This post originally appeared as part of the Email a Believer blog at RE Online
When I was twenty years old I returned home from two years of missionary service for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was beginning university, a part time job and life seemed full of opportunity. I took the opportunity to make a small change that still isn’t quite complete today. For the preceding twenty years I had been known as Jimmy- it was a name that everyone used- my mum, my teachers and all of my friends. I decided that I would prefer to be known as James which was, after all, my name. Twenty-five years later most people call me James- in fact those who know me as James cannot imagine me as a “Jimmy’. People who previously knew me as Jimmy, still on occasion call me that and that’s absolutely fine- and in fact my mum and sister still use Jimmy. My nephews and nieces know me as ‘Uncle Jimmy’ and I love that name. It’s odd though, when people who I don’t know call me Jimmy is slightly grates, maybe because it implies a familiarity that doesn’t exist.
Why do I talk about this? As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I have been in the habit of identifying myself as a ‘Mormon’ when people ask about my faith. This happens regularly in new situations as I don’t drink tea, coffee or alcohol and this inevitably raises questions. The Church is led by a living prophet- and earlier this year, following the death of Thomas S. Monson as new prophet was called, Russell M. Nelson. There have been a number of changes to the administration of the Church, including a recently announced reduction of our Sunday church services from 3 to 2 hours so that our homes can become a more of a place of learning and worship. President Nelson also announced to the Church and to those who write or talk about us:
“The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will. In recent weeks, various Church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so. Additional information about this important matter will be made available in the coming months” (Russell M. Nelson, in “The Name of the Church” [official statement, Aug. 16, 2018], mormonnewsroom.org).
Like my ‘name change’; the changing of the name of the Church isn’t a change at all- it is a refocus on the name that we believe was given by God to his Church. We had become used to the shorthand and nickname of ‘Mormon’ that sometimes it detracted from the message that was central to the Church- that we believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ and that he is Son of God. President Nelson suggested this:
What’s in a name or, in this case, a nickname? When it comes to nicknames of the Church, such as the “LDS Church,” the “Mormon Church,” or the “Church of the Latter-day Saints,” the most important thing in those names is the absence of the Saviour’s name… When we discard the Saviour’s name, we are subtly disregarding all that Jesus Christ did for us—even His Atonement (The Correct Name of the Church, October 2018).
In the days that followed this announcement I received texts from friends asking if they needed to change the way they spoke about me; one friend is a prison chaplain and he wondered about any impact that it might have on the way they speak to or minister to ‘Mormon’ prisoners.
Just like my name change I recognise that this won’t happen overnight. The name Mormon is in everyday language and is a moniker that has been utilised over the years by the Church itself. The ‘name change’ is, however, an important part of our self-identification. It is a greater reflection of who I am who I am striving to become. While I am never offended and will never be offended by people who call me a “Mormon’- in fact I still find myself doing it; I think it will be nicer to have a name that doesn’t necessarily come with misconceptions. As President Nelson has said:
In the early days of the restored Church, terms such as Mormon Church and Mormons were often used as epithets—as cruel terms, abusive terms—designed to obliterate God’s hand in restoring the Church of Jesus Christ in these latter days. (The Correct Name of the Church, October 2018).
As I was writing this post I received another message with a link to an article purporting to articulate the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As I read the article it became evident to me that the author was set on proving that I was not a Christian- the subtlest way that he did this was to refer throughout to the ‘Mormon Church’. The question of my Christianity will be returned to in a future blog post, but this article seems to highlight the negative way in which the nickname has been used.
To use the full Shakespeare quote from the title of this post:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
I then return back to my name- whichever name I have used has never changed who I am, but I know that to some extent it may have changed the perception of people before they meet me. This name change does not change my faith, nor does it change my relationship with Christ, but it reminds me and others that as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I am far more than the caricature that may come to mind when someone uses the word ‘Mormon’; this despite the Church’s best efforts in recent years to reclaim the name to mean something that is good.