Mormonism and church organization/Changes in the name of the Church

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The Church changed its name twice during its history

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Question: How many times was the name of the Church changed through revelation?

Criticisms regarding the name of the Church

Critics of the Church ask: Why did the Church change its name twice during its history? Shouldn't the name have been given by revelation? [1] In 1834 the name of the Church was changed to “The Church of the Latter Day Saints”. Why would Joseph remove the name of “Jesus Christ” from the name of his Church? In 1838, the name of the Church was changed to "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (there was originally no hyphen in the name). Why was the name of the Church changed again?

The name of the Church was changed through revelation only once

Christ only instructed Joseph through revelation to change the name of the Church once, as described in DC 115:3. Prior to that time, the Church was referred to by several different names, including "The Church of Christ," "Church of Jesus Christ," "Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints," "The Church of God" and "The Church of Latter Day Saints." The only name for the Church established by revelation was the one mentioned in DC 115:3.

...for thus it shall be called, and unto all the elders and people of my Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, scattered abroad in all the world.

None of the other names by which the Church was known were established by revelation.

David Whitmer disagreed with the change in the name of the Church and it was one of the reasons for his disaffection

It is interesting to note that the change in the name of the Church bothered David Whitmer. Whitmer insisted that the original name of the Church, the "Church of Christ," was the only proper one, and claimed that it had been given by revelation. There is no known revelation to support this claim however, unless you count the Book of Mormon itself. Whitmer appears to be using the Book of Mormon to support this claim (the Book of Mormon uses "Church of Christ".)

It should also be noted that, according to Whitmer, Joseph didn't promote the name change from the "Church of Christ" to the "Church of the Latter Day Saints." Whitmer claimed that it was Sidney Rigdon who pushed to change the name to "Church of the Latter Day Saints":

In June, 1829, the Lord gave us the name by which we must call the church, being the same as He gave the Nephites. We obeyed His commandment, and called it THE CHURCH OF CHRIST until 1834, when, through the influence of Sydney Rigdon, the name of the church was changed to "The Church of the Latter Day Saints," dropping out the name of Christ entirely, that name which we were strictly commanded to call the church by, and which Christ by His own lips makes so plain. (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ by a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of The Book of Mormon (David Whitmer: Richmond, Virginia, 1887).)


Question: What names did the Church go by prior to the revelation which established the correct one?

The Church was referred to as "The Church of Christ," "The Church of Jesus Christ," "The Church of God," and "The Church of the Latter-day Saints"

B.H. Roberts, in a note on pages 23 and 24 of the History of the Church, Volume III, stated:

It will be observed that in verses three and four of this revelation the Lord gives to the Church its official name, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Previous to this the Church had been called "The Church of Christ," "The Church of Jesus Christ," "The Church of God," and by a conference of Elders held at Kirtland in May, 1834, (see Church History, vol. 2, pp. 62-3), it was given the name "The Church of the Latter-day Saints." All these names, however, were by this revelation brushed aside, and since then the official name given in this revelation has been recognized as the true title of the Church, though often spoken of as "The Mormon Church," the "Church of Christ," etc. The appropriateness of this title is self evident, and in it there is a beautiful recognition of the relationship both of the Lord Jesus Christ and of the Saints to the organization.

The words "Church of Jesus Christ" are obvious references to the Savior and His Church. The addition of "Latter-day" highlights the Church's belief that it is not a new organization of Christians, but a restoration of Christians in the "Latter-days," or the days prior to Christ's return.

The label "Saints" identifies the members as those who are—or aspire to be—Saints. "Saint" comes from the Latin sanctus, meaning "holy." The Saints are those who have been made holy through the grace and blood of Jesus Christ.

Thus, the name of the Church emphasizes its links to Christ and His Church of former times in multiple ways.

Some critics try to impose inerrantist ideas on the Church—they act as if such things as official names and procedures can never change. But, the Latter-day Saints have never held such ideas—they believe that God gives a fair amount of leeway to His children as they seek to learn and do His will. And, they remain confident that God will speak by revelation when necessary to ensure that His Church will not stray from His intentions.


Question: What is the history of name changes of the Church?

The original name of the Church when it was organized in 1830 was the "Church of Christ"

The original name of the Church when it was organized in 1830 was the "Church of Christ." Mormonism to some extent originated in the historical context of the restorationist movement. This movement consisted of Christians who believed that the original Christianity needed to be restored, and it was a common belief among Christian restorationists that the name of a Christian church should properly be the "Church of Christ." Many new members of the Church brought such ideas with them when they became "Mormons."

This caused practical problems, however, since there were lots of restorationist groups who named their local churches the "Church of Christ," so there was tremendous confusion. (Indeed, one of the groups that descends from Alexander Campbell's Disciples of Christ continues to use the name "Church of Christ" to this day.)

The use of the term "Mormonite" prompted changes in order to distinguish the Church from other Christian churches

This, coupled with the use of the common antagonistic epithet "Mormonite" (soon simplified to "Mormon"), led to a desire for a more distinctive name that would distinguish our church from so many others that were using the same name.

So in April 1834, under the influence of Sidney Rigdon (according to David Whitmer),[2] who had been a reformed Baptist preacher with close ties to Alexander Campbell prior to joining the church, the official name of the church was changed to the "Church of Latter Day Saints."

There was no attempt to distance the Church from the name of Christ

This was no attempt to distance the Church from the name of Christ or its claims to be Christ's church. In 1835, the official Church paper referred to the:

"rise and progress of the church of Christ of Latter Day Saints" [3]

The final name of the Church came through revelation

The basis for the present name of the church came in DC 115:3, received on April 26, 1838: the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints." Note how this name combines elements of the original name and the Rigdon-inspired name.

In 1851 when the church formally incorporated, the name included a corporate initial article "The" and a British hyphenization of "Latter-day," thus becoming the formal name we use to this day, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Other groups that split off from the church, such as the Strangites and the Reorganization {RLDS, now Community of Christ}, kept the original unhyphenated "Latter Day" in their formal names.

The members of the Church have always seen themselves as Christians, and members of "the Church of Jesus Christ"

This chart demonstrates that the members of the Church have always seen themselves as Christians, and members of "the Church of Jesus Christ."

Journal or Series Church of Christ Church of Jesus Christ Church of Jesus Christ of LDS Latter-day Saints alone Mormon Church
Evening and Morning Star (1832-1834) 115 1 xx 0 0
Messenger and Advocate (1834-1837) 33 0 xx 0 1
Elders Journal (1837-1838) 10 2 1 4 0
Times and Seasons (1839-1846) 118 13 24 47 4
Journal of Discourses 26 vols. (1839-1886)

1438 sermons

167 59 308 3255 10
Collected Discourses 5 vols. (1886-1898)

432 sermons

149 15 139 1121 7
General Conference Reports, (1880, 1897-1970) 780 671 3180 6291 333 [4]
Millennial Star (incomplete study) - 84 - - -
The Seer 0 6 6 0 0

xx = no use of name "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" because that name was not yet in use during the journal's publication dates.

Source: Ted Jones, FairMormon researcher, private communication (7 April 2007); updated 1 April 2010.


Notes

  1. Criticisms put forth by Watchman Fellowship, The Watchman Expositor (Page 3)
  2. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ by a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of The Book of Mormon (David Whitmer: Richmond, Virginia, 1887).
  3. W. W. Phelps to Oliver Cowdery, June 1835, "Letter No. 8," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1 no. 9 (June 1835), 129–31. off-site See also W. W. Phelps to Oliver Cowdery, "Letter No. 11," Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2 no. 1 (October 1835), 193–95. off-site
  4. The vast majority of these were in describing what others said about the Church.