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."
In this new situation, the LDS kingdom became a socio-religious culture. As it did so, a new Mormon peculiarity emerged, one that had definite ethnic dimensions. This became obvious when--prefiguring the Disney pattern--visiting throngs traveled to the region. They went to see its breathtaking natural beauty, troop through the residences of Brigham Young's wives, and be awed by the spectacular Mormon temples and the acoustics of the great, hump-backed tabernacle on Salt Lake City's Temple Square. But, as they marveled at the structural expressions of the Mormon faith, tourists observed the people themselves as well. Reports of their visits to the area convinced the outside world that virtually everyone who lived in the Great Basin was Mormon, whether or not they were active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Indeed, even though increasing numbers of LDS church members lived elsewhere, practically all of the Saints thought of the Great Basin as their homeland. Moreover, while tithing, keeping the Word of Wisdom, and having large families all became badges of being a peculiar people, the process that turned the Saint's holy nation into a Mormon homeland made the Saints' connection to the land the critical element of the new LDS peculiarity. One result of this was that as outsiders started regarding the Saints as an ethnic group, their Christian-ness nearly disappeared under the cloak of being Mormon.
This did not matter too much to the Saints themselves. They knew that they were members of the Church of Jesus Christ. But the world lost the connection between being Mormon and being Christian, and that loss of connection persevered because the church and its members were surrounded by what was essentially a mountain curtain.
By the middle of the 20th century, membership in the LDS Church began to increase dramatically. Because a great majority of Mormon converts remained in their own home regions, rather than being overwhelmingly concentrated in the Great Basin, Latter-day Saints were quite suddenly everywhere. And not just in the United States. Mormon stakes and wards were organized in areas all across the globe.
Some may argue that I am going too far when I make the following suggestion: The situation faced by the LDS Church and its members at the opening of the 21st century differs as much from the situation they knew before World War II as the situation Mormonism had to face after the church abandoned the practice of plural marriage and dismantled the Mormon political and economic system differed from Mormonism in the days of Brigham Young. But I see the current situation as a new one for the LDS Church. It seems obvious to me that in moving to curtail use of the Mormon label, the church is marking the move away from a past in which being a peculiar people meant being part of an ethnic group whose homeland is located in the inter-mountain West.
Other than their being a temple-going people, exactly what the new essence of Latter-day Saint peculiarity will be is not entirely clear. But the history of the way signs of LDS peculiarity have been modified as situations have changed indicates that this particular Church of Jesus Christ and its members will find ways to keep themselves set apart well into the latter days.