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Church says globalizing had role in renaming

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INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — People who know this city, near the Kansas border will probably identify it as Harry S. Truman's hometown, where his presidential library stands. But, of course, there is more, like the blocklong complex of religious buildings.

Until April 6, a sign identified the buildings as world headquarters of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Now it is the Community of Christ — the same organization, rechristened.

"This is really a big deal to do this," W. Grant McMurray, the church's seventh president, said of renaming the denomination, which has 250,000 members in 50 countries. The church's late-20th-century encounter with globalization played a role in the change, McMurray said.

Unlike corporations, denominations seldom take new names, unless a merger or schism is at hand. But what happened here is different, a church deciding that its identity and essential values were better expressed in a name unlike the one chosen 140 years ago by its spiritual ancestors. Those leaders were trying to distinguish themselves from the Mormons, while also laying claim to the brief history they shared with that group.

Both the Community of Christ and the Mormons — officially, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — trace themselves to the church begun on April 6, 1830, by Joseph Smith, a young man in upstate New York who said he translated the Book of Mormon from a text engraved on golden plates revealed by an angel. Smith and his flock went west, eventually to Illinois, where he was killed by a mob in 1844. Most church members went west again, to Utah, under Brigham Young.

But some remained behind, including Smith's widow, Emma, and eldest son, Joseph III. They regrouped and formally began the Reorganized Church on April 6, 1860, with the son as president. He led the church for 54 years, shaping its identity, making clear that the Reorganized Church did not accept such distinctive Mormon practices as baptism for the dead and polygamy (which the Mormons abandoned in 1890).

But issues that appeared crucial then seemed less so a century later, as the church began to grow overseas, McMurray said.

"It's an extraordinary story of, to be frank, a rather parochial, Midwestern denomination finding itself in the midst of a global society," he said, "and finding the questions being asked were not the same ones we had been dealing with."