The Name of the Church

By Evan A. Fry

Several years ago I was one of a party traveling by automobile, which stopped in a fairly small town with the object of locating the church building belonging to our denomination. We pulled to a stop beside a man we took to be a native of the place, and one of the women of the party, who happened to be nearest him, leaned out of the car and asked, “Can you tell me where to find the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints?” It was too much for the old gentleman. His mouth dropped open; his eyes bulged; he gulped once or twice in embarrassed bewilderment, collected his wits finally, and replied, “Huh?”

The impact of such a long and seemingly complicated name as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has stunned and bewildered more than one good citizen of our country. In fact, there are those of our own people who have made bold to suggest that the name should be shortened, but few or none bold enough to propose a substitute for the name by which we are already known. This is because there is good reason for every word in this lengthy name. A name serves two main purposes: it denotes the ancestry, origin, or family of the person named; and it serves to identify and distinguish him from all others. The name of a church should indicate its origin or source, and should identify it unmistakably from any and all others.

Jesus said, “I will build my church,” indicating that there might be other churches built, but that this one should be peculiarly His. But in this, as in all that He did, Jesus was not acting for Himself, but as the representative of His Father. In His prayer in John 17, Jesus is represented as saying of those who had accepted and followed Him, “All mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them,” recognizing that He was but the representative of His Father, and that the Church He was to build belonged finally to Him. But because Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior, the Mediator between God and man, the one through whose name all things were to be done, and all things were to be asked of the Father, it was reasonable for the Son to call the Church after His name. There was no other name given under heaven wherein men might be saved. Paul commanded the Colossians (3:17), “Do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus.” And so the Church was called after His name.

The Church then, will be the Church of Jesus Christ. If you will analyze that name, you will discover that Jesus was the proper name of our Lord, and that the name Christ was added to distinguish Him as the Messiah, or the Anointed One who had been foretold by the ancient prophets of Israel. Jesus was a more or less common name among the Jews, being the Greek form of Joshua, or Jeshua, which in turn is a contraction of Jehoshua, or “Savior.” Simply calling His Church the “Church of Jesus” would not be specific enough then, since there were many men all down through history with that name. On the other hand, Jesus Himself warned that there should be many Christs—men who would come claiming to be Him, all imposters. To call the Church the “Church of Christ” would also be unspecific and indefinite, for men might reasonably ask, “Which Christ?” But if the Church is called the “Church of Jesus Christ” that is unassailably specific; it is the Church of that Jesus, the Savior, who was and is also the Christ, the Anointed, the Messiah.

It is our belief that the Church Christ built and organized went into apostasy during the Dark Ages; that a reformation of it could not restore its original authority, or doctrine, or form. This Church, we claim, was restored by angelic ministry to Joseph Smith, being organized with six members on April 6, 1830, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Revelation 14:6, in which John saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven having the everlasting gospel to preach to them that dwell on earth. If that gospel had already been on earth, an angel would not need to have brought it. The fact that it is designated as the “everlasting gospel” shows that it was not new; it was the same old gospel which had once been here, and been lost.

During the first four years, approximately, of this new Church, it was called simply, “The Church of Christ,” or sometimes the “Church of Jesus Christ,” or in casual speaking or writing, “The Church of God.” This vagueness was confusing to many, especially since there were several other churches using the same or a similar name. Most prominent among these was the church organized by Alexander Campbell, whose followers in those days were ardent debaters, and quick to challenge our elders at every opportunity. Not only were the uninformed people confused by the similarity of the name, but there arose also the possibility that title to property might someday be called into dispute. It therefore became necessary to add some qualifying phrase to the name, to distinguish between the new Church and the previous one of similar name, and to assure a legal distinction in matters of title to real estate, etc. Accordingly in 1834, the words of Latter Day Saints were officially added to the name of the Church, making it read, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [see RLDSHistory of the Church 1:453–454].

Many uninformed people have condemned and denounced the Church for daring to term its members “Saints.” The idea was very prevalent in the 1830s, and still is in some quarters today, that only a dead man or woman could be a Saint. But the term was used quite differently in the New Testament times, and even in the Old Testament. Cruden‘s Concordance gives over sixty references to “Saints” in the New Testament alone, and thirty-one more in the Old Testament. Practically every reference is to people who were still living—imperfect people perhaps—but people who were trying to the best of their ability to be holy, godly people, sanctified and regenerated through the power of the gospel. Paul’s epistles are especially replete with references to the “Saints” who composed the Church. In the King James Version, the phrase “called to be saints” occurs twice: in Romans 1:7 and 1 Corinthians 1:2, but in both passages the words to be are printed in italics, indicating that they have been added by the editors and translators with the idea of improving the sense. As Paul wrote it, the phrase was, “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called saints,” and “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints.“ Evidently the members of Christ’s New Testament Church were commonly called Saints. They were not called Christians, except in derision or contempt, as a nickname; and the word “Christian” appears only three times in the Bible, compared to ninety-odd times for the word “Saints.”

There is good reason for every word in this lengthy name. The Saints of the New Testament times lived in the “former days.” Members of the Church of Christ as restored in the “latter days” are living in the “latter days” near the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. Therefore the words “latter day” were inserted before “saints,” and the name read the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Thus was the Church known from the official adoption of this title in 1834, until approximately ten years later. But in 1844, the leader and founder of the Church, Joseph Smith, was martyred by the mob at Carthage, Illinois. Confusion and dissension arose over who should be his successor. Several contenders arose, with varying claims to power. The great majority of the Church was scattered, refusing to follow any of the leaders. The largest single group, under the leadership of Brigham Young, migrated across the plains to Utah— where strange new doctrines, including polygamy and blood atonement, began to be taught, which brought the name of Latter Day Saint into shame and reproach all over the world. Out of a total Church membership of two hundred thousand . . . not more than one thousand were in the conference which elected Brigham Young as President of the Church—a conference which was called one day and held the next, giving no opportunity for members scattered as far away as the British Isles, the eastern seaboard, and the middle western states, to attend or send their representatives.

Just prior to 1860, a few men who had refused to follow Brigham Young or any other leaders, met together and laid the foundation for a renewal of Church activity. The Church had existed during the intervening years in congregational form; many of its officers were in place and functioning locally. But naturally it was scattered, not functioning as a unified body. In the year 1860, the son of Joseph Smith (called affectionately “Young Joseph”) was called to take his father’s place as head of the Church. But the problem now arose, how should the Church be named? What should it be called? The church in Utah had retained the name of the original group. Something was necessary to distinguish with certainty between the two groups. Some men advocated a totally new name, because of the opprobrium now attaching to the name Latter Day Saint because of the polygamous practices in Utah. But a new name would indicate that a new church was being organized, and it was the contention of these men that they were merely reorganizing the scattered remnants of the old, original Church. The Church was not new. It had the same membership (except those who had dropped out or lost heart, or followed other leaders). It had the same faith, doctrine, and practice as the original. It had existed in scattered, disorganized form between 1844 and 1860, during what was termed the “dark and cloudy day.”

To have kept the old name would have meant endless legal entanglements over deeds and property rights, as well as confusion in the minds of the people who did not know, or did not care to know, that there were two distinct kinds of Latter Day Saints. The problem was solved by prefixing the word Reorganized to the old name, to distinguish it from the church in Utah. “Young Joseph” took his place as his father’s successor, and served honorably in that office until his death in 1914, when his son, Frederick M. Smith, succeeded him. The Reorganized Church has always been the chief foe of polygamy in the United States, and has always denied that Joseph Smith had any complicity in its origin. Twice the courts have handed down decisions upholding this claim, decreeing that the Reorganized Church is the true and lawful successor of the Church organized in 1830— being identical with it in faith, doctrine, and practice. Since 1860 the Reorganized Church has been working to clear the name of “Latter Day Saint” which was once held in such ill repute, and among people who know us and the meaning and significance of the word Reorganized, we are now held in high esteem.

Yes—the name of the Church is long and inconvenient, but each part of it is essential. It is the Church of Jesus, who is the Christ, composed of Latter Day Saints, who were Reorganized after the scattering of persecution and apostasy. So, we are proud to take a long breath and reply, when asked about our church affiliation, “I am a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (radio address on KMBC, October 10, 1943).

The Name of the Church Was Given by Revelation

The Lord gave the Church its name, and for that reason it should be honored and not changed. Joseph Smith received a revelation at Far West, Missouri, on April 26, 1838, which said:

Verily thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph Smith Jr., and also my servant Sidney Rigdon, and also my servant Hyrum Smith and your counsellors, who are, and who shall be hereafter appointed; and also unto my servant Edward Partridge and his Counsellors, and also unto my faithful servants who are of the High Council of my church in Zion (for thus it shall be called) and unto all the Elders and people of my church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints scattered abroad in all the world; for thus shall my church be called in the last days, viz, The church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (Elder’s Journal 1:52; see also RLDS History of the Church 2:151; italics added)

(Vision 34:7–9).