“Mormon” is deeply Christian

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash. Chosen to serve as a fanciful depiction of the Waters of Mormon.

Spencer Greenhalgh is a nerd, Francophile, and big fan of the Book of Mormon. Professionally, he is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s School of Information Science, where he teaches information communication technology and researches social media in meaningful contexts such as education and religion.

The name “Mormon” is obviously connected to The Book of Mormon, but this name carries different meanings within and outside the text. The external, often derogatory, meaning is enough that the three largest denominations accepting the Book of Mormon as scripture now reject the derived adjective “Mormon,” often preferring to redirect attention to their Christian credentials. This is understandable—and even laudable—but the meaning and history of this name within The Book of Mormon suggests that “Mormon” is, in fact, a deeply Christian word.

“Mormon” also seems to begin as a derogatory term in The Book of Mormon. In Mosiah 18:4 (9:32 CofC), we read of a “place which was called Mormon, having received its name from the king, being in the borders of the land having been infested, by times or at seasons, by wild beasts.” There’s no straightforward explanation here of what “Mormon” means—our identically named narrator might be too embarrassed to do so. Nonetheless, the implication is that “Mormon” is a name kings give to infested places, places no one would go unless they were desperate, places so undesirable that the king’s servants might not look for you there.

Of course, it so happens that Alma—a debauched priest turned enemy of the state—is desperate enough to turn to such a place, and there’s something about him that attracts hundreds of people. Since hearing Abinadi speak in King Noah’s court, Alma has had a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ. That encounter was evidently enough for people to want to come out and meet him—even if it means going to a place undesirable enough to be called “Mormon” to associate with a fugitive. Perhaps they too wish to encounter this Jesus who has enough power and grace to wipe away the sins of a debauched priest. Indeed, Alma is confident enough in his own experience to promise those he baptizes “eternal life, through the redemption of Christ” (Mosiah 18:13/9:44).

This call to Jesus’s redemption soon extends beyond the debauched priest and even beyond his followers to also cover the derisive name “Mormon” itself. Our narrator now (self-servingly) repeats this name over and over: “all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon, yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer” (Mosiah 18:30/9:65-66). It is a reminder of how unexpectedly beautiful this name has become, and how powerfully it symbolizes Christ’s redemption.

It is difficult to overstate the importance in the Book of Mormon narrative of this now-collective encounter with the redeeming power of Jesus Christ. Consider the difference between Limhi and Alma, both prominent refugees from a failed colony of overzealous oddballs. When Limhi arrives in Zarahemla, he seems to defer to Mosiah and give up any claims to political power. Mosiah is established as a prophet, seer, and revelator, so we might expect Alma (who is unordained and has a history of debauchery) to follow Limhi’s lead. Not so—there’s something about Alma and his followers’ testimony of redemption through Jesus that is powerful enough that they quickly take over the Nephite religion.

It is Alma’s church, founded in an undesirable place called “Mormon” and there infused with Christ’s redeeming love, that survives the next century more-or-less intact until the resurrected Christ Himself visits the land of Bountiful. That visit is frequently—and justifiably—described as the climax of the Book of Mormon narrative. Consider, however, that our narrator and his father, living centuries after this visit, are not named “Bountiful”—for this family, “Mormon” appears to be the most compelling reminder of the promise of redemption through Jesus Christ.

My argument here is not that all Book of Mormon-believing Christians should call themselves “Mormon.” There’s enough real historical baggage that it would be rude to suggest that members of the Missouri-based Community of Christ or the Pennsylvania-based Church of Jesus Christ embrace the term; likewise, its story is long enough that I can’t blame members of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for not wanting to repeat it every time they want to prove their Christian credentials. Yet, it would be a tragedy if we forgot (or never even learned!) how “Mormon” symbolizes deep Christian commitment—or if we prevented people from again redeeming that name to apply it to themselves.

Comments

  1. Sounds like you have to be a dyed in the wool Mormon to know you don’t want to be known as a Mormon.

  2. I love this thought so much. Maybe it’s even called “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ” because The Waters of Mormon is the place where so many found Christ.

  3. It comes from the Egyptian Hermonthis “a place of wild beasts”. Hugh Nibley did some interesting reseach on them etymology of the word

  4. Stephen Hardy says:

    It may be better said with a touch of humility that goes with things that are possible but not certain:

    High Nibley, based on his interesting research, (please insert citation) wrote that the term “mormon” may be related to the ancient Egyptian word “Hermonthis” which meant “a place of wild beasts”

    I tire of over-reaching.

  5. I agree. It’s no less Christian than symbols of fish, the term evangelical or Baptist. Its a great victory for Satan that we run from the term Mormon.

  6. LDS_Scoutmaster says:

    Interesting thoughts, I guess I’ve been in a bubble regarding the name. It was, used by me, derogatory when I was not a member. But I never made the connection between the insect infested area and eventually how the name could be redeemed and used in a good way, just like I used it in a good way later. It is after all just a word and I can’t be offended or enhanced by a word alone

  7. I personally have no issue with being known as a Mormon and delight in this story of the redemption of the word through the lives of those who accepted Christ there.
    But I will accept President Nelson’s requirement that we give it up. It seems a small price to pay for being given a prophwt.

  8. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    It also seems a very small hill to die on for a prophet.

  9. “Are you a Mormon?”
    “Yes siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.”

  10. In a world that is becoming ever more secular I love the idea of the church–with its new emphasis on the Savior’s name–becoming the flagship of those who believe in a literal Jesus.

  11. eastofthemississippi says:

    The emphasis away from using “Mormon” is easy, they don’t want members, or anyone for that matter, googling Mormon.

  12. Stephen Hardy says:

    I have been trying to decide how to respond, that is how to feel or act, in the setting of the doing away with the term “Mormon.”

    I am north of 60 years old and after being raised in Utah, at the age of 25 or so, I moved to the east coast where I have lived for almost 40 years. I’m telling you that to put some context to my comments.

    I certainly understand why some desire to drop the term Mormon and use instead the entire and somewhat odd complete name of our church as the correct substitute. I understand it, but I am not sure i agree with it. I understand the frustration that some church members feel, or felt, to be deemed non-Christian. We worship God in the name of Jesus Christ. We need to be known that way.

    Even though I understand why our church leaders might feel a need for a change, I thought that two aspects of the change were a bit over the top:

    1. It was taught that using the term Mormon was not only inappropriate and unfavored, but was actually evil. A “victory for Satan.” That’s pretty harsh. Especially in light of D&C 107:4 which states that out of respect to the name of the “Supreme Being”, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, the priesthood was called Melchizedek Priesthood. Have we decided to abandon this principle altogether?

    2. The call to the faithful to police and correct each other when using the term “Mormon” was for me very unfortunate. I won’t take the time to explain why. You surely understand why.

    These days I find that I am thinking more about being a Mormon as something “cultural” as compared to being a member of “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” which is spiritual.

    Examples of functioning as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
    Going to Sunday meetings
    Getting baptized.
    Taking the sacrament.
    Going to the temple.
    Doing genealogy: looking up names for the temple

    Examples of being a Mormon:
    Planting my vegetable garden
    Putting up tomatoes for use in the winter.
    Having a supply of food in the basement stored against some future need.
    Moving families in or out of homes.
    Having “study groups” where church teachings are discussed
    Going to the temple.
    Celebrating, in any way, the 24th of July: attending a parade, or putting up things around the house to remember our pioneer ancestors.
    Keeping a journal
    Writing a family history.

    A few observations:

    You will see that a few of the items could be in both lists. When I go to the temple I can never avoid thinking about the sacrifices that earlier members (by earlier I certainly mean in my lifetime and of course before) made to construct and staff temples. That for me is extremely “mormony.” On the other hand trying to understand my temple covenants is a very CoJCoLDS thing.

    I used to believe that being a member of the church, that is being a Mormon, encompassed all of my life. It applied to the way I cook, the way I shop and store, the way I dress, where I live (close to the ward if possible), the way I visit others, much of the service I give, my sports (the days of basketball at the gym: very much a Mormon thing). God was somehow present at all of these things. Now, for me, I find that my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is more and more a Sunday-only thing. Something which I previously was critical of. I felt that my seven-day all encompassing involvement in the church was surely a sign of how it was an answer to many of our needs. Now I find I look outside of the church for more and more. I used to try to “do business” within the church: I would try to find a plumber, or real estate agent, or house painter, among my ward community. Now I find that I am avoiding that: what if I don’t like their work? How awkward! I might better use a complete stranger.

    So my tether to the Church becomes leaner and learner. We don’t have any ward parties or celebrations. We might come to a baptism or funeral. No plays, skits, crafts, sledding, boating, or other things that used to somehow be a part of the life of being a member of the church. It is a good Sunday two hour experience. Then go home, and possibly, like the Zoramites, leave it at the door: “Now, after the people had all offered up thanks after his manner, they returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand…”

    I know that I am over-stating it; but this separation of Mormon from Church is for me a divorce of the Church from large parts of my life.

  13. As to the origin of the word “Mormon” (at least its first appearance in the BoM), I found this a fascinating and enlightening thought that it changed from meaning a place of danger and infestation to a place of commitment, holiness, and redemption. I likewise like the thought of the Book of Mormon wanting to transport me from a place infested by wild beasts to a place of pure water, beautiful forests, and eternal salvation.

  14. Something that hasn’t gotten much traction in discussions of what is essentially a branding exercise (misguided in my view), is that the most problematic bit of the Church’s name isn’t the nickname, it’s the “Latter-day Saints” bit. While it may make sense from an internal dispensationalist perspective, it has apocalyptic associations for many outsiders — and it wasn’t even JS’s first (or second) choice. It seems so odd to me to try to retcon “Mormon” while keeping that whole mouthful intact (particularly when it requires frequent tautological explication, from the pulpit and in proselyting contexts, e.g. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Church of Christ on the earth in the last days…”

  15. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    It’s also important to remember that “Latter-Day Saints” very much had apocalyptic associations for the early Church members at the time the name was instituted. We have worked really hard to revise the original intent into something about dispensations, but that’s not how it was received or interpreted at the time. The Church has outlived those expectations and it’s time to remove a phrase that simply confuses outsiders and implies something to members that causes them to focus on the wrong things. It colors how current events are interpreted in ways that are unproductive. But, rather than renaming and rebranding, again, I’ll just stick with “Mormon”.

  16. Stephen Hardy, I have had a similar experience over time. I miss my larger, tighter, busier “Mormon” life that I enjoyed through growing up and college. Except for weeding the onion fields (maybe that’s just a Utah thing?) I don’t miss that at all.

  17. stephen hardy says:

    Marian: were you in the Bonneville Stake? We had an onion farm!

  18. Roger Hansen says:

    I was born Mormon or LDS. I will probably die Mormon. The best way to prove we are Christian is to follow the teachings of Christ, not rebranding.

    In the 1960’s as a missionary, our explanation for Latter-day Saints was that it was to distinguish us from the early Christian church. We were the restored version. Nothing was mentioned about the Church being Millennialist.

  19. “The best way to prove we are Christian is to follow the teachings of Christ, not rebranding.” Really well said. And the new directive is especially unfortunate for some of us who, despite being lifelong members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had only recently become comfortable with the nickname “Mormon”: https://bycommonconsent.com/2011/10/14/becoming-a-mormon-thinking-about-a-brand-with-elder-ballard/

    Mr. Hardy above also pointed out another unfortunate aspect of the new directive — that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have seized on it immediately as a means by which to criticize other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as not “obeying the prophet” or “fighting against the prophet” etc. if they still use the word “Mormon” as an adjective to describe that which relates to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What a convenient new orthodoxy policing tool!

    To be sure, these members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints haven’t criticized when one member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Senator from Utah has used the adjective but these members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have criticized when the other member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Senator from Utah has used the term. (This has generally coincided with Trump support — the member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Senator from Utah who is a Trump supporter and enabler can apparently use the adjective without criticism from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who use this new directive as a way to criticize other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have continued to use the adjective as not obeying the member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prophet, whereas the member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Senator from Utah who is known to have actually held Trump accountable for his crimes has come in for criticism from such members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints orthodoxy police for the occasional continued use of the adjective.)

    I have even heard that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have been eager to use this new directive from the member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prophet as a way to accuse other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of disobeying or rebelling against the member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prophet have expected the adjective to be dropped from institutions that have carried the name for many years. And still the Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Historical Society just doesn’t seems as comprehensible or descriptive a name as the traditional Mormon Historical Society.

  20. *oops — Mormon Historical Association

  21. Well when you put it that way I’d rather go back to being called Mormons.

  22. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I think you illustrate the absurdity of it all quite well, john f. But now you’ve run afoul of the official style guide. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” is only necessary upon the first reference, after which you can use “the Church” can be used as a shortened reference.

  23. Left Field says:

    May I just say that our brand is no longer “Mormon” or “Christian” or “LDS” or “Latter-day Saint” or “member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or even “polygamy.” We have successfully and completely rebranded as “homophobic.”

  24. Yes, it shortens it a little to say member of the Church Senator from Utah. But then the name Jesus Christ isn’t used.

  25. So I am not following the prophet if I say “Mormon,” but they are even though they refuse to vaccinate or mask up. Got it.

  26. eastofthemississippi says:

    It always seems a little braggadocious when we refer to the church as… “the Church”.

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