I was somewhat taken aback. But as I saw heads throughout the audience nodding in agreement, I realized that it was almost as if I had called the Saints "Mormonites," the term of ridicule people in the early days used to insult Joseph Smith's followers. What many of my listeners at BYU did not know is that the Mormon prophet himself shortened this derisive nickname into "Mormon," thereby transforming it into a brand name his followers would embrace with pride for over 150 years.
Recently, however, leaders of the LDS Church announced that this venerable institution is no longer willing to be identified as the Mormon Church (or even as "the LDS Church"). Additionally, it prefers not to have church members identified as Mormons. The name of the tradition is still Mormonism, perhaps because it would be so hard to add "ism" to the church's somewhat unwieldy name. But official efforts to change the way people refer to Latter-day Saints and the way they refer to themselves and each other are obviously having considerable success.
Various explanations have been proposed for this official nomenclature shift. It may well be an effort to emphasize the "Jesus Christ" part of the church's name. But I see it as more than that. To me, it is yet another step away from the beginnings of Mormonism, from the days when most of the Saints lived in Utah and its environs and when both the church and Mormon culture were embedded in the soil of the "Mormon culture region."
The members of the church led by Joseph Smith were convinced that theirs was the true New Testament church. They believed the true church had been lost from the second century until it was restored through the agency of their prophet in 1830. This gave them special access to the bequest made to the early Christians in 1 Peter 2:9, letting them understand themselves as "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people." Unlike most other Christian groups who treated this heritage symbolically, the followers of Joseph Smith put on these titles literally.
As the first Saints in a new dispensation, they were the very embodiment of a chosen generation. Their birthrights as chosen people were secured by revelation, and they had a "royal" priesthood. And, under the leadership of Brigham Young, Smith's successor, they established themselves as a holy nation in territory that had come under American control following the Mexican War. In addition to covering all of what are now Nevada and Utah, it included parts of the land that is now California, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The Saints named their "kingdom in the tops of the mountains" the State of Deseret. With a set of unique practices--particularly plural marriage and abiding by the Word of Wisdom by refraining from coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco--they made their existence as a peculiar people operational.
Their atypical patterns of behavior and singular religious practices worked, as peculiarity is intended to work, to set the Saints apart. Unfortunately, they were too sanguine about what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees as far as religion is concerned. It provides a warrant for religious freedom, but it also ensures freedom from religion, making ours a nation that both values faith and is deeply suspicious of it. As a result, Americans are tolerant of people who are "a little bit peculiar," but they are not tolerant of a genuinely "peculiar people."
The Saints' kingdom-making and odd marital arrangements made for too much peculiarity. Consequently, these U.S. citizens living in the Great Basin became so alien in the land of their tradition's birth that they were forced to relinquish the practice of plural marriage and to dismantle their holy nation. When Deseret became the American State of Utah in 1896, the Saints had to put their high places, their cities, and their deserts under the full political and economic jurisdiction of the United States.
Virtually overnight, this domain that had been seen as foreign and menacing was domesticated. Mainstream Protestants and a few politicians kept up a warning drumbeat that the "all-powerful" Mormon Church still threatened American freedoms and that polygamy (which they said was still rampant) continued to place the American family in peril. But transcontinental rail travel initiated such a tourist boom that, despite these dire warnings, what had once been decried as a dangerous domain became a fascinating place that picture postcards and pictorial guidebooks started describing as "Mormon Land."