The Name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
[Stake Conference, October 2018]
When I was a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, it seemed to me that, with respect to religion, there were four kinds of kids at my school. There was a large group who seemed very irreligious. There was an even larger group who were inconspicuously Protestant or Catholic and didn’t speak of it much. There were the self-proclaimed “PTL” kids (PTL stood for Praise the Lord) who were very conspicuous “born-again” evangelical kids. And then there were the so-called “Mormon” kids. There were very few of us, but people knew who we were even though we generally dressed the same as they did and played the same sports and musical instruments and attended the same classes as everyone else.
My non-member friends and acquaintances during Junior High and High School knew me as a “Mormon.” They knew I wouldn’t smoke, drink, or swear. They knew I wouldn’t be at certain types of parties and that I believed in chastity. In fact, if I did anything they thought wasn’t straight down the middle of the road, they would remind me that I was a Mormon and shouldn’t be doing that. For me, peer pressure wasn’t as much about pushing me to do the wrong thing as it was like guardrails keeping me on the straight and narrow.
There was always a little undercurrent of an unspoken rivalry between those of us in the Church and the Praise the Lord born-again kids. We knew we were right and they were wrong, and they knew they were right and we were wrong, and we were generally too immature to handle our differences in a very productive or instructive way. We mostly stayed away from each other.
When I was in 8th grade, a girl from my ward asked me if I would help her with two teachers at our school who were asking her questions about our religion that she wasn’t very comfortable with. Mr. S., a science teacher, and Mr. W., an English teacher were challenging her, and her parents told her she should get a priesthood holder with her, and there weren’t many of those to choose from, so I was it. The four of us started meeting over brown-bag lunches while Mr. S. and Mr. W. tried to explain to my friend and me that Joseph Smith was a fraud and that we needed Jesus because we really weren’t Christians and the path we were on was going to lead us straight to hell. I will spare you details of our many lunches, but suffice it to say that those experiences became foundational in my testimony as I was forced to think about what I believed and why I believed it.
I have pretty much been in Utah for the 34 years since I graduated high school. Most of the kids I went to school with I haven’t seen in many years and am merely facebook friends with now. Mr. S. and Mr. W. I don’t even recall ever seeing again after Junior High. I don’t have too many regrets regarding those men. I learned a lot from our discussions and I did my best to teach them and even to testify to them. I tried my best to convince them that I believed in the same Jesus they did and that, just like them, I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and was every bit as committed to Him as they were. They didn’t buy it, but I feel like I did the best I could, particularly with them being more than twice my age.
I do have a regret, though, regarding my non-member schoolmates—and I have thought about this since President Nelson’s remarks regarding the name of the Church. Those kids knew me very well as a “Mormon.” But I was not having brown-bag religious debates with them and they didn’t know what “Mormon” meant—at least not from me they didn’t. They knew that I was a straight arrow compared to lots of kids and they knew that I was religious, but they didn’t know much about the actual substance of my religion.
What if the term “Mormon” never existed? What if the only way that I ever referred to myself—or that the world ever referred to us—was as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Mr. S. and Mr. W. probably still wouldn’t have been satisfied. But how great would it be if all the kids who knew me well as a teenager knew me as a person who loves the Savior instead of a person in an odd religion they knew little about that was called “Mormon”? Honestly, the PTL kids did a much better job of communicating what they believed than I did. Fortunately, a lot of us are still facebook friends and I can still do something about that.
Shakespeare asked the question, through Juliet, “What’s in a name?” And he answers his question in wonderful Shakespeare style, “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet;” suggesting that the name doesn’t really matter. But it’s interesting to look at those lines a little more carefully.
In the play, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are in love. The dilemma is that the Montagues and the Capulets don’t get along and so theirs is a forbidden love. One morning, Romeo overhears Juliet speaking about him from her upper-floor window. She is openly lamenting his name.
O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Tis but thy name that is my enemy;–
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name! that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title:–Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
As lovely and fun as those words are, Juliet’s argument that a name doesn’t matter isn’t always true. Why not? Because we have covenanted with God to take upon us the name of Jesus Christ. Shakespeare’s words are thoroughly trumped by those of King Benjamin (in Mosiah 5:7-9; my own emphasis added):
7 And now, because of the covenant which ye have made, ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.
8 And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.
9 And it shall come to pass that whosoever doeth this shall be found at the right hand of God, for he shall know the name by which he is called; for he shall be called by the name of Christ.
Sometimes we struggle with words, especially if they seem to involve too many syllables and feel awkward because of their length. Since home and visiting teaching were replaced by ministering, I have heard many members struggle with knowing how to refer to themselves and others. Some people still refer to others as home teachers or visiting teachers because they find it too difficult or strange to call them ministering brothers or ministering sisters. Some people struggle with how to introduce themselves to others. Whereas it felt natural to say, “Hi, I’m your visiting teacher,” it now feels awkward to some to say, “Hi, I’m your ministering sister.” Some drop the “brother” or “sister” and refer to themselves or others simply as “ministers,” but we’ve been asked not to do that. The best way to overcome that challenge may be to practice! Use “ministering brother” or “ministering sister” in a sentence a dozen times and by the time you’re done, you’ll begin to feel comfortable. Avoid saying them and the discomfort will be prolonged!
Regarding the name of the Church, it behooves us to follow the Prophet and to work to overcome our old ways and get it right. President Nelson took exception to the idea that clarifying the proper name of the Church is “inconsequential.” He said this is “not a name change. It is not rebranding. It is not cosmetic. It is not a whim. And it is not inconsequential. Instead, it is a correction.” And, he said, “It is the command of the Lord.” “For thus shall the church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” He went on to say, “the name of the Church is not negotiable.”
In light of President Nelson’s very clear teachings and my own personal experiences, characterizing the name of the Church as “consequential” and “non-negotiable” makes total sense.
My full-time mission experience is like my teenage experience. In Germany, there were two well-established religions: Catholicism and Lutheranism. There were also two other religions that were well-known in some ways: the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. What did people know about Mormons? Very little. They knew we wore suits, rode bikes, and knocked on doors in pairs. They knew we were American. Many of them “knew” we were polygamists and quite a few “knew” that we rode in horse buggies and wouldn’t use electricity. They could not know that the Book of Mormon teaches of Jesus Christ because they hadn’t read it. And one reason they hadn’t read it is because none of them wanted to live in polygamy, ride in horse-drawn buggies, and go without electricity! The incorrect name of the Church was a stumbling block to its own growth. It still is. President Nelson said, “the Lord’s Church is presently disguised as the ‘Mormon Church.’” Surely, he is not exaggerating or making a mountain of a mole hill.
It seemed especially noteworthy in General Conference that President Nelson approaches this topic in a repentance-like fashion. He said, “I realize with profound regret that we have unwittingly acquiesced in the Lord’s restored Church being called by other names, each of which expunges the sacred name of Jesus Christ!” Unquote. Repentance is an important course correction born from a change of heart and a change of mind. That is what’s happening here.
One of the questions facing you and me is whether we will also repent. “When we omit His name from His Church,” President Nelson said, “we are inadvertently removing Him as the central focus of our lives.” We are also failing to communicate to others that He is the central focus of our lives. I think again of those two groups in my high school. The non-religious kids knew there was a “Praise the Lord” group and they all knew who was meant by “the Lord.” And there was the small “Mormon” group—but few, if any, had any clue at all that the central figure in our lives was Jesus Christ. Similar in Germany. At least some had an idea who the Jehovah’s Witness were referring to when they referenced Jehovah. But the term Mormon completely obscures the role of the Savior and literally removes the Savior from critical aspects of our missionary efforts.
So, if it feels awkward to say, “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” instead of, “I’m a Mormon,” then let’s commit to it and get over the awkwardness through lots practice.
When young men and young women in our stake return from serving full-time missions, I try to convince them that they are not done being missionaries. We all became missionaries when we took the name of the Savior upon us at baptism—and we strengthened that commitment through the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood. One extremely simple way we can stand as a witness is to make clear exactly who we are standing as a witness of by referring to Him in the name of our Church—His Church.
Let me add my testimony and then close with President Nelson’s promise.
As I told those two school teachers and have told many others since then, Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. It is by his grace alone that I (or any of us) could be blind and then see. It is by the perfection of his love, kindness, devotion, mercy, and compassion that the wounds of my sins can be healed. It is by His grace that “a wretch like me” can be made clean through His blood that I might be able to return to the presence of Heavenly Father.
In response to the Savior’s question, “Will ye also go away,” Peter asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” The truth is, there are many to whom we can go—many to whom people do go. Idols and false prophets abound in many worldly doctrines and sometimes even in popular personalities. These days, people are easily caught up in the trendy “philosophies of men” that villainize any attempt to even question them. But I join Peter with all of my heart in spite of my many failings in recognizing that there is only one to whom we can go who will, one day, by His grace, make us whole and help us be all that we ever could be.
I testify that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Now I don’t think we need any more reason to get on board with what President Nelson is asking regarding the name of the Church, but he added this to his remarks:
My dear brothers and sisters, I promise you that if we will do our best to restore the correct name of the Lord’s Church, He whose Church this is will pour down His power and blessings upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints, the likes of which we have never seen. We will have the knowledge and power of God to help us take the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and to prepare the world for the Second Coming of the Lord.
So [he continued, perhaps quoting Shakespeare], what’s in a name? When it comes to the name of the Lord’s Church, the answer is “Everything!” Jesus Christ directed us to call the Church by His name because it is His Church, filled with His power.
May we follow the Prophet—who is following the Savior—and helping us do the same if we are willing. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.