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Inside the monumental task of focusing on the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Church marks progress at emphasizing its name

SHARE Inside the monumental task of focusing on the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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FILE - Flowers adorn the grounds of The Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2019. Church officials announced renovations and changes to it and the grounds.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When President Russell M. Nelson announced a year ago that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would emphasize its full name and stop using “Mormon” and “LDS,” Benjamin Park and others weren’t sure the church could make it stick.

“I thought it was just going to be a fad and fade away quickly,” said Park, co-editor of the Mormon Studies Review.

What few knew was that President Nelson had done far more than make a public statement. He had directed the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to develop a comprehensive plan, knowing it would take a protracted effort, beginning with a name change for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — one of the church’s best-known institutions — and a massive overhaul of its global digital footprint.

“President Nelson was serious, and the church has proved it.”

“President Nelson was serious, and the church has proved it,” Park said. “He’s been able to implement changes that I think are going to make this much more long lasting than I originally assumed.”

They aren’t done yet, either.

“We’re not prepared to release anything yet,” said President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, “but as this goes forward, it’ll become more and more evident in our literature, in our advertising, in anything (with which) the church is connected, that we are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Meanwhile, the public is working to adjust. Church members are breaking old habits, trying new hashtags on social media and changing the names of businesses and Facebook groups for the faithful. Journalists are grappling with space issues in headlines and considering how to apply the craft’s values of accuracy and clarity. Scholars are wrestling with academic politics. Groups that partner with the church are embracing new names like Latter-day Saint Charities.

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FILE - President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives a Book of Mormon to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden in Wellington, New Zealand on Monday, May 20, 2019.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Renaming its global music brand the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square was the first sign the effort was no fad.

“They’re clearly serious about it,” said Al Tompkins, who teaches journalism and ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. “It’s not a marketing campaign.”

A survey of recent headlines shows news outlets continue to use the terms Mormon and LDS. Tompkins said journalists have a duty to use the proper name to be accurate.

“The closest thing we have to this is what we have when sports teams change the naming rights at a stadium,” he said. “When we talk about going to a Tampa Bay Rays game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, we don’t say we are going to Rays Stadium. You may say, ‘Wait, who are you to tell me what to call it?’ I’m only telling you to call it what it is, what the proper noun of it is. Who am I (as a journalist)? I’m here to identify you. If it’s your name, it’s your name.”

Word counts and headlines create different pressure for journalists, Tompkins said. National news outlets also might have a concern that viewers or readers don’t know the church by its full name, he added, “but I have no quibble with the request to use a proper noun, particularly on first reference. This is an issue of accuracy, an issue of clarity and in some ways an issue of respect. What’s accurate is, when you’re talking about a proper noun, you use the proper noun. Maybe you use it with an aka or another term in parentheses.”

“Our objective is that the world will come to know that we are The Church of Jesus Christ restored to the earth in these latter days.”

President Nelson explained at the faith’s general conference in October that the church’s goal was to comply with an 1838 revelation on the name and to emphasize the name of Jesus Christ.

“Our objective is that the world will come to know that we are The Church of Jesus Christ restored to the Earth in these latter days,” President Ballard said in an interview with Deseret News editorial page editor Boyd Matheson that aired Friday on KSL NewsRadio.

“Hats off to them,” Tompkins said. “They’re getting double-entendre use out of the full name. They want to spread the name of Jesus Christ, and they know every time you say their name now, you’re going to say his.”

The next big signal the church would persist was the costly, exhaustive move of migrating all of its content from the official website lds.org to ChurchofJesusChrist.org. The church has corrected the faith’s name in the email addresses of 33,000 leaders and employees, updated 300 web-based apps and acquired 800 domain names in the United States and around the world for use of the full church name, said Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

To date, 95% of the church’s outward-facing references now have been updated, he said.

Church leaders believed, Elder Gong said, “that if we would do our homework first, and change ourselves, then we could legitimately ask others to follow our example.”

Ben Arkell is one of those who did, but he struggled at first to decide what to do with his website, Mormon Light.

“I tried to wait to see what the church itself would do,” he said. He posted polls on Twitter and Facebook asking for feedback on possible new names. “I searched dozens and dozens of names, and they were all unavailable and would have cost hundreds of dollars or more to acquire.”

Finally, a friend gifted him a new domain, CalledtoShare.com, which garners 2 million views per month. “I still need to drop by his work and bring him doughnuts,” Arkell said.

Finding a name was just the start.

“We rebranded the name. It took everything out of me,” he said. Facebook didn’t accept his name changes initially, and he still has thousands of Pinterest pins left to update to maximize their search engine optimization. He was surprised more people don’t realize the work involved in changing a web domain.

“The church took months and months and months because there’s a lot of things on the back end that people don’t realize,” he said.

Many other church-related sites, pages and groups have not made a change. Some have posted lengthy explanations why. Others will change but need more time.

Arkell said the most startling experience was receiving criticism for waiting to move on from Mormon Light. Some commenters on the site asked why he wouldn’t follow the prophet and whether he was going to repent.

Park said most church members readily forgive each other for slipping into old verbiage, but some on social media have been rude. That shouldn’t happen, said Steve Evans, whose lively Twitter account, @ByCommonConsent, has more than 24,000 followers.

“I have never known the commandment, whether it’s a biblical one or a more recent one, to ever be intended to be used as weapons against each other,” Evans said. “If somebody doesn’t use the full name of the church, I can’t really hold it against them, but I do think that correction once in a while is a good thing. I think there’s some people who go a little too far and try to use that as some sort of litmus test for faithfulness. That’s not what it’s meant to be.”

Evans and Arkell said the hashtags #mormon, #lds and #ldsconf, which a year ago were highly popular and helped social media users find church-related messages, have dwindled in use.

“I find #latterdaysaints is definitely not used as much or as effectively, but I think it’s catching on,” Arkell said.

A report on best-hashtags.com said that #mormon comprises nearly a quarter of church-related hashtags used on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr posts, which is about how often Arkell uses it. The newer #latterdaysaints is used 7% of the time.

The full name “just doesn’t lend itself to a hashtag-type format,” Evans said. “So I think people will either just call it ‘the church,’ or they’ll just kind of fudge it, and they’ll use the prophet’s name or some other reference point, if they really want to avoid #lds or #mormon.”

Evans said he is grateful for the emphasis on the church’s name for two reasons.

“I think that it really has caused me to focus a little bit more on Christ as the center point of my belief,” he said.

The other reason is that he thinks it has created a clearer bifurcation in people’s minds between the institution of the church and a cultural identification with peripheral aspects of living in Utah or being a member of the church.

“I think is an appropriate intellectual distinction between the church as an institution and the gospel versus the culture or the people,” Evans said. “The name correction has raised an interesting questions about identity, and is it an institutional identity that has a broader cultural one, and which one really ought to be our focus? I think it’s been good to see President Nelson’s corrections are bringing these questions to the forefront.”

Park said those questions reach directly into the issues facing academics, especially for those with endowed chairs in the field that has been known as Mormon Studies.

“It puts academics in a particularly difficult position,” he said.

They may want to respectfully reflect the interests and priorities of those they study, but many don’t focus only on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Scholars have traced as many as 400 different break-off churches tracing back to Joseph Smith, and they use the term Mormonism “to capture all these different expressions of what I call the Mormon diaspora,” Park said.

President Nelson and the church’s style guide specifically rejected that term, but Park said suggested replacements like The Church of Jesus Christ or the Restored Gospel carry theological baggage that don’t equate to cultural aspects of the tradition like green jello or church basketball.

The problem is exacerbated when Latter-day Saint academics interact with scholars outside the church.

“Scholars already kind of look with a suspicious eye at those who study Mormonism,” Park said. “And if we were to suddenly on a dime change our nomenclature, change the way we refer to the church, because of how the president of the LDS Church dictates, that’s going to confirm suspicions that I don’t think they want confirmed.”

The issue also complicates fundraising for Mormon Studies programs, which get most of their funds from Latter-day Saints.

“Potential Latter-day Saint donors unaware of academic politics may see the name Mormon Studies and wonder if this institution is trustworthy,” Park said, “because they’re not following the church’s recommendation to use the full name.”

The church’s leaders do not see themselves abandoning the term Mormon, though they have asked that it be restricted to talking about the Book of Mormon and other proper noun uses like the Mormon Trail.

“That’s our word,” President Ballard said. “The Book of Mormon is a very critical part. It’s another testament and witness that Jesus is the Christ. So we will maintain and treasure the word Mormon, but we will be known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not as the Mormon church. And there’s a big difference.”

Evans said church members can rightly look back and feel nostalgia for the term.

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FILE - The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra perform at Temple Square’s Pioneer Day concert at the Conference Center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt lake City on Friday, July 19, 2019.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for example, is an institution that has been around for so long and been so much a central portion of our culture,” he said. “I don’t know if the new name will ever have that same traction or not, but it does feel like in some respects, we have let go some parts of our identity as a people, And maybe that’s for the best, you know, maybe we were building on a sandy foundation with those things, and it’s time to move on.”

Moving on will require additional endurance.

President Ballard said he and President Nelson remembered an earlier effort to emphasize the church’s correct name, but it faded away. This time will be different, he added, though he compared the size of the task to turning around a cruise ship on Salt Lake City’s Main Street without knocking down all the buildings.

“This will require all of the faith and the prayers that we have, and it is a crusade, and it’ll take several more years before it’s where we want it,” President Ballard said. “But we’re not going to give up like they did after 2002 when we had the Olympics (in Salt Lake City), when it had that spurt and then died.”

“Are we there yet?” he added. “No. Is there a lot more work to do? Yes. And we’re taking those steps. And I think as time rolls out, and people see the other steps that we’re working on, they’re going to going to be very, very pleased. Certainly the membership the church will be.

“I think the whole world will start to see us as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And if we can get that done, regardless of how much longer it takes us to get that all the way around the world, it’ll be one of the most tremendous and important things that we will have accomplished in our ministries.”