I first had the title “We love the Mormonettes!”, but that would have covered only a tiny piece of my long text. But if you want to get to the Mormonettes, read on!
Are you Mormon or LDS? In Utah, but also elsewhere in the U.S., the shift towards the use of LDS is inescapable. Language use has its own laws, stronger than official guidelines. Indeed, those guidelines are clear, as stated in the Church Style Guide for the Media, directly related to a statement from the First Presidency:
“Please avoid the use of “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church” or “the Church of the Latter-day Saints.” … When referring to Church members, the term “Latter-day Saints” is preferred, though “Mormons” is acceptable. “Mormon” is correctly used in proper names such as the Book of Mormon, Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Mormon Trail, or when used as an adjective in such expressions as “Mormon pioneers.” The term “Mormonism” is acceptable in describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
According to these guidelines, “LDS” is out of the question. Except for “Mormon” in the expression “Mormon Church”, the M-word is acceptable: members may be called “Mormons”, the adjective “Mormon” may be used, and “Mormonism” is an adequate identification, standing proudly next to Catholicism or Buddhism. Not LDS.
But who cares? The Deseret News calls the Church the LDS Church and anything Mormon is LDS. In The Ensign you will read about LDS temples, LDS Chaplains, LDS friends. We have the LDS Church Archives. And, oh yes, the official Church site is www.lds.org. Though www.mormon.org was added later, but… geared towards non-Mormons.
The reasons of the shift to LDS are varied: it’s a euphemism to let a certain “Mormon” past fall behind us; it’s part of an acronym-culture sounding as dynamic and multinational like IBM or CBS; it’s short and handy (and thus liked by the media). And, except for the very adjective Mormon, “limited to expressions such as Mormon pioneers” (and which others?), there is no alternative adjective that the guidelines suggest. The holding of a Latterdaysaintish General Conference or the building of a Churchofjesuschristic chapel will not work.
Historically, LDS took more than a 100 years to become so pervasive. As far as I could find out, the first official occurrence dates back to 1889 when the Salt Lake Stake Academy became the L.D.S. College. A more general application to Church membership came during the Second World War with L.D.S. Servicemen to identify Mormon soldiers and the publication of L.D.S. Hymns. Nowadays, at least in Utah and partially in the rest of the English-speaking Mormon world, LDS, used both as a substantive for the members and as an adjective for anything contemporary, has almost completely supplanted Mormon.
Outside the Church, the choice between the two words remains value-laden: those not sympathetic to the Church tend to continue to use “Mormon”, while positive or neutral sources refer to the “LDS Church” and things LDS. Note that our enemies are thus more in line with Church guidelines!
Is the shift from Mormon to LDS an important issue? Apparently not to Utah and the Mormon corridor. About everybody knows that LDS means Mormon, so why bother?
But certainly when it comes to the international Church in the non-English sphere, things are different.
The official name of the Church, and thus the acronym LDS, translate differently in every language. Latter-day Saints are Heiligen der Laatste Dagen, Saints des Derniers Jours, Svjatich Pospednich Dnei, Orang-orang Suci Zaman Akhir, Au Paia a Aso e Gata Ai… And LDS is JUNS, OSZA, HLD, SPD, HLT, SDJ, KMNAKN, FMMMHN…
The abandonment of the word “Mormon” in English texts emanating from the Church is also more and more reflected in Church language abroad, for translation follows the trend. Within the Mormon international communities, the words Mormon Church and Mormons are slowly disappearing. No big issue for those members: they know who they are.
But there seem to be other, far reaching consequences.
The first problem is that the non-members in the foreign country do not relate those peculiar names to Mormons and Mormonism. Who would that tiny group of Svjatich Pospednich Dnei well be? Consider also that Latter-day Saints cannot be translated in four short syllables. In translation it is rendered as “the Holy Ones of the Last Days” or “the Sanctified Beings of the Final Period”. Must be another eccentric cult… Church PR tries to change that image, unrelentlessy. No, they tell the press, we as Orang-orang Suci Zaman Akhir are part of a World Church, the Gereja Yesus Kristus dari Orang-orang Suci Zaman Akhir, with twelve million members, etc. But usually without mentioning the name Mormon, in an effort to emphasize the real name.
The second problem is that the words Mormon and Mormonism have not disappeared in those languages. But when they are used in the media or in books, they are almost invariably tied to scandals, child marriages in polygamy clans, Tom Green, the Lafferty’s (Krakauer’s book is being translated in many languages), etc. Those weird Mormons live in Colorado City and in Salt Lake City. Yes, twin cities on the shore of a big salt lake in the middle of a vast desert.
Next, an unexpected backlash of Church PR’s efforts to avoid the name Mormon is that some press articles or internet sites will warn their readers: attention, those SPD, HLT or SDJ are actually Mormons, trying to hide who they really are! Beware of that cult and its deception!
Our avoidance of the M-words leads to the loss of major opportunities to counter those negative images. We give the field away to our enemies and detractors, for they are free to tie only scurrilous stories to these words. Sprawling anti-cult websites do their share in bashing anything Mormon, sometimes even with the word “mormon” in their URL.
And so much could be done to tie good things to the M-word abroad.
Take the amazing BYU groups – International Folk Dance Ensemble, Ballroom Dance Company, Dancer’s Company, Young Ambassadors, etc. – which travel abroad on goodwill tours and participate in major festivals and competitions. Tens of thousands see them yearly, hundreds of thousands hear of read about them in the media. But in those countries nobody outside the Church knows they are Mormon. This past summer the Folk Dancers performed during a full week in the major international folk festival in Schoten, Belgium: immense success! But not one mention was made, anywhere in the program or in the media, that this group had a connection to the Mormon Church. Even the local Mormon ward members did not know the group was performing close by and that they could have taken friends to see them. If they were just called The Mormon Folk Dance Ensemble…
And we would have the Mormon Ballroom Dance Company, and the Young Mormon Ambassadors, etc. The only “Mormon” group we have is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but its effect internationally is very limited (I heard that a few years ago, in the Church’s internal Mormon anti-Mormon movement, a name change to “Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir” had been planned, but finally called off. Now a book, a CD and a DVD promote the name America’s Choir, once given to the choir by Ronald Reagan. With such a name, the choir loses its Mormon connection just as well and, moreover, equates itself with the U.S).
Ah, and if the BYU Cougarettes, one the most spectacular modern dance groups in the world, would just change their name to The Mormonettes. With their quality, they could get during their tours on TV-channels abroad, even if only for five minutes guest group entertainment in national primetime shows. I can picture the effect on the image of the Church as a vibrant organization appealing to the youth. I remember how much the Osmonds, always identified upfront as Mormons, contributed to Church PR in their international star years in the seventies and how they brought tens of thousands into contact with the Church. And thousands were baptized. My wife, for one. And scores of her teenage peers all over Western Europe. Many of them are now local Church leaders and parents of second-generation Mormons. And the Osmonds are succesfully working on a comeback in Europe. Donny is again very visible in Britain, while Merill is planning European concerts in 2005.
Familysearch.org, Family History Centers, Humanitarian Services and more of these Church entities are present in many places in the world. None carries the word Mormon in its name. The vast majority of people are totally unaware of their connection with the Mormon Church. What a missed opportunity.
So, in my opinion, the major consequence of our abandoning “Mormon” on the international scene is a distressing effect on the image of the Church in the world. I have seen it in Western Europe where our image is much worse than twenty years ago. The situation reinforces the Church’s isolation and its identification with weird cults. It also fragments the Church in dozens of different names.
While on the other hand Mormon and Mormonism have a universal ring to them, being uniquely recognizable in all languages and used in dictionaries and encyclopedias as the primary, if not the only, entry for the Church since the middle of the 19th century. Mormons and Mormonism, words officially sustained by the Church, deserve to be promoted. World religions like Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism also have a short and unique root name, universally recognizable in any language.
Of course, the official name should have precedence! But LDS is not the official name. And Mormon is “acceptable”. How much does the Church gain and how much does it lose in the unofficial shift from Mormon to LDS? Is there more to it? Is the shift the outward sign of a deeper identity crisis? Quite a few American members seem upset to be called Mormons, as if ashamed to be still identified with that peculiar people.
I am proud to be a Mormon. For years I’ve fought in the mission trenches to deserve that title and to make it shine. Would we dare to say that Mormons who call themselves LDS are ashamed to be Mormons?
By the way, Mormons is the name Joseph Smith himself coined to replace the original nickname Mormonites.
And Gordon B. Hinckley said in General Conference, on October 7th 1990:
“I suppose that regardless of our efforts, we may never convert the world to general use of the full and correct name of the Church. Because of the shortness of the word Mormon and the ease with which it is spoken and written, they will continue to call us the Mormons, the Mormon church, and so forth.
We may not be able to change the nickname, but we can make it shine with added luster.
All of this places upon us of this Church and this generation an incumbent and demanding responsibility to recognize that as we are spoken of as Mormons, we must so live that our example will enhance the perception that Mormon can mean in a very real way, ‘more good’.”