In a recent post I showed that President Russell M. Nelson’s recent General Conference talk on the correct name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not outside of the mainstream of Latter-day Saint discourse on this point.
This morning while doing research on another topic I came across Elder Orson Hyde‘s 1842 publication Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, eine Stimme aus dem Schoose der Erde (A Cry out of the Wilderness, a Voice out of the Dust of the Earth). Elder Hyde, who was ordained a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835, wrote this pamphlet while on a mission in Germany. In content and language it draws from earlier publications, including Elder Orson Pratt’s 1840 A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and clearly reflects the linguistic ability of a non-native speaker of German.
What caught my attention was the clarification (Erklärung) Elder Hyde gave at the beginning of his pamphlet concerning the name of the Church and its members. What follows is the original (uncorrected) German and my translation.
Da eine buchstäbliche Uebersetzung des Titels unserer Kirche in’s Deutsche eine zu grosse Idee Heiligkeit geben würde, als wir in Anspruch nehmen, so habe ich es geeigneter gefunden, ihn in seinem Ursprunge, in englischer Sprache zu lassen, da ich nicht berechtigt bin, denselben auch nur im Geringsten zu ändern. Unter diesem Titel: „The church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints“ verstehen wir, eine Gesellschaft, verbunden durch religiöse Verhältnisse, welche sich durch Eifer und Frömmigkeit auszeichnet. Und diese zusammen sind denn gennant: „Die Heiligen unsers Herrn Jesu Christi in diesen lezteren Tagen.“
Ich finde, daß in Deutschland und in manchen andern Ländern die Benennung „die Heiligen“ nur sehr wenigen Personen beigelegt wird, und zwar erst nach ihrem Lobe, wo man ihnen, nachdem sie zu diesem Range gelangt sind, Gebete weicht, und sie als Patrone und Vermittler anruft. Da die heilige Schrift über diesen Gebrauch gänzlich schweigt und wir auch in Beziehung dessen seine glaubwürdige Belehrung erhalten haben, so wünschen wir, daß wir nicht auf solche Weise verstanden werden möchten.
Das Volk Gottes wird sowohl in dem alten, als neuen Testamente „die Heiligen“ genannt. Dies ist eine Name den der Herr selbst gegeben, ein Name, bei welchem wir gennant zu sein wünschen, und für dessen Ehre wir allein leben verlangen; denn jene die sogenannt sind, werden Theil haben in der ersten Auferstehung. Jene Heiligen, oder das Volk Gottes, von welchem in der Bibel gesprochen wird, lebte in einem frühern Zeitabschnitte; und wir, die wir in einer spätern Periode leben, sind deshalb gennant: „Die Heiligen der letzten Tage“ oder „Latter Day Saints.“
Since a literal translation of the title of our church into German would give too lofty an idea of holiness than we claim, I have found it more appropriate to leave it in its original language in English, since I am not justified to change it in even the very slightest. Under this title “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” we recognize a society bound by religious circumstances characterized by zeal and piety. And these together are called, “The saints of our Lord Jesus Christ in these last days.”
I find that in Germany and in many other countries the designation “the saints” is attributed to only a very few persons, and, indeed, primarily for their praise, where, after having reached this rank, they give them prayers, and invoke them as patrons and mediators. Since the scriptures are completely silent about this, and we have received credible admonition in relation thereto, we desire not to be understood in such a manner.
The people of God are called “the saints” in both the Old and New Testaments. This is a name given by the Lord Himself, a name by which we wish to be called, and for whose honor we alone desire to live; for those who are so called will have a part in the first resurrection. Those saints, or the people of God spoken of in the Bible, lived in an earlier period; and we, who live in a later period, are called, therefore, “the saints of the last days” or “Latter Day Saints.”
A few things stand out about this passage.
First, it is interesting to note that Elder Hyde was so concerned with making sure people did not misunderstand the name of the Church and its members that he left the name untranslated, as he feared that translating the name would obscure its meaning.
Second, he did not feel “justified to change [the name of the Church] in even the very slightest” and was obliged by “credible admonition” to clarify any misunderstanding about the name of the Church and its members.
Third, the designation “Saints” was “given by the Lord Himself” and was “a name by which [members of the Church at the time] wish to be called.”
Fourth, the rationale he gave (that the name “Latter Day Saints” was keeping to the revealed, scriptural precedent) would be repeated on multiple occasions in later sermons by Church leaders, including President Nelson.
Not to beat a dead horse, but it should be obvious by now that President Nelson was, with one exception (discontinuing use of “Mormon” as an adjective), not really saying anything radical in his General Conference talk.
Most of those who bemoan President Nelson’s talk are, it seems, more likely engaging in a form of reactionary identity politics than carefully weighing the historical record.
2 thoughts on “What An Original Apostle Said About The Name of the Church”
The full name of the church should be used where such is warranted for clarity and respect. President Nelson’s point reminds us not to over simplify our language. He does a similar thing in his April 2013 conference address, reminding us to not amputate “the atonement” from Jesus Christ.
Yet, it seems to me that “Mormon” is appropriate in certain circumstances. As I sit at my weekly meetings with my Theology on Tap – Logan friends, none of whom share my religious affiliation, I find “Mormon” to be an appropriate and efficient identifier to those with whom I share my Christian faith. They are quite familiar with the distinguishing characteristics of our theology and expecting them (or me) to recite the full, formal name of my church is not reasonable. Similarly, they don’t expect me to say “John, as a member of the Lutheran Christian church affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, how does your faith tradition understand …?” Certain nuances of the ELCA may warrant such, but as friends and associates his specific affiliation is known to all of those sitting at the table.
When interacting with fellow Christians, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Mormon, Latter-day Saint, or LDS seem to be appropriate terms that are respectful icons of our theological distinctiveness. Maybe I am a bad member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but at least I am a good Mormon.
I don’t believe there is any real controversy among active members of the Church about the name of the Church; correct use of the Church’s name is shibboleth for anyone who actually is a member in good standing. Only Gentile news media and the like ever use the term Mormon Church.
The real conundrum is the use of the term ‘Mormonism’; this expression has been used in the actual scriptural canon and in faith-centered scholarship to describe our belief system. It is not accurate to say that what we call Mormonism is the Restored Gospel; the Restored Gospel is God’s revelation to us in the present day. Modern revelation is the core of our way of life, but it doesn’t describe our entire way of life. Things like our hymns and our philosophical works are not the Restored Gospel- but they are certainly part of Mormonism. A terminology that potentially de-legitimises major aspects of our heritage is more than just a inconvenience. If we aren’t -allowed- to have a word that can encompass the whole edifice of world view we could end up losing much of that world view.