On April 6, 1830, when six men including Joseph Smith Jr. came together in upstate New York to organize a church, they founded a new religious movement. When they chose the name “Church of Christ,” they created a brand identity problem that has been with that movement ever since.
The name “Church of Christ” was chosen because the members wanted to restore Christianity to its original (or primitive) form, as described in the New Testament of the Bible. Since the Bible gave no name to the church other than “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16) or “church of God” (1 Corinthians 1:2), they reasoned that a restored church could have no other name. The original name of the restored church was highlighted in the first issue of its first official publication, The Evening and the Morning Star (Independence, Missouri: June 1832).
The only problem for our “Church of Christ” was that a number of other Christians had already had the same idea. For example, in the previous two decades Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone had each founded churches that attempted to restore primitive Christianity by paying close attention to New Testament practices. They likewise called their churches the “Christian church” or the “Church of Christ.”*
Meanwhile, outsiders quickly seized upon the church’s new book of scripture to create a much more distinct and memorable name: “Mormonite” or “Mormon.” As Oliver Cowdery explained in the May 3, 1834, issue of The Evening and the Morning Star:
As the members of this church profess a belief in the truth of the book of Mormon, the world, either out of contempt or ridicule, or to distinguish us from others, have been very lavish in bestowing the title of “Mormonite.” Others may call themselves by their own, or by other names, and have the privilege of wearing them without our changing them or attempting to do so; but we do not accept the above title, nor shall we wear it as our name, though it may be lavished upon us double to what it has heretofore been. (Emphasis in original.)
To fix the problem, Cowdery explained that the church was adopting a new name: “Church of the Latter Day Saints.” It should be noted that in the editorial announcing the change, the “D” in “Day” was capitalized and no hyphen was placed between the words “Latter” and “Day.” The church’s next official periodical, the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate made use of the same name.
Although it has proved impossible to displace “Mormon,” the “Latter Day Saint” brand has become reasonably well known to outsiders and can be considered a success. That was small consolation to many early members of the restoration who still believed that the church had to be called “Church of Christ” and chafed at the new, non-scriptural name. Their complaints led to a compromise and a new name for the church. Unfortunately, like many compromises, the hybrid solution was worse than its component parts, and the unwieldy moniker “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” was debuted in 1838. It appears here in the church’s Nauvoo newspaper, theTimes and Seasons.
After the succession crisis of 1844, “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” continued to be the name of several Mormon offshoots, including James J. Stang’s church (reorganized 1844) and William Smith’s church (reorganized 1847). Brigham Young’s church in Utah (reorganized 1847) continues to be known under this name, having standardized the spelling as “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Other groups returned to a variant of the original name, including Sidney Rigdon’s Church of Christ (reorganized 1844), Alpheus Cutler’s Church of Jesus Christ (reorganized 1853), William Bickerton’s Church of Jesus Christ (reorganized 1862), and Granville Hedrick’s Church of Christ (reorganized 1863).
The group now known as the Community of Christ continued to employ the 1838 name “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” as it emerged in the 1850s, and this is the official name in early issues of its periodical, The True Latter Day Saints Herald.
However, to differentiate itself from other groups, especially the much larger church in Utah, the phrases “New Organization” and “Reorganization” began to be applied to the church. When the church incorporated in 1872, the corporate name became “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” This name and its abbreviation “RLDS” were convenient and widely used, but well into the 20th century, many RLDS congregations continued to identify themselves using the 1838 name (i.e., without the word “Reorganized.”) The long-standing RLDS name still appears in relief on the seals of numerous church buildings, like the Joseph Smith Historic Site in Nauvoo (shown below).
If “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” is a terribly cumbersome name, “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” is surely worse. The problem was very apparent by the 1950s and 60s, and in 1968, the church’s World Conference voted to create a committee to consider alternatives. The committee recommended that the official name remain, but suggested that the church emphasize the word “Saints” and created “Saints’ Church” as an official nickname. Logos between 1972-1976 emphasized the Saints brand, but the change wasn’t popular with everyone and the 1976 World Conference ended the practice.
As the turn of the millennium approached, a new committee was formed to take up the naming question. Beyond being cumbersome, a problem with the “RLDS” name was its essentially negative identity, stating what the church was not (i.e., LDS), but failing to articulate what the church actually was. The new name approved by the World Conference in the year 2000 finally resolved these issues. “Community of Christ” honors the church’s early heritage, paying homage to the original Church of Christ name. But it also creates a positive identity by emphasizing the church’s core values: building community based on the principles taught by Jesus.
Eighteen decades have passed since the early church was organized and the Latter Day Saint movement began. The branding problem lingers — the church is still “formerly the RLDS Church, the second largest denomination in Mormonism” — but members can now unfurl a new banner that captures the spirit of their faith journey, as the church progresses ever forward.
* The descendants of the Stone-Campbell movement include today’s Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.
This essay was previously published at John Hamer’s SaintsHerald blog.