What’s in a name? Putting “Jack Mormon” in the Timeline of History

By December 12, 2019

Historians exist in a world of naming (Mormon Historians doubly so!).1 But, what’s in a name? Historian John O’Malley offers two reflections on this question, one a little naïve and another a little wiser. The first:  

“Sometimes very little. A rose still smells as sweet. Even designations for historical phenomena like ‘the Middle Ages’ that were once loaded with prejudices lose them through repeated usage. They become the equivalent of dead metaphors, where the image loses its punch. Is it not further true that all such historical constructs are imperfect, not much more than pointers to what can never be fully grasped by them, impositions on a fluid reality that they can never adequately capture? What difference does it make, then, what we call the Catholic side of the early modern period? Should we not stop worrying about labels, mere terms of convenience, and get on with the real business of history?”2 

And in some sense, this first reflection is true. Names are referents. They’re labels that observers and historians use to refer to something in the past. They are created. To some extent—the stuff of that past is separate from any artificial names that others might impose upon it. Yet, O’Malley comes to a second reflection: 

“I gradually and reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that at least in this instance there was a great deal in a name. Names may be no more than pointers, but this name pointed in certain directions and not in others. This name told us what we were talking about. Conversely, if we did not know what name to use, we to some extent did not know what we were talking about.”3 

Names act as “hermeneutical spectacles” through which we in the present gaze at the past. Names can help us see, or can help hide, different structures, agents, processes, faces, and voices that make up the stuff of our stories we tell about other times. Names, then, determine the ways in which we are able to get at the stuff of the past. 

So, for this blog, I thought we could take “Jack Mormon” and ask: what’s in a name? Maybe, through different snapshots of sources and moments, we in the present might be able to see something about Mormonism, American Religion, community, authority, and identity reflected through our own Mormoneutical spectacles. 

And—I thought a timeline might be a fun way to visualize and crowdsource some sources. I’ve used TimelineJS, which is very user-friendly for a quick visualization. If you’re interested in digital timelines, ClioVis has more analytical tools and is super-promising as it’s being developed! In terms of the sources that could be on this timeline, there are lots. I’ve restricted these sources to ones that explicitly define “Jack Mormon” in their text, or to describe some aspect of Jack Mormonism as a kind of person. Many sources that I haven’t included are political in nature since they call out individuals as Jack Mormon without describing what that calling out refers to. I know that definitional work doesn’t only happen explicitly, this is just meant as a starting point to deal with the question: what’s in a name? 

So here’s a timeline! Feel free to add to it by commenting below with your source and I’ll add it to the spreadsheet

Just a few quick observations. Most nineteenth-century interpretations of “Jack Mormon” in the sources on the timeline indicate a racially, sexually, and politically degraded, to the point of assery, non-Mormon male who is sympathetic to Mormons. An 1875 article notes the impossibility of the survival of Jack Mormons by appealing to race and unfreedom: “To be half a slave and half a freeman, is a hybrid mixture which will never stend the strain.” Another indicates the religious fungibility of “Jack-” as an antecedent: “Its first application to a religious denomination, that we know of… is called by a Tory speaker in Parliament a Jack Presbyterian.” The animalistic rhetoric, though, extended beyond an ass: “A snake in the grass, but very useful in times of need. A man who is neither a man nor a long-tailed rat.” Its use at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth seemed to focus around the survival of polygamy: “The jack-Mormon is the Gentile who has become so affected with the culture of the Mormon priesthood that he no longer discerns any incongruity of harems and the normal American home.”

These depictions are foreign to the way that contemporary folk define Jack Mormon. Modern usage indicates that “A Jack Mormon is a Mormon, usually younger in age that still believes many things that the LDS church teaches; they just have a hard time living in accordance with the LDS church’s standards.” Or maybe Jack Mormon “meant he was a doubter who attended church.” Nevertheless, modern Jack Mormonism indicates religious identity that was internal to Mormonism at some point. The earliest hint of transition that I saw in relation to this transition in meaning was in 1910: “There are many erroneous notions about ‘jack Mormons,’ the most prevalent one being that an ‘apostate Mormon’ is a ‘jack Mormon.’ This is as far from the correct notion of the situation as is the idea that a ‘jack Mormon’ is one who through apathy does not pay his tithes.” This corrective indicates that someone at some point prior to 1910 used Jack Mormon in the way that would become modern usage.

So, what’s in a name? Does Jack Mormon reveal anything about the end of polygamy? About attitudes toward sexuality? The treatment of animals? Or in the twentieth century, does the change of meaning of Jack Mormon follow narratives of Americanization and assimilation? It’d be fun to contextualize each source and discuss how interpreting Jack Mormon in each historical moment might reveal or hide something about our narratives of Mormon, Religious, and American History. Feel free to do so in the comments below!

1 See https://juvenileinstructor.org/what-is-in-a-name/, https://juvenileinstructor.org/whats-in-a-name-or-are-fundamentalist-mormons-christian/, and https://juvenileinstructor.org/rational-supernaturalism-part-ii-whats-in-a-name/ for some examples here at JI.

2 John W. O’Malley, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), 1–2.

3 O’Malley, 4.

Article filed under Cultural History Digital Humanities Intellectual History Miscellaneous Politics Polygamy Popular Culture Race Research Tools

  1. Am I the only one who *never* before recognized that “jack” used this way is connected to mules?? That stuns me. And delights me.

    I also appreciate the use of a new tool to organize and display materials. I’ll explore it, and search my computer, in case I have anything to add.

    Comment by Ardis — December 13, 2019 @ 12:48 pm

  2. I’m 65 and the term ‘Jack Mormon’ was quite common when I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s. I always understood it to mean a member who didn’t live their religion like most other members, usually in regards to the word of wisdom. But I don’t think I’ve heard anyone use that phrase in church or in conversations about church for at least 30 years.

    Comment by KLC — December 13, 2019 @ 1:35 pm

  3. I’m that same boat as Ardis with the Mules. Fascinating!

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 13, 2019 @ 3:01 pm

  4. How did you create that display?! I’d love to do something similar. I’ve looked at timeline software, and it’s all either expensive or useless.

    Comment by Ben S — December 13, 2019 @ 3:22 pm

  5. Ah, never mind. Skimmed too fast past the beginning. How embarrassing.

    Comment by Ben S — December 13, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

  6. Growing up in Pleasant Grove, Utah in the 1950’s we called men who didn’t attend Church and probably smoked, but who were basically believing members Jack Mormons. We didn’t use harsh judgment, just a way to identify them. I didn’t associate the term with animals.

    Comment by Kris — December 21, 2019 @ 8:14 pm

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