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LDS or Mormon? It depends

Church prefers full name but is accepting more Mormon uses

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 5:45 p.m. MDT

Visitors look at an 1830 Book of Mormon with an example of Joseph's Smith's handwriting in it at the Visitors look at an 1830 Book of Mormon with an example of Joseph's Smith's handwriting in it at the "Treasures of the Collection" exhibit at the Church History Library. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Otterson is charged with keeping the name and image of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in good standing.

But the irony isn't lost on the church's Public Affairs managing director, who discusses the church's name while seated in his office surrounded by framed displays of newspaper front pages and magazine covers featuring media coverage on the church.

And most of those headlines have used neither the church's formal name nor the shorter "LDS Church." Rather, they display in big, bold letters the nickname/title "Mormon."

"From the church's point of view, we much prefer to use the proper name of the church," said Otterson, adding, "but you've got to balance that against the reality that you can't fit nine words (the church's full name) into a headline, so the media will always tend to use the shortened version."

From left, RoseMarie Breinholt, Marion Stoff and Ruth Petersen look at a World War II prisoner photo in the an exhibit at the LDS Church History Library on Friday.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News) From left, RoseMarie Breinholt, Marion Stoff and Ruth Petersen look at a World War II prisoner photo in the an exhibit at the LDS Church History Library on Friday. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

But the preference? "The fact that we use the Savior's name is very significant, and we try not to lose that in our conversations and keep it right there."

Still, "Mormon" is a name — for better or for bitter — that has trailed the church since its earliest days, given its belief in and use of The Book of Mormon as holy scripture, which itself carries the name of an ancient prophet who abridged the historical accounts.

Visitors look at an 1830 Book of Mormon with an example of Joseph's Smith's handwriting in it at the Visitors look at an 1830 Book of Mormon with an example of Joseph's Smith's handwriting in it at the "Treasures of the Collection" exhibit at the Church History Library. ________From left, RoseMarie Breinholt, Marion Stoff and Ruth Petersen look at a World War II prisoner photo in the an exhibit at the LDS Church History Library on Friday. (ravell call, deseret news, Ravell Call, Deseret News)

It's also a name the LDS Church has tried to downplay previously, but in recent years has re-embraced with increased use, thanks in part to high-tech advances.

IN THE PAST

In the first years after its formal organization in 1830 by the Prophet Joseph Smith, the church was called by several names — The Church of Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ and even The Church of the Latter-day Saints, the latter to distinguish it from other churches of the time bearing the Lord's name.

Visitors look at an 1830 Book of Mormon with an example of Joseph's Smith's handwriting in it at the Visitors look at an 1830 Book of Mormon with an example of Joseph's Smith's handwriting in it at the "Treasures of the Collection" exhibit at the Church History Library. (ravell call, deseret news, Ravell Call, Deseret News)

By 1838, the full name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came into acceptance. The church points to a revelation to Joseph Smith — now recognized as Section 115 of the Doctrine and Covenants — as providing the Lord's own designation of the name (although the capitalization and punctuation of "Latter-day Saints" sometimes varied over the next decade-plus).

Over the years, the church's First Presidency has underscored the full name. "Keep in mind that this is the Church of Jesus Christ: Please emphasize that fact in making contact with others," it said in a 1982 statement, adding "through a renewed emphasis and use of the revealed name of the Church — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — it will grow and prosper worldwide."

Ten years ago, the church's First Presidency again called for a re-emphasis, stressing the full-name use as an example of the centrality of the Savior in the LDS faith.

The statement coincided with an earlier New York Times interview of Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the anticipated increased attention accompanying Salt Lake City hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics and the hope that the role of the Savior would be more readily recognized by critics saying Mormons don't believe in Christ.

"I don't mind being called a Mormon," said Elder Oaks to the Times' Gustav Neibuhr, "but I don't want it said that I belong to the Mormon Church."

The church issued its preferences in style usage for its name and the Mormon moniker — "Mormon" is an acceptable when used as a reference to a church member, in proper names such as Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Mormon Trail and as an adjective in expressions such as Mormon pioneers.

And "Mormonism" is acceptable in describing the doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to the LDS Church.

"We think that's so well-established that it will never change," said Otterson of "Mormon" uses.

A HIGH-TECH WORLD

But with the proliferation of the Internet over the past decade, the use of "Mormon" has increased — including by the LDS Church itself.

"The game-changer has been the Internet, because people don't search for 'The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' or 'LDS' or 'Latter-day Saints' — they search for 'Mormon,' " said Otterson. "And if you want your material to be seen, then that's what you're going to have to do."

In recent years, the LDS Church has developed and promoted mormon.org on the web, Mormon Channel for the radio and Mormon Messages for social media such as Facebook and YouTube. The proliferation has continued, ranging from Mormon Times to mormon.tv.

And then there is the SEO factor — search-engine optimization — which Deseret Digital Media's LDS products manager Robert Johnson describes as the process of producing and targeting the content and structure of website information with the goal of elevating one's Internet presence on popular search engines such as Google and Bing.

As a provider of information (such as lds.org and mormon.org) as well as news (newsroom.lds.org) on its own web sites, the LDS Church is equally mindful of the importance of search-engine optimization.

The church, the media and others know that most using search engines to find information on the church are likely typing in "Mormon" rather than "LDS" or the church's full name — the latter two most likely used only by the church's own members.

"Search engines have changed the way we discover news. Over a quarter of the people coming to the Deseret News are referred by a search engine, and the terms (key-word searches) they use are determining how news headlines for deseretnews.com are being written," he said.

He cites the top six LDS-related headlines over the past three and a half years on worldwide Google searches:

"Romney vows Mormon Church would not run White House"

"Mormon Church President Dies at 97"

"Gay activists rally outside Mormon temple in NYC"

"Calendar pokes fun at Mormon mom stereotypes"

"Abstinent Mormon farmers grow barley for beer"

"As you can see," Johnson added, "none of these headlines include the term 'LDS.' "

In order to enhance SEO, Deseret News editors and Deseret Digital Media managers will purposefully put "Mormon" — and even "Mormon Church" in bodies of text and headlines.

"Usage of the term 'Mormon' has two benefits," Johnson said. "One, greater traffic coming to the article due to a higher search rate for the term "Mormon"; two, offering greater visibility of accurate information in regards to the LDS Church."

Postings on the church's newsroom.lds.org site follow the same treatment — with the word "Mormon" often, but not always, inserted deliberately into headlines and article texts.

"It's all about the search engine," said Scott Trotter of LDS Public Affairs. "If we want people to see it, it has to be searched under those terms. But it's a constant battle of putting the full name out there and helping them get it in the right context."

MORE 'MORMON?'

Even with the increased use of "Mormon," where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tries to draw the line and correct as much as possible is "Mormon Church" as a substitute title — a la Elder Oaks' aforementioned concern.

"That seems to us to have crossed another line," said Otterson, adding "we've pushed back on the use of Mormon Church."

Still, it shows up regularly for different reasons, whether intentional or out of ignorance. And it shows up occasionally even in LDS Church materials — obviously for SEO purposes.

For example, on the home page of the church's own mormon.org web site — used to introduce those unfamiliar with the LDS Church to its principles, practices and people — "Mormon church" can be found three times and the word "Mormon" at least a dozen times total, while the full, formal name is used only twice.

Rather than eliminate any "Mormon" use altogether, it could become even better aligned with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — seen by some as having brand-like qualities.

"I hate to use the word 'brand' because it sounds so corporate," Otterson said, "but if we have a brand, it ought to be that our people are following Jesus Christ, that we are representing Jesus Christ and his gospel and his teachings in the way we live.

"If that is established as what we want to be known for, then having people associate the word "Mormon" with "Latter-day Saints" and with Jesus Christ makes sense rather than avoid it. You'll never avoid it. So at least let's have people associate the two together."

Email: taylor@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company