If a man were fraudulently attempting to establish in the 19th century a counterfeit of the original Church of Jesus Christ, his claimed revelatory writings would likely contain the descriptive term “Christian” with some degree of regularity. During the 19th century, “Christian” was the common term used to refer to a follower of Jesus Christ, as well as a member of any of the many churches that worshipped him.
In our present-day society, the term “Christian” remains as the universally accepted word that refers to a follower of Christ or any of the religions that are founded upon his teachings. But such common use of the word “Christian” has not always been the case.
The terms “Christian” and "Christians" are used only three times in the entire Bible. The word appears to have been originally intended as a derogatory term devised by enemies of the followers of Christ, or at least by those who ridiculed them. Biblically speaking, the Church of Jesus Christ was in existence in the Old World throughout the mortal life of Christ without the word “Christians” being used either by Christ or by others to refer to church members.
The members were first labeled as “Christians” at Antioch during the post-resurrection period when Paul and Barnabus were preaching companions. (Acts 11:26) It was probably with a high degree of sarcasm that King Agrippa said to Paul that Paul had almost persuaded the king to become a “Christian.” (Acts 26:28)
As recorded throughout the Bible, the manner in which the prophets and apostles consistently referred to church members in their revelations and in written epistles was “saints.” The term “saint” or “saints” is found in the Bible about 100 times, about three dozen in the Old Testament and 62 of which appear in the New Testament. The word “saints” is the regular and common reference used for all of the members of the New Testament church that the Lord established when he was on the earth.
Interestingly, a search for the word “Christian” in the personal revelations claimed to have been received by Joseph Smith results in a total blank. The 250-plus pages that comprise the Doctrine and Covenants do not contain the word “Christian.” Although the word “Christian” is not found in the Doctrine and Covenants, the term “saint” or “saints” appears in the Doctrine and Covenants 96 times.
The term “Christian” is also absent from the Pearl of Great Price. The Pearl of Great Price uses the term “saint” or “saints” four times.
The Book of Mormon uses the term “Christians” four times, just one more than the Bible. In the New World, several decades before the advent of Christ in the flesh, the followers of Christ were called “Christians” by those “who did not belong to the church.” (Alma 46:14) Similar to the subsequent biblical setting, the term “Christian” came into being as a derogatory description used by the enemies of the saints. The Book of Mormon also states that the saints’ defense of their liberty, family and peace “was called by their enemies the cause of Christians.” (Alma 48:10)
This circumstance adds meaning to the statement in the Book of Mormon that true believers accepted the name Christian “gladly,” (Alma 46:15) as do Christians in our day gladly accept the term “Christian.” Likewise, the word “Mormon” originally had a derogatory connotation that has been accepted with the intent to imbue the word “Mormon” with a connotation of praiseworthiness.
In the Book of Mormon, when disciples of Christ refer to themselves and their fellow followers of Christ, the term “saint” or “saints” is consistently used. There are 37 such references in the Book of Mormon. Thus the Bible and the Book of Mormon reinforce one another in the sense that the word “saint” is the only word used by members of Christ's church in referring to their fellow members of the church.
From our standpoint of hindsight, the New Testament church can understandably be referred to as The Church of Jesus Christ of Former-day Saints, and the revealed name of the restored church today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Doctrine and Covenants 115:4), is seen to be perfectly consistent with the Bible.
But Joseph Smith didn't know all of this in advance.
John Enslen is a small-town courtroom lawyer in Alabama, former missionary to Cambodia and Church History Department, history consultant for T.C. Christensen and author of "The Bible and The Book of Mormon — Connecting Links." [email protected]