Mormon name makes comeback due to internet

After years in the shadows, `Mormon’ name is back
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
Religion News Service Blog

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) After a decadelong moratorium, Mormon is back. The name, that is. It was on display everywhere last weekend (April 3-4) as thousands gathered here for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 180th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City.  Where LDS leaders once were pushing members to call themselves Latter-day Saints, rather than Mormons, now the church-owned Deseret News has created the Mormon Times. “Mormon Messages” is on YouTube. The “Mormon Channel” is on the radio. And the faith’s missionary Web site is So what has changed for the nearly 14 million-member church? The Internet.

Last year, some 27 million people searched for the word “Mormon,” 5 million hunted for “Mormons,” and more than 1 million scouted for “Mormonism,” noted Michael Otterson, managing director of LDS Public Affairs.

Although about 32 million searched for “LDS,” church officials believe most of those were members. Few search for the official name.

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

In fact, last weekend’s two-day conference was followed closely on blogs such as “Feminist Mormon Housewives,” “Mormon Matters” and “Mormon Stories.” (In the so-called bloggernacle, “Mormon” outpaces “LDS” in blog names by 3-to-1.)

Some wonder why the Utah-based church tried to jettison the nickname in the first place, especially after spending years and untold millions creating a “Mormon” brand. The tagline for its award-winning “Homefront” TV spots, for example, was, “Brought to you by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons.”

“Branding is a very difficult, lengthy and taxing process of attempting to influence the consumer mind at a basic level,” said Kenneth Foster, a marketing research expert in Salt Lake City and a Mormon. “The church can’t really back away from the use of the term Mormon, given the ingrained history of the term and resources the church used to establish it. A better strategy may be to embrace and revitalize it.”

Joseph Smith initially called the movement he founded in New York in 1830 the Church of Christ. The term “saints” came later in response to the terms “Mormonite” or “Mormons” used by Smith’s opponents as a derisive allusion to the church’s signature scripture, The Book of Mormon. In 1834, the name changed to The Church of the Latter-day Saints, and by 1838 it had become The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mormon seemed a benign enough nickname until the 1990s, when critics increasingly charged that the church was not Christian.

To help counter that claim, LDS officials unveiled a new church logo in December 1995 with the words “Jesus Christ” enlarged.

As Salt Lake City was gearing up for the 2002 Winter Olympics, church leaders asked members to call themselves Latter-day Saints and to stop using “the Mormon Church,” giving preference either to the church’s lengthy full name or LDS Church in its place, Brigham Young University journalism professor Joel Campbell said in a speech last year at Utah Valley University. The church asked journalists to use “The Church of Jesus Christ” as the preferred shorthand.

That never took hold.

For one thing, it was too closely associated with several Protestant denominations, particularly the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Churches of Christ.

One news director at the time said that many Christians believe the term “The Church of Jesus Christ” is a universal name for Christianity, Campbell noted, and that some might be offended by its use directed toward the LDS Church. Even the Deseret News, he added, didn’t use that shorthand.

LDS officials still urge journalists to use the church’s full name on first reference.

After the April 2008 raid on members of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Texas, the LDS Church issued a strongly worded correction to the scores of journalists who seemed to confuse the two faiths. The LDS Church officially discontinued polygamy in 1890.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gone to significant lengths to protect its rights in the name of the church and related matters,” Elder Lance Wickman, a church attorney and member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, wrote in an appeal to the news media.

Wickman’s letter further requested that journalists “refrain from referring to members of that polygamous sect as `fundamentalist Mormons’ or `fundamentalist’ members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

That angered many FLDS members, who consider themselves to be living “pure Mormonism.”

The LDS acronym doesn’t work in other languages, either. It also undermines efforts by non-American members to make Mormon into a positive word, explained Wilfried Decoo, an LDS professor who divides his time between BYU and the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

“Our avoidance of the M-words leads to the loss of major opportunities to counter those negative images,” Decoo wrote in a 2004 essay posted on the Mormon blog, “We give the field away to our enemies and detractors, for they are free to tie only scurrilous stories to these words.”

Decoo agreed with a statement made in 1990 by late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley: “We may not be able to change the nickname, but we can make it shine with added luster.”

(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune)

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