Religions often claim to teach eternal truths, but the beliefs of all faiths never stop adapting to their environments. Granted, some religions do change quicker others Some say that such changes are results of divine intervention. Only a hundred and ninety years old, the Mormon church has decided to drastically re-brand itself, and it’s not the first time that they’ve done so. The Mormons no longer want to be called Mormons, and they don’t want people to use LDS (abbreviation for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) as a shorthand way to refer to the church. Well, perhaps not all Mormons want the change (for example, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir); this change comes from the top. Church President Russell Nelson announced the mandatory omission of the Mormon and ‘LDS’ label along with new, preferred abbreviations: “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ.”
The first question that comes to mind here is, why? Along with the Bible, one of the church’s central texts is literally called the Book of Mormon, which refers to the golden tablets that church founder Joseph Smith allegedly found and translated. This massive undertaking is the religious equivalent of Harley Davidson telling the public that their motorcycles should not be referred to as ‘Harleys’ and should instead be called ‘Davidsons.’ Below is the ‘Style Guide’ released by the church’s administration.
At first glance, it might seem like this Mormon re-branding campaign is as arbitrary as the fictional Harley Davidson example, but there are centuries of baggage that the Mormon church wants to bury through this campaign. For starters, Joseph Smith was a predatory womanizer, a charlatan and a con-artist. If Donald Trump had been born the same year that Joseph Smith was and if he had grown up during the same period of religious revival, he would’ve probably pursued the same career as Smith. The Book of Mormon, which is supposed to be a translation from an ancient text, is written in eighteenth century prose. The idea was that it would sound antiquated to uneducated nineteenth century readers. Smith, through shady business practices and political maneuvering, made many enemies and he ultimately died at the hands of them. Brigham Young, polygamist and the namesake of BYU, then became the church’s second president and moved the Mormons out West to Utah. This move from shady, sex-riddled political turmoil to a stable religious movement was the first transformation of the church
The church practiced polygamy all the way until the turn of the twentieth century. This change, brought on by repeated tussles with the Federal Government, marked the second major transformation of the Mormon church. Offshoot cults, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) continue to practice polygamy to this day and have garnered criticism and criminal convictions for statutory rape and other vile crimes. Another major shift in church teachings came in the late 1970s. Until 1978, black church members were not allowed to be ordained, and as a result couldn’t participate in church leadership functions. Like polygamy, this change was also due to outside political pressures. The church president had a convenient ‘revelation’ where God told him that black congregants should immediately be allowed to be ordained. God is good like that. There many other examples of the Mormon church’s attempts to adapt to contemporary society, while simultaneously preserving its radically unique theology, but the previous events are the major ones.
The church wants to kill the Mormon label because its reminds people of its embarrassing history. It conjures memories of polygamy, racism, sexism, political squabbling and the sordid story of the religion’s founder. Unlike Judaism, Islam or other mainstream faiths, the LDS church wasn’t founded thousands of years ago; it was founded less than two hundred years ago. Debating the historicity of Moses or Mohammed or Jesus requires a professional-level knowledge base. It’s much easier for the average Joe to look into Joseph Smith’s past and cry bullshit. The events that surrounded the LDS church’s founding were documented extensively and they occurred too recently to be forgotten. The church desperately wants you to forget them and that’s why it’s re-branding itself. .
It’s not an accident that the church wants people to refer to it as “the Church of Jesus Christ.” To an untrained ear, that abbreviation sounds like your average run-of-the-mill Protestant church. They want people to see the LDS movement as a sister denomination, just like Methodists, Baptists or Pentecostals. Make no mistake, from a theological standpoint, Mormonism is closer to Scientology than the aforementioned Protestant denominations. I don’t have time to give an exhaustive account of Mormonism’s heterodoxical doctrines relative to mainstream Protestantism, but I will say that Mormons reject the Trinity, believe that humans can become Gods and inherit their own planets, believe that God physically impregnated Mary and believe that Jesus ministered to a lost tribe of Jews in North America. All religions are ridiculous from a common sense perspective, but Mormonism takes things to an entirely new level. The church does NOT want the public to view it as a fringe church, but simply as another Protestant option.
It’s easy to pick on the Mormons. They have been huge proponents of disgusting, abusive gay conversion therapy techniques. Due to their sci-fi, celestial theology, they’ve fetishized the nuclear family to a level of creepiness that has surpassed the Evangelicals, which has empowered the LDS church to secretly fund activist political initiatives against the LGBTQ+ community (check out the documentary ‘Proposition 8’). But, the honest truth is that they’re just the newest model of religious irrationality. I actually personally know quite a few Mormons and they’re all wonderful people.
That being said, there’s hope. The takeaway from the Mormon re-branding is that public pressure and public outrage seems to coincide with divine revelations from God. The aim of religion is power. Philanthropy is the gateway to power (Mad Men quote) in the business world while charity and community benefit are the means to the end of power for religious institutions. In less than two hundred years, Mormonism has completely flipped on two fundamental practices: polygamy and black ordainment. These were extremely important to Mormon theology, but the church buckled under pressure. It was more advantageous to jettison foundational doctrines and principles than to not compromise and lose power and status.
This is a cynical view of religious institutions, but not of religious faiths themselves. The Mormon church is another example of how religious entities behave like biological organisms within the framework of evolution. It’s survival of the fittest. Those that do not adapt will perish. We can take comfort that ‘eternal’ or ‘fundamental’ or ‘orthodox’ or ‘unchanging’ doctrines that are harmful can be changed. Remember, change requires courageous people to speak up. It’s infinitely better to offend someone peddling outlandish and toxic views than to do nothing while those views poison the minds of gullible or ignorant people.
And for the Mormon readers, I’ll leave you with this…