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Latter-day Saints, Mormons, or Christians? How We Refer to Members of the LDS Church

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Latter-day Saints, Mormons, or Christians? How We Refer to Members of the LDS Church

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

When discussing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the terminology used often becomes the flash point of debates that can distract us from the most important issues. In this article, I will explain how we use such terms as Latter-day Saint and Mormon, why we use them the way we do, and why we do not consider members of the LDS Church to be “Christians.”

Who Are Mormons or Latter-day Saints?

The terms Mormonism, Mormons, and Latter-day Saints can all refer to the religious tradition, groups, and members that trace their origins to the teachings of Joseph Smith. As of the end of 2022, the LDS Church had about 17 million members worldwide, accounting for about 98 percent of all “Mormon” people. In common usage, the three terms simply mean the religion and members of the LDS Church, the institutional religious body that Brigham Young led after Joseph Smith’s death. The various small offshoots that believe in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon but are institutionally separate from the LDS Church are sometimes called Mormons or Latter-day Saints. The largest of these offshoots is the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). Ironically, Community of Christ members do not consider themselves Mormon or LDS, as their name change indicates. They still officially regard the Book of Mormon as scripture, but generally view both the Bible and the Book of Mormon through a very liberal perspective (e.g., questioning their historical authenticity and moral authority).  There are also about two dozen much smaller sects that broke away at various times from either the LDS Church or the RLDS Church.1 For our purposes, such groups can be included in a broad use of the terms Latter-day Saint, Mormon, and Mormonism.

Mormon—Not Mormon

For most of the twentieth century, the LDS Church discouraged the use of the term Mormons, a nickname for its members first used by outsiders that was based on the title of the Book of Mormon. In the early twenty-first century, the LDS Church accommodated itself to the term, operated a website entitled, and even launched a public relations campaign with the slogan “I’m a Mormon.”2 Then in August 2018, seven months after becoming the new President of the LDS Church, Russell M. Nelson issued a directive prohibiting the use of the terms Mormonism and Mormon. The LDS “Newsroom” set forth a policy statement on the matter:

When a shortened reference is needed, the terms “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ” are encouraged. The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged…. The term “Mormonism” is inaccurate and should not be used. When describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is accurate and preferred.3

Even the common acronym LDS was considered improper. On March 6, 2019, the Church announced that it would redo its main website,, using the domain name The website, aimed at attracting non-members, no longer exists, and that web address now redirects to a page on the official website.4

Why We Don’t Comply

The LDS Church is free to use language in any way its leaders choose. However, Christians who do not view the LDS religion as the one true church are not about to call it “the Church of Jesus Christ.” We are also not going to use the full name, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” every time we wish to refer to the religious organization (just as we use the common expression “the Unification Church” rather than using the full, official name “Family Federation for World Peace and Unification” for the religion founded by Sun Myung Moon).

We use the terms Mormon, Mormonism, and Latter-day Saints (LDS) to designate the religious tradition founded by Joseph Smith, and specifically the LDS Church. These terms have a long history of usage and are familiar to everyone in the religion and to many people outside it. The terms are also short and convenient to use, and they neither assume that Mormonism is true (as “the Church of Jesus Christ” or “the restored Church of Jesus Christ” do, for example) nor denigrate its members.5 I have no problem referring to Mormonism as a form of restorationism; I will not call it “the restoration” or “the restored gospel” or “the restored Church,” because I don’t believe it is any such thing. Even the well-known LDS religion writer Jana Reiss has stated that she will continue to use the term Mormon in her writing.6

There is nothing wrong with a religion having an “official” name and wanting people to use it. There is also nothing wrong with objecting to a nickname, particularly if it is offensive. However, the reality is that many denominations, theological movements, and sects come to be known by names they did not originally choose. This is even the case for Christianity itself, since the term Christians was originally a nickname used by non-adherents when the movement spread to Antioch (Acts 11:26; see also 1 Peter 4:16). Such terms as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Calvinists were originally nicknames used by non-adherents.

Sorry, but if a particular religious group calls itself “The Church of Jesus Christ” or some variation thereof, it’s going to have nicknames stuck to it. The Protestant denominational movement that called itself “the church of Christ” came to be known as Campbellites (after one of its founders, Alexander Campbell) precisely because Christians outside the movement were not about to concede that it was the church of Christ. Other Campbellites called themselves “the Christian church,” which invited the same sort of response. A Norwegian sect founded in the early twentieth century by Johan O. Smith (yes, another J. Smith!) for years insisted it had no name, referring to itself as “the way”; outsiders dubbed the group “Smith’s friends.” It is now called the Brunstad Christian Church.

The Changing Name of the LDS Church 

Ironically, at one time the LDS Church was itself known as “the Church of Christ.” Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion, used four different names for the “church” in the span of just eight years.7

  1. The religion was founded in April 1830 using the name Church of Christ (see Doctrine & Covenants 20:1, 38, 61, 68, 70, 71, 81). The Book of Mormon had used this same name for the true church (Mosiah 18:17; 3 Nephi 26:21; 28:23; 4 Nephi 1:1, 27, 29; Moroni 6:4), though other passages used the term Church of God (some 32 times). One passage in particular, 3 Nephi 27:3-8, states that the name of Christ must be in the church’s name.
  2. In 1834, however, to distinguish themselves from other groups calling themselves the Church of Christ, the LDS Church adopted the name The Church of the Latter Day Saints—thus omitting any reference to the name of Christ.
  3. The defect was fixed in 1836, when the name was changed to The Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints.
  4. Finally, in April 1838, Joseph Smith announced a revelation changing the name to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (D&C 115:3-4). (The form Latter-day, found in the current edition of Doctrine & Covenants, in place of Latter Day came later.)

Given this trial-and-error history of the name of the LDS Church, it is difficult to take seriously the claim that the official name is the result of divine revelation.

Using Terms Respectfully and Clearly

Members of the LDS Church have been called “Mormons” essentially throughout its history (an early variation was “Mormonites”). Yet for almost all of that history the Church has repudiated the nickname. My policy in the matter has developed through reflection on two competing concerns. On the one hand, I want to respect the wishes of a religion’s members regarding how they wish to be labeled, as far as I can reasonably do so. On the other hand, I am not going to use language that compromises what I believe. Furthermore, I want to use terms that are clear and that make for smooth reading.

What I do is to vary the terms I use based on context. I will sometimes use the full name of the religion one time in an article or other resource toward the beginning (as I do in this very article). Thereafter, though, for the sake of verbal economy I usually refer to the religion as the LDS Church. I avoid the expression “the Mormon Church,” since it is not a shortened form for the full name and using it would cause unnecessary offense. (Some members may claim to be offended by the term “LDS Church,” but one can accommodate language demands only so far.) The word Mormonism is really the only serviceable word for referring to the religion as a movement or belief system (an “ism”), so I use it sometimes in that context but almost never otherwise. I frequently use the acronym LDS as an adjective (LDS religion, LDS temples, LDS scriptures, etc.); I generally do not use the term Mormon as an adjective. I will sometimes speak of members as “Latter-day Saints” (or LDS, where that works in the sentence) and sometimes (less often) as “Mormons.”

I don’t expect everyone to use the terminology in the same way I do. I certainly don’t expect members of the LDS Church to do so. What is important is to use the language clearly and try to minimize potential misunderstandings.

Why Not “Christians”?

In the broadest sense of the term, Mormonism could be called a type of Christianity. That is, the LDS Church and its offshoots originated historically from within a broadly Christian context as a religious movement that views Jesus Christ as their central religious figure. On the other hand, in the narrower, historic, and standard sense of the terminology, Mormonism is not a form of Christianity and LDS Church members are not “Christians” because the LDS Church actively opposes some of the important, distinctive Christian beliefs that the three major streams of Christianity—Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism—share. In another article, I explain in detail the original meaning of the terms Christian and Christianity, and I discuss why these terms do not apply to modern sects that deny the basic doctrines held in common by those three major branches of historic Christianity.8 Distinguishing Mormonism from Christianity in this way does not imply any negative judgment against individual members of the religion, but only a recognition that the LDS Church is fundamentally different in both doctrine and practice from historic, traditional forms of Christianity.

It is worth noting that both LDS and non-LDS scholars sometimes describe Mormonism as a new world religion or new religious tradition.9 Whether or not we should term Mormonism a “world religion” is debatable (in part because the definition of world religion is itself debatable),10 but in any case, Mormonism is undeniably in significant ways a new religious tradition that differs markedly from traditional Christianity.

We do not expect Latter-day Saints to agree with our terminology. I hope that the explanation given here will make it clear to all that evangelicals do not use the terms in this way out of any prejudice or animus toward members of the LDS Church. In fact, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and several mainline Protestant denominations all agree that the LDS Church is not a Christian body.11 As already stated, we respect the right of the LDS to call themselves whatever they choose. By the same token, though, those of us who align with the teachings of historic Christianity across the denominational spectrum have the right and the responsibility to use terminology in a way that is faithful to our beliefs and clear about our differences with the LDS Church.


1. A useful resource on this subject is the Wikipedia article “List of denominations in the Latter Day Saint movement,” which is frequently updated. Although Wikipedia is not always a reliable source of analysis or interpretation, this article is about as current and complete a list of these groups as one is likely to find.

2. As of March 6, 2019, found at Eventually the series was taken down. The URL now redirects to a page on the official LDS website.

3. “Style Guide: The Name of the Church,” Newsroom, Aug. 16, 2018. Ironically, the website of this agency at the time was As of March 6, 2019, that URL still worked, but later the URL was changed to

4. Cf. “Changes to Emphasize the Correct Name of the Church of Jesus Christ,” Newsroom, March 6, 2019.

5. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “And Don’t Call Us Mormons: The LDS Church and Language Control,”, Aug. 16, 2018.

6. Jana Reiss, “Why Journalists Will Keep Using the Word ‘Mormon,’” Flunking Sainthood (opinion column), Religion News Service, March 7, 2019. Reiss gives some of the same reasons for this word choice as mentioned here.

7. See Susan Eastman Black, “Name of the Church,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:979. Note the irony of the title of this reference work, edited and almost entirely written by LDS scholars.

8. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Christian, Christians, and Christianity: Defining the Terms” (IRR, 2023).

9. E.g., Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” Review of Religious Research 26.1 (Sept. 1984): 18–27, reprinted with a postscript in Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members, ed. James T. Duke (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1998), 1–8; Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Mormons and Mormonism: An Introduction to an American World Religion, ed. Eric A. Eliason (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001); Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

10. See the helpful discussion in Gerald R. McDermott, “Testing Stark’s Thesis: Is Mormonism the First New World Religion Since Islam?” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch, special issue, BYU Studies 44.4 (2005): 271–92.

11. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “What Some Christian Denominations Say about the LDS Church” (IRR, 2023).