals that are members of the Mormon movement to claim their own Mormon identity separate from their relationship to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church is exercising its own institutional religious self-determination, but is at the same time potentially giving more room to people to exercise their own individual religious self-determination.

Take President Hinckley’s 1998 statement, for example. At the time, with the understanding that Mormon was synonymous with member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that Fundamentalist meant someone who rejected the Church’s leaders’ claims of exclusive authority over sealing ordinances, it made perfect sense to say that “Mormon Fundamentalist” was a contradiction in terms. But now that President Nelson has severed “Mormon” from the church’s institutional identity, with this new understanding that “Mormon” does not refer to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is no longer “a contradiction” as President Hinckley said, to speak of a “Mormon Fundamentalist” that rejects the institutional authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I am not arguing that these concerns about movements vs. individuals and individual vs. collective self-determination are what motivated President Nelson to make the decision to give up the name Mormon. I think his motivation is as he explained in his conference addresses on the topic: a belief that the church’s formal name is a product of divine revelation that shouldn’t be lightly set aside, and a belief in the literalness of the principle of taking upon ourselves the name of Christ. (And I should probably point out that we are not even the only institution within the Mormon movement that rejects the name Mormons. See The Church of Jesus Christ.)

But regardless of the motivation and intent, President Nelson’s decision to disclaim the name of Mormon as the institutional identity of the church or its members may end up clarifying the difference between the Mormonism as a movement and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution within that movement, and allowing us to recognize the religious identity of those who aren’t members of the institution of the church, but who claim the Mormon identity in some way. It remains to be seen over the next several decades whether the Church will assume more of a role within the Mormon movement or what that role will look like, but I think it would be wise for us as church members to think more about the role we might have to play within the Mormon movement.



  1. I miss the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign. I took my kids to see those movies and it was fun.
    I feel like The Church is going through strange identity issues right now.
    Worse, the orthodox fundamentalist personality types are super uptight about “correct names” right now.
    I just want it to go away.

  2. The “I’m a Mormon” campaign was great, Anon. I’m trying to make an effort to follow President Nelson’s counsel about the name of the church, but somebody who gets hung up on it and makes somebody feel bad for saying the wrong name is totally missing the boat, IMO.

  3. I like your thinking. I don’t really identify with the institutional church so now Mormon can be a freeing identity. I hadn’t thought of it this way before.

  4. Really good thinking (and writing, btw). A couple of things to think about:

    1. I do not believe President Nelson’s emphasis on the name holds up as 100% scripture and revelation based. I believe it is (at least ALSO) intended to make the division President Hinckley tried in saying no to “Mormon Fundamentalist.” And do it better, more effectively and more logically. In other words, I think it is (at least in part) intended to draw back to the institutional Church as much as possible the power to define who is in and who is out. This is a known argument and I don’t mean to rehash it, except that it speaks to your thesis.

    2. The Third Convention example is fascinating and (as you say) revealing. We sometimes teach each other as though the definitions and limits of the several sacraments/ordinances are firmly and permanently established. History tells us differently. In fact the variations over the Church’s less than 200 years, to what at any one point in time was described as “the only way,” are quite remarkable.

    3. In talking Institution vs Movement, I think you gloss too quickly over the meaning of “church.” For example, Wikipedia starts out with: “Church most commonly refers to: Christian Church, body of Christians, taken as a whole.” Just recently I’ve been puzzling through the thought that “ecclesia” as in Matthew 16:18 and correlative references in 3 Nephi means the group of people who recognize some form of Christian Baptism and Eucharist. On a separate tack, when I think about the great variety in administrative forms throughout the broader Christian world, I think we need to slow down when using the term “church.”

    4. I believe there will always be individuals who define their “church” for themselves, rejecting or replacing institutional self-definitions. (I am one such.) I also believe that group will always be small and will always have to make their own way. It cuts across institutional efforts like President Nelson’s and cannot expect to be authorized or approved. At the same time that I recommend the self-definition path to everyone, I recognize it as a lonely path.

  5. Good point about “church,” Christian. I was using it in the narrow sense as an institution, but you’re right that it includes a broader sense that’s closer to movement than institution, and that the broader sense is, perhaps, even the primary sense. When I say “confusion” in the OP, perhaps it would have been more accurate to say “ambiguity.” It’s not that these are separate things that mistakenly get confused as much as it is that the line between them isn’t always very clear.

  6. This goes a long way to help clarify my own preferences, which has been to use the full proper name of the Church when referring to the institutional church as an organization, but deferring to Mormon for the broader culture, which includes Mormon history, Mormon literature, and the like. I really appreciate that you used the Third Convention as an analogy for church vs. movement. A recent online post about “Mormon Steampunk” literature drew out someone who liked the idea, but felt like it was morally wrong to use “Mormon” instead of “tCoJCoLDS Steampunk.” I mean, it’s speculative fiction that deals with Mormon characters or ideals, but it is not even about real things. The checklist folks apparently couldn’t deal with that.

  7. Lane J Wolfley says:

    I always say I’m a Mormon, but certainly no Saint. That’s not likely going to change.

    There is one other thing that we ought to consider, which is, the actual name of the Church is grammatically incorrect. I had never thought of this before my mission. Twice, however, investigators brought this up and wanted to discuss it. My response was that it was just the Church’s name, was therefore outside of grammatical considerations, and that was that, Over the years, though, I keep coming back to this thought, and favor the point of the investigators. I think it was merely a mistake at the time the present name was fomulated. The Church name was originally The Church of Christ in 1830, then it was changed to The Church of the Latter-day Saints in 1834, and then to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838. The current name of the Church, apparently, or so it appears, was some sort of slap-happy amalgamation of the two previous names, which captured Joseph Smith’s mind and blinded him and everybody else to the grammatical oddity: you can call it The Church of Jesus Christ and of the Latter-day Saints, or any number of things, but not its present name. Just who is this Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints guy?! Just what is the gist of the current name? You can’t really pin it down.

    I say we send President Nelson back to the drawing board to get it right this time!

  8. Well, Lane, some of my Christian acquaintances would say the name is correct because the Christ of Latter-day Saints is not, according to them, the Christ of the Bible. Of course, instead of using “Saint” to deny being a member of a New Orleans football team or a Catholic Saint, you could also consider New Testament usage of the term. It seemed to be what the church namer had in mind in 1834. I never could play football. That’s unlikely to change. :)

  9. Lane, I’m going to have to disagree with you on the grammar argument. If “of Latter-day Saints” only modified the word church, then I could see your point about needing an “and” in there. But it doesn’t modify just the word “church,” it modifies the phrase “church of Jesus Christ,” which is the noun-phrase here. And I think that actually makes sense from a doctrinal point of view because it’s consistent with the idea that the church’s primary identity is that it is the church of Jesus Christ, and that the “of Latter-day Saints” is only tacked on at the end to distinguish it from other versions of the church of Christ that may have existed through the years.

    It is arguably grammatically ambiguous, but at least in English, there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about it. It’s like D&C 13: “the keys of the ministering of angels and of the gospel of repentance and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins…” Is it the keys of the gospel, which contains both repentance and baptism, or is it the keys of the gospel of repentance, and the keys of baptism? It’s ambiguous, and a good editor might suggest rephrasing, but it’s not ungrammatical.

  10. Michael H. says:

    As far as grammar goes, I’m still a little frustrated that we’ve had our only decent modifiers taken away from us (not just “Mormon” but also “LDS”). I may roll my eyes just a little bit, but I’m okay using the nine-word noun as a noun. And while, yes, we can use nouns as modifiers, a nine-word noun does nothing but suck as a modifier.

  11. Yeah, the church’s full formal name is quite a mouthful to try to use as an adjective.

  12. One of the first things I thought when I noticed in the change of the style guide:

    “it is no longer “a contradiction” as President Hinckley said, to speak of a “Mormon Fundamentalist” that rejects the institutional authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

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