Rational Supernaturalism, Part II: What’s in a Name?

By October 17, 2008

See part I here.

On the last page of the May 1834 issue of Evening and the Morning Star, the Church included the minutes of a meeting held on May 3, 1834. In a straightforward way, and lacking any fanfare, it included the following:

After prayer the Conference proceeded to discuss the subject of names and appellations, when a motion was made by Sidney Rigdon, and seconded by Newel K. Whitney, that this church be known hereafter by the name of THE CHURCH OF THE LATTER DAY SAINTS. Appropriate remarks were delivered by some of the members, after which the motion was put by the moderator, and passed by unanimous voice.
Resolved that this Conference recommend to the Conferences and Churches abroad, that in making out and transmitting Minutes of their proceedings, such minutes and proceedings be made out under the above title.[1]

Unfortunately, they did not include any of the discussion preceding Rigdon?s motion or any of the remarks given afterward. However, there was an editorial included in that same issue which sheds light on the thinking behind the name change (or at least how they expressed it). Entitled ?The Saints,? this article by Oliver Cowdery presented a logical explanation on why a name of the Church is important, and in doing so provided a great example of how Mormons used rational thought to prove their supernatural claims.

To begin the article, Cowdery expresses his disgust at the Church being labeled as ?Mormon?: ?Others may call themselves by their own, or by other names, and have the privilege of wearing them without our changing them or attempting to do so, but we do not accept the [title of Mormon], nor shall we wear it as our name???a rhetorical practice we have seen repeated a couple times in recent years. This argument is crucial to Cowdery?s argument, however, because he will then go on to explain why the name a church chooses for itself is so important.[2]

Cowdery then goes on to explore the significance of many religions calling themselves the Church of Christ, or claiming that their church has God?s divine truth. ?This thing is certain,? he reasons, ?if one is right, all the others are wrong.? Indeed, if there are ?those professing a belief in the bible, or and not only professing a belief but to be followers of the doctrine contained in the same,? then it is reasonable that those churches? beliefs should be compared to those of the bible. This is because God?s truth, church, ordinances, and even worship must be the same throughout all time, or else God would be a changing God:

If it is urged that the ancient Saints were a different people in worship, had different ordinances, were partakers of other joys and privileges, and all this was necessary for their salvation, might we not with propriety ask, why was this necessary for them, and is now unnecessary for those whose profession says they are heirs of the same kingdom, children of the same Parent, and are expecting to be equal sharers with them in those joys which never fade, in that house not made with hands??[3]

Cowdery then engages the dynamics involved when Christ set up his church in the meridian of times. Those who followed Christ were required to be repent, be baptized, follow correct teachings, and do all else the Savior asked. ?In short,? Cowdery reasoned, ?they were the church of God, they were his SAINTS.? Unfortunately, this group of saints was then ?separated into different parties,? and the doctrines, ordinances, and practices of the Lord were lost. It is no wonder then, according to Cowdery, ?that those who have departed from the course which the ancients were required to persue[sic]?should now substitute other names? in the place of what Christ?s church was originally called. Therefore, this is an acknowledgement that ?none of [the other churches] pretend that God has ever spoken to them,? since they do not accept the designated title for God?s church.[4]

While this might not be the main reason the Church changed its name in 1834, it is at least how they explained it to others.[5] They used the simple idea of what the name of a Church should be, and used it to signify the validity of their religion and the apostate status of others. More important than even being bearing the name of Christ is bearing the name of the original church Christ set up?the Saints. Thus, by using deductive reasoning?the rationalized approach of determining the significance of a name?they tried to prove the truth of their supernatural claims: that they are the same divinely organized religion that Christ set up when on the Earth.

[1] ?Communicated,? The Evening and the Morning Star 20, May 1834: 160. The Church had up until this point been known as the “Church of Christ.”

[2] Oliver Cowdery, ?The Saints,? The Evening and the Morning Star 20, May 1834: 159, emphasis in original.

[3] Ibid, 158-159, emphasis in original.

[4] Ibid, 159, emphasis in original.

[5] Some historians, most notably Marquardt and Walters, have argued that the name change was related to escaping their debts, though I am not sold on their argument. There always could be, however, some other major reason influencing the name shift that I am just not aware of (and knowing my luck someone will correct me and give an obvious explanation).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Theology


  1. Saints ancient and latter-day saints, seems like a very rational connection with the scriptural accounts of the New Testament and the content of the restoration being a renewed practice of the ancient way of life. Saints in Zion not Mormons in Zion.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — October 17, 2008 @ 11:05 am

  2. Neat find! Next time somebody asks if I’m a “Mormon” I’ll be sure to stress that no I’m a “Saint.”

    Comment by Catherine — October 17, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  3. I saved this for reading when I had lots of time, the way I do with many posts with titles suggesting they may take some close attention to struggle through. What a surprise to find such an enjoyable and comprehensible post hiding behind the academic title!

    The connection between saints of the latter day and saints of an earlier day is familiar to me, but I had never known when or how the early LDS came up with that phrase as part of the church’s name — when we talk about the name, all discussion has been “and how be it my church save it be called in my name?”

    Thanks for this.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 17, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  4. Tod: You hit the nail on the head.

    Catherine: thanks.

    Ardis: You made me blush 😉

    Comment by Ben — October 18, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

  5. I’ve heard the church being called “The Church of the Latter-day Saints” a number of times and have never liked that designation.

    I’ve also heard it called The Church of the Last Three Days. (I’m not serious. That was a practical joke by some elders I worked with.)

    Comment by Researcher — October 19, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  6. they do at various points refer to Former Day Saints as their ancient counterparts. I suspect they were trying to disambiguate themselves from the Christian movement (Campbellites)–they could not claim that being “the Church of Christ” was the real litmus test of a true church when the restorationists under Campbell were making the identical argument and using a much more convincing Biblical exegesis to support it. My sense is that by opting to refer to themselves as the millennial version of the Former Day Saints they were liberating themselves from the tyranny of Biblical literalism and sufficiency. By focusing on Saints and last days, they could draw attention to the charismata that were central to the authority of earliest Mormonism. Rigdon particularly (having split with Campbell over charismata), despised the claims Campbell made to have authority on the basis of scripture commonsensically understood.

    To try to make that paragraph clearer: one reason they may have changed their name was because Alexander Campbell, notorious for his belief that the true church could be restored by reading the NT in Greek, without any spiritual gifts, claimed the Church of Christ as the only Biblical name for a church. Joseph Smith’s followers countered with a name that drew attention away from the closed canon toward the vital spirit existing within Christians–called Saints by those who actually read the Bible (in the appropriation of Saints there is the possibility of a claim to superiority over Campbell–Christians weren’t called that until later–they were first and foremost Saints).

    The fleeing debt hypothesis is worth considering, although I agree it’s probably not a full explanation: in a similar vein Joseph Smith did claim to be Joseph Smith Sr once after his father died in an attempt to refute a warrant. Stranger things have happened.

    Comment by smb — October 19, 2008 @ 10:36 pm

  7. smb: great point about the Disciples of Christ tension. I think you probably nailed a major part of it.

    Comment by Ben — October 19, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

  8. Joseph Smith did claim to be Joseph Smith Sr once after his father died in an attempt to refute a warrant.

    I hadn’t heard of this before. Hilarious!

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 20, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  9. I’ve seen a reference to the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Evening and Morning Star, July 1832, p. 30.

    [At least in the version available via the BYU library website. Oddly, a reprint edition of The Evening and the Morning Star from the same month (that contains many of the same articles) does not include that reference). Can anyone help me understand the difference between “Evening and Morning Star” and “The Evening and the Morning Star?”]

    Comment by John Turner — October 22, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

  10. Evening and Morning Star is the edited reprint of issues of The Evening and the Morning Star. Peter Crawley’s explanation is here.

    Comment by Justin — October 22, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  11. A longer explanation is found in Crawley’s bibliography(pp. 50-51; also 32-34).

    Comment by Justin — October 22, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  12. Justin, Do you think I presume that the reprint just added the C of the LDS reference and that it wasn’t contemporary?

    Comment by John Turner — October 23, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

  13. I misread your comment and was merely responding to your question. My error.

    Comment by Justin — October 23, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  14. Thanks, Justin. I will investigate Crawley; I’m sure it will help clear up my confusion.

    Comment by John Turner — October 23, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

  15. […] (very) Loosely continuing on the same theme from parts I and II. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Rational Supernaturalism, Part III: The Pratt Brothers and Defining Mormon Doctrine — November 3, 2008 @ 3:08 am


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks for this. I think about this book all the time and I'm always glad to have a refresher on its contents and arguments.”

Tyler on Guest Post - Mormonism: “Thank you, all, for your help and support!”

J. Stapley on A Quick Note: Historicizing: “Here is the YM org chart from 1967, which doesn't include a YM's presidency, so perhaps that dating of the presidencies to the mid 1970s…”

Mees Tielens on The Mechanics of Applying: “Just a gentle tip that if you are one of the interdisciplinary folks presenting at MHA your panel will probably not be well attended, but…”

Ardis on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J. My memory isn't perfect, but so far as it extends I don't recall ever seeing such a comprehensive and easy-to-follow explainer of the…”

J Stuart on 2019 Book of Mormon: “Eccles Conference Center, Rooms 201 and 205. I don't have any further information and their website doesn't seem to be updated.”