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Passengers of the Mayflower signing the "Mayflower Compact." Back then they were called “Brownist.” They saw themselves as the Church of Christ. We know them today as the Pilgrims.

On Wednesday, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a significant announcement — the Lord has impressed upon his mind the importance of the full name of the church. In a statement, released on the church’s Newsroom website, President Nelson underscored that the church will have more to say in the coming days.

(The statement reads in part: “The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will. … Additional information about this important matter will be made available in the coming months.”)

The historic announcement evokes a scene from a much earlier time in the grand sweep of Christian history. Four centuries back, in Holland, a small band of English-born Christians listened to the parting words of their longtime pastor John Robinson. They were headed to “new England” and Robinson was staying behind. In his moving farewell address, Robinson expressed concern over the group’s nickname “Brownists.”

Robert Browne had been an English separatist whose attempts to set up a church based on New Testament teachings fizzled in the late 16th century. Although Browne eventually went back to the Church of England, his name stuck to anyone seeking for Christ’s church beyond the Anglican tradition.

Brownist was a label. An epithet. And a punchline.

Grasping (undoubtedly) to think of a group about as loathed as politicians, Shakespeare settled on having his token fool in the play "Twelfth Night," Sir Andrew Aguecheek, deliver the chortle-inducing line: "I had as (willingly) be a Brownist as a politician.” Perhaps the Book of Mormon musical is unfortunate evidence that the religiously devout still sell laughs.

In his remarks, Robinson told his fellow Christians that they “should use all means to avoid and shake off the name of Brownist, being a mere nickname and brand to make Religion odious, and the professors of it (odious) to the Christian world.”

For his congregants, according to follower Edward Winslow, his words were yet more evidence that their “poor despised Church of Christ” was not so different from those other “Churches of Christ.” Robinson admonished his co-religionists to “study union (rather) than division” with the rest of Christendom and reformed churches of their day.

Back then they were called “Brownist.” They saw themselves as the Church of Christ. We know them today as the Pilgrims.

31 comments on this story

"Mormon" is a shorthand that first began as a pejorative term. Years later, hopefully society is generous enough to emphasize a religious tradition’s divinely appointed name. As others have said, it’s time to become post-Mormon — that is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hal Boyd is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University. He works for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is the co-author of "Are Christians Mormon?" His views are his own.