A Response to Peter Thuesen on “Mormon”: A Question of Scholars and Religious Identity
Last week, Peter Thuesen, professor of Religious Studies at IUPUI and co-editor of Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, wrote a blog post marking the third anniversary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ announcement that “the word ‘Mormon,’ whether in reference to the church or its members, was now to be avoided.” In this brief essay, I respond to Thuesen’s thoughts, writing both as a fellow scholar of American religion and as an insider of the tradition he writes about. This is the second time I have written about Peter Thuesen this month. The first was in an email to the religion librarian at Brigham Young University to ask why we didn’t have Thuesen’s thoughtful new book, Tornado God. The BYU community can rest assured this was remedied a couple weeks back. Now for Thuesen’s essay. I invite you to read it in full here, but I will offer a very quick summary. In short, Thuesen sees the Latter-day Saint tradition as a distinct form of Christianity but that the “uniqueness of [its] claim is one reason I believe ‘Mormon’ (a term taken from the name of the Nephite prophet in the Book of Mormon) remains the most historically precise shorthand for this American-born branch of Christianity.”
There is much to appreciate about this essay, including what I consider a kindly tone. Although I hope it goes without saying my response is intended in the spirit of scholarly exchange not with a hostility toward outsider scholarship. Latter-day Saints would rightly read Thuesen’s remarks as the reflections of a sympathetic friend and well-wisher. I admire Thuesen’s scholarship and I am particularly delighted that he has followed in the footsteps of one of the foremost scholars of the tradition, Jan Shipps, “that beloved Gentile” as she has been deemed by a Latter-day Saint leader. Not only does Thuesen teach in the same program as the Founding Mother of the field but based on the wonderful job he did while commenting on Latter-day Saints for a USA Today article in 2015, he shares her talent for speaking with the media. That said, this blog post highlights what I see as problematic reactions to this moment in Latter-day Saint history. For me, the post (like so many other responses I’ve seen and heard from scholars in the field) reduces identity when it comes to Latter-day Saints to a branding campaign. The post seems written as if the sole concern of “Mormons” is that they receive acceptance from mainstream society – that what the institution and we, as a people, really desire is assimilation into “Christianity.” I am not convinced of that and, as I will show, it doesn’t reflect the stated perspective of those championing this move.
To avoid misunderstanding, I should state that I am not writing about the opposition to the name correction from Latter-day Saints themselves. I am not weighing in on the subject of “Mormon” as used in discussion of non-religious culture (i.e. “the Mormon Cultural Region.”) And I am also not weighing in on how historical institutions with “Mormon” in their title (e.g. Mormon Historical Association, Mormon Studies Review) should react to this moment. Those are interesting topics, but not my subject in this essay and not one that I have very strong views on. This is also not a response to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who choose to label themselves “Mormon.” I do think it’s safe to assume based on my own interactions (and by my knowledge of Latter-day Saint history) that the vast majority of active Latter-day Saints now prefer this designation rather than “Mormon.” I am taking this for granted with the realization that there will be many exceptions.
So, let’s get to it: It’s obvious why scholars might assume this move is based entirely in public relations. The church employed “Mormon” as a means to reach out to non-Latter-day Saints in the internet era, as it had for decades before. There was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that toured the country as ambassadors for the faith. When the church designed a website for non-Latter-day Saints, they called it “Mormons.org.” The public relations office of the church was even called the Mormon Newsroom. And as Thuesen points to twice, there was a massive advertising campaign called, “I am a Mormon.” So, the decision to stop using this moniker is related to public relations to be sure but, as I’ll try to show in a moment, it’s not simply about public relations. And I suspect that most “members” (as we tend to call ourselves in our own circles) would agree with Thuesen if the consideration were simply about publicity. Or they might not. Many Latter-day Saints have experienced the frustration of trying to explain that although they are called “Mormons,” they are believers in Christ. But humor me for a minute: what if this move is not primarily about outsiders?
Shortly after the announcement discouraging use of “Mormon,” Russell M. Nelson, the man recognized as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave an address shortly after the announcement, in which he made several points that are worthy of our consideration. First, he stated that historically the name “Mormon Church and Mormons were often used as epithets—as cruel terms, abusive terms.” This was not the name Latter-day Saints chose. When Latter-day Saints first took on the name “Mormon,” they did so to own what others had intended as an insult. Latter-day Saints are well aware of this origin story. They also know that it is a term that even today can be used as a means to de-Christianize them. As if it can be used as a rebuttal to the name of the church itself. “Oh, you are Mormons then.” “Mormon” has never been their term – not really. The implicit argument here is that this is about Latter-day Saints finally taking ownership of their own identity.
President Nelson presented what he called “restoring the correct name of the Church” as a response to revelation and scripture. From the Book of Mormon, President Nelson cited a portion of Jesus Christ’s words to the Nephites after his resurrection: “Ye shall call the church in my name... And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church.” (3 Nephi 27:7-8) From the revelations of Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants, he cited divine words: “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (D&C 115:4). President Nelson spoke of his views on the subject and pointed to these verses for the first time that I can find in 1990, but in 2018, he spoke in terms of his own revelation. “I did this because the Lord impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He decreed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” He explicitly denied that this was about “rebranding,” that it was a decision made on “a whim,” or that it would be “inconsequential.” Something significant was happening in Latter-day Saint culture.
Religious studies scholars already know that they don’t need to believe the claims their subjects make to revelation in order to take those claims seriously. Whereas a scholar might interpret the move as a pivot in an ongoing proselytizing campaign, if they wanted to understand the worldview of believers, this seems vastly insufficient and dismissive. Here it is presented as a response to the divine and an insistence that the name itself has deep theological significance. The language of revelation sacralizes decisions. Change made by pointing to revelation and scripture is likely not going to just be forgotten in the coming years.
In his essay, Thuesen describes how he teaches the Latter-day Saint tradition in the classroom. I think he’s on the right track when he leads his students to understand that “‘Christian’ is a term that inevitably begs to be qualified.” He presents what are commonly considered the three branches of Christianity and then adds a fourth branch which he labels: “Mormon Christianity.” Thuesen notes that each of these “follow Jesus as the Messiah and savior of the world, which is why I regard them as different expressions of a common faith in Christ.” This makes sense, but it also reveals what I see as problematic in Thuesen’s approach. It seems to be about establishing identities and “in-out” categories.
Many religious studies scholars try to avoid this sort of structuring. When I have taught courses on “World Religions” or “Introduction to Christianity,” I usually start the relevant section by brainstorming with the class about the definition of Christianity and who fits within that category. I dramatically cross out the word “Christianity” which I’ve written on the blackboard and replace it with Christianities. Ultimately with a little help from me, we come to an operational definition of Christianity as:
1) Jesus must be at the center of their faith
2) They must self-identify as Christian
This second point is crucial. By not including self-identification as a requirement in the definition it leads to the scholar depending on their own judgment for what should and should not belong as Christian. (And, of course, scholars come up with all sorts of criteria. The course I am currently describing I took over after another professor had introduced it with the argument that Christianity was limited to those churches that accepted the first seven historical councils of Christianity. This leads to a whole lot of heretics the scholar assisted the orthodox faith in removing from consideration.) My goal in this conversation is for my students to understand that religious folks (not scholars) concern themselves with who is really Christian. And, of course, by extension I see the need for this same acceptance of identity in the current conversation.
To address Thuesen’s specific points in favor of “Mormon” vs “Latter-day Saint”: I do not know what it means for the term “Mormon” to be the “most historically precise shorthand,” if that is meant to juxtapose it to Latter-day Saint. Does that suggest that because a word was the dominant word in the past, that it is the best term to use? There are many terms—particularly when we consider terms societies have used to describe their minority and marginalized populations—that were used historically but scholars no longer employ.
While I agree with Thuesen (and Jana Riess) that the “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is a theological claim and not suited for the media or the academy, the objection to Church of Jesus Christ because “the Church of Jesus Christ is the whole Christian world” also smacks of a theological claim. It implies a unity cast on Christianity that does not reflect lived experience, particularly the lived experience of marginalized groups and individuals. And more pragmatically, since that’s what I think this is largely about, while Protestants sometimes speak of “the Church” in an expansive sense – they rarely mean it to include as many Christianities as Thuesen does and journalists and scholars rarely (never?) use this term for modern Christianity. (Of course, “early Christian church” shows up, but not as the alleged little c “catholic church” that Thuesen invokes here.)
Finally, it is not obvious that there is a need for an -ism. Not all movement’s religious or otherwise have -isms after all. I noticed Thuesen’s syllabus uses “Latter Day Saint Tradition” – that seems the best move, in my opinion. (It also recognizes the institutional diversity in the tradition and makes clear that we aren’t talking about one denomination.)
My points above would likely be taken for granted in most comparable discussions. People and peoples deserve to have ownership of how they are labeled in society and the term “Latter-day Saint” is just as “historical” and actually more accurate a title as “Mormon.” In comparative discussions, I would think the person who refuses to use the labels a person prefers is a bigot. I don’t think the reluctance in this case is based solely on prejudice (certainly I don’t see Thuesen as prejudiced for his reluctance. Keep in mind, he notes that he has made efforts to use the term less). That said, CNN’s comical headline: “Mormons don’t want you calling them Mormons anymore” might hint that there is prejudice informing some of this. But, as Thuesen notes, this reluctance exists among non-Latter-day Saint and Latter-day Saint scholars. What I think is going on is that the academic community has made major inroads in establishing professorships, plotting courses, funding centers, holding conferences, and authoring books that make use of “Mormon.” We do not want to endanger that progress for the study of Latter-day Saints. I take this perspective seriously and I share the concern. Latter-day Saints deciding that they don’t want to be called “Mormons” is certainly inconvenient for scholars. Some of us, unintentionally assuming the worst in others, imagine our work won’t be taken seriously if we acknowledge Latter-day Saint agency in this regard. Even if this is all accurate, at the end of the day, the concerns of the people we study should outweigh this sort of scholarly politics.
Instead of concerning ourselves with how we think Latter-day Saints should identify, I would suggest that this moment—while disorienting and causing us to re-think lesson plans—can provide an opportunity for approaching all sorts of interesting topics appropriate for the religious studies classroom. If I was currently teaching the Latter-day Saint tradition, I would plan to facilitate a conversation around the following:
1) The history of names associated with the tradition, including the three historic names of the church used before 1844 (i.e. Church of Christ, Church of the Latter Day Saints, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), nicknames (e.g. Mormonites, Mormons, “Strangites,” “Polygs,” “Brighamites,” etc.), and the names of a variety of denominations (e.g. Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Community of Christ, the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days, etc.). (I wrote an essay on the topic here.) My goal in this classroom discussion would be to show that Latter-day Saints have put a lot of thought into what they are called over the past two centuries, and others also have a long history of caring a great deal about what this unusual faith/these unusual faiths call themselves.
2) Who is involved in this conversation of naming and what do they see is at stake? At this point, I would break down the actors to show that categories are contested all along. This would be the point to introduce the motivations for public relations, as well as a reaction to modern revelation and scripture.
3) Finally, I would use this moment to look at processes of change in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this conversation, I would look at the position of the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator (and, of course, quote some Max Weber on charisma). If this isn’t clear: Latter-day Saints believe Russell M. Nelson receives revelation from God and are disposed to trust him with the direction of the Latter-day Saint people - what Latter-day Saints tend to refer to as “sustaining the prophet.”
Now to conclude this response on a personal level. I think it’s a great thing that Latter-day Saints are taking ownership of their own identity. I know there are plenty of individuals that don’t share my enthusiasm, particularly because it is not a grassroots movement, but it strikes me as a deeply positive development. It’s difficult to stop using the M-word. I don’t think it should be used as an orthodoxy test or anything along those lines. But I am excited about a move like this particularly in the present moment. In the twenty-first century, Latter-day Saints have learned to pretend not to be bothered by representations of our tradition. We’re in a post-Book of Mormon Musical world and Latter-day Saints have been conditioned to not comment when the masses ridicule. “Restoring the correct name of the Church” reminds Latter-day Saints that they are a unique people who don’t need to be okay with their place in an American society that serves them up as entertainment and a frequent foil for their own issues. We get to decide how we are identified even if we prefer that people have to say a few words rather than just one.
 As we think about what to make of this moment, we should be aware that modern concern over “Mormon” did not just appear three years ago. The concern is at least a few decades old. This was usually expressed through admonishing both the membership and media to avoid the phrase “Mormon Church."