thoughts on an in-press article—and on names and legitimacy in Mormonism
One of the highlights of the summer has been getting an article accepted in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. This article takes as a starting point Cragun and Nielsen’s argument (also published in Dialogue) that:
what is really at play in the debate over the use of “Mormon” is legitimacy.
Cragun and Nielsen are writing in 2009, at a time when Big Love is on the air and the April 2008 FLDS Temple raid is (or was recently) on the news. The resurgence of Mormon fundamentalism into the American shared consciouness has led The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reclaim the word “Mormon,” which stands in contrast to its efforts since the 1990s to downplay that nickname and emphasize its full name. Indeed, it’s not long after this that the I’m a Mormon campaign is launched and that mormon.org gets a major corresponding redesign. However, if this leaning into the word “Mormon” stands in contrast with Latter-day Saint leaders’ previous efforts to distance themselves from the name, Russell Nelson’s August 2018 decision to abruptly reverse course and go further than any previous Latter-day Saint leader in distancing the church from the word “Mormon” felt downright jarring.
As Cragun and Nielsen argued, it’s pretty easy to map these different emphases on naming with concerns about legitimacy—including the church’s concerns that it be seen as legitimately Christian and as the legitimate heir to Joseph Smith’s 19th-century movement (as opposed to, say, fundamentalist expressions). It turns out that if you map the history of official Latter-day Saint domain names, you can see how it follows the ebbs and flows of these various concerns—and how legitimacy as enacted in the Domain Name System complicates official Latter-day Saint bids for legitimacy. It was a really interesting paper to write, and I’m excited for it to come out. My understanding is that it will be published in the Spring 2023 issue, which would normally feel like a long time to wait, but I’m so pleased to be publishing in such an important Mormon Studies journal like Dialogue that I’d gladly wait longer! Plus, this article is based on an invited talk I gave at the 2021 Claremont Graduate University Mormon Studies Conference, so if for whatever reason you can’t wait, you can catch a rough, unpolished version of my findings at just after the 2:00:00 in the video below:
Of course, I’d normally wait until the article is out to talk about it, but because it’s been on my mind all summer, I found particularly interesting Jana Riess’s column from yesterday. Jana draws on Armand Mauss’s famous 1994 argument that (to quote Jana):
Mormon history has swung back and forth between periods of retrenchment (which he called “the angel”) and assimilation (“the beehive”)
Jana describes this framework as helping something click:
We’re in an assimilation phase, a “we’re not weird” phase. Shedding the term “Mormon” helps us to assimilate ever more comfortably because the word, with its accompanying history, is one of the most distinctive things about us.
I’m not the first to pick up on Jana’s article, of course. I have some quibbles with Nathaniel Givens’s response at Times and Seasons, but I do think he makes an interesting point that the American mainstream in the 20th century (the subject of Mauss’s writing) is different than the much-more-secular American mainstream in the 21st century. Dave B.’s comments at Wheat & Tares struck me as more interesting, using Mauss’s own comments on blog posts (a great endorsement of the Bloggernacle if I’ve ever seen one) to complicate the idea of a simple dichotomy between assimilation and retrenchment.
Unlike these responses, which focus on Mauss’s underlying argument, I want to pick up on a particular comment that Jana made. (I get that it’s weird—and possibly condescending?—to refer to Mauss by his last name and Jana by her first, but I know the eminently qualified Dr. Jana Riess personally and Mauss only as a distant academic figure, so it feels weirder to do otherwise). It’s self-serving given my own writing, but I think Jana is absolutely on to something by putting such an emphasis on names as it relates to these concerns about assimilation and retrenchment (which aren’t far removed from Cragun and Nielsen’s argument, which explicitly cites Mauss). There’s one area where I think her argument could go farther, though. Commenting on Latter-day Saint leaders’ preference for the abbreviated name “The Church of Jesus Christ,” Jana suggests that:
That preferred new language is confusing — which church of Jesus Christ? It’s not like there’s only one denomination that follows Jesus. The new suggested language just makes us sound like everyone else.
This has been a common pushback against official Latter-day Saint naming preferences since 2018—that they are intertwined with Latter-day Saint truth claims. That is, because “The Church of Jesus Christ” hints at exclusivist Latter-day Saint claims to be the only true (Christian) church on the planet, asking journalists and others to use this name is asking them to implicitly endorse those claims. I think these are good critiques, but it misses a key thing going on here. Not only are there other denominations that see themselves as being (a part of) a lower-case “church of Jesus Christ,” there are other denominations that explicitly use the name “The Church of Jesus Christ,” and it’s bold of Salt Lake to muscle in on their territory.
Salt Lake knows that it’s doing so, though. In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, then-apostle Dallin Oaks explained that:
it was possible to begin using the abbreviated name of Church of Jesus Christ because no other major Christian body in the United States had laid claim to it.
and conceded that
some churches might take exception to the Mormons using the abbreviated name.
These comments underline that the Latter-day Saint leadership did its research before laying claim to the shorter name, but what the NYT article leaves out is something that Oaks surely would have known. The denominations most likely to complain about Salt Lake’s claiming of the name aren’t (as suggested in the article):
the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, the Churches of Christ and the United Church of Christ
Rather, they’re other denominations that descend from Joseph Smith, Jr. and (possibly) direct competitors with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be Smith’s heirs. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ (based in Monongahela, Pennsylvania) is the third-largest Joseph Smith-descended denomination in the world, is eager to distance themselves from their Salt Lake cousins, and has been using Salt Lake’s official abbreviated name as their full name since the 19th century. In a 2020 interview with the fantastic Mormon Land podcast, the editor of the Latter-day Saint focused Public Square Magazine noted that this cousin denomination was the biggest competitor for the name and acknowledged:
“I have to imagine this has been very frustrating for them.”
While the second-largest denomination within the broader Joseph Smith family is no longer concerned with legitimacy as Smith’s heirs, I learned just this week (as I continue reading Mark Scherer’s history of Community of Christ) that in the 1950s, the church then known as The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (dealing with its own, even more unwieldy name):
agreed to capitalize CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST on signs and letterheads. Also, the conference passed an amendment that called for “Church of Jesus Christ” to replace RLDS Church as a shorter name when circumstances required it.
In short, even if Latter-day Saint authorities’ claim to “The Church of Jesus Christ” can be seen as a slight to other Christian denominations, it should be seen even more as a slight to other denominations of the broader religious tradition that it exists in. As I (will) write in my Dialogue article:
By laying claim to legitimate use of the name, Oaks argued that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the sole rightful heir to the religious movement begun by Joseph Smith, Jr.—but in a way that obscured even the existence of any dispute over rightful heirs to names and traditions.
- Mormon Studies
- Jana Riess
- domain names
- Mormon fundamentalism
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Ryan Cragun
- Russell Nelson
- Dallin Oaks
- Community of Christ
- Mark Scherer
- Smith-Rigdon movement
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