Erik Wemple | Opinion
August 31, 2018 at 9:00 AM
Awkward verbosity isn’t hard to find these days in the columns of the Deseret News. “What does it mean to be Catholic, Jewish or a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” notes the lead sentence in a story on a recent survey. That same story includes these thoughts: “Nearly half of ‘Sunday stalwarts’ are evangelical Protestants (46 percent), 14 percent are mainline Protestants and 13 percent are Catholic, Pew found. Five percent are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Now have a look at how The Post summarized things: “Evangelical Protestants are the largest single religious tradition in the Sunday Stalwarts group (36 percent), but the report notes that members of that group also include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Hindus.”
Bolding added to highlight an emerging issue in the copy-editing world.
The Deseret News, as it turns out, is complying with a polite request from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to cease and desist from using commonly deployed abbreviations for the church and its followers. Specifically, no more “Mormon.” And no more “LDS,” even. “While the term ‘Mormon Church’ has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use,” reads a church style guide entry released this month. “Thus, please avoid using the abbreviation ‘LDS’ or the nickname ‘Mormon’ as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in ‘Mormon Church,’ ‘LDS Church,’ or ‘Church of the Latter-day Saints.’ ” “The Book of Mormon” and “Mormon Trail,” meanwhile, are good to go.
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. In recent weeks, various Church leaders and departments have initiated the necessary steps to do so. Additional information about this important matter will be made available in the coming months.
The trouble with all the guidance lies in its central omission: There is no plausible shorthand for “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” with its double-barreled prepositional phrase that bamboozled the young Erik Wemple Blog when we first glimpsed it on Route 9 in Upstate New York.
“We can’t say ‘member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ in every reference,” Jennifer Napier-Pearce, the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, said in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. Don’t misinterpret Napier-Pearce: She hastened to point out that she’s not picking a fight with the church. It’s just that, as she said, “The LDS Church really pervades every aspect of life in Utah.” As of a year ago, the state was about 63 percent Mormon. Or, as the Deseret News might put it, The state was 63 percent members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It’s nothing personal, but if we’re going to do a story and cover this institution that deserves to be covered and deserves to be respected, people are not going to recognize a story that doesn’t have the term ‘Mormon,’ ” said Napier-Pearce, noting that there’s a canonical church book that uses that very term. “I don’t know how you ignore generations of usage.” Paul Huntsman, the owner of the Salt Lake Tribune, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “He trusts us as journalists. He knows that we’re trying to make it easy on the reader and be fair,” says Napier-Pearce.
As scholar Jan Shipps pointed out in a lecture on the church, prophet Joseph Smith in 1838 “proclaimed receipt of a revelation specifying that the church’s official name would be ‘the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’ ” Though the terms “Mormon” and “Mormonites” were considered disparaging, Smith accomplished something of a 19th century re-branding: “Glorying in the way the name reflected the Saints’ acceptance of the Book of Mormon as an additional testament of Christ’s life, church members made the ‘Mormon Church’ a popular descriptor of the Saints’ ecclesiastical organization. Turning the ‘Mormonite’ designation on its head, many Saints became quite comfortable calling themselves members of the Mormon Church,” Shipps noted.
That comfort has had a knack for waxing and waning. The church has occasionally entertained second, third and fourth thoughts about the nicknames. Church official Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1990, “I suppose that regardless of our efforts, we may never convert the world to general use of the full and correct name of the church. Because of the shortness of the word Mormon and the ease with which it is spoken and written, they will continue to call us the Mormons, the Mormon Church, and so forth.” There was also an initiative to ditch “Mormon” before the Salt Lake Olympic Games of 2002.
The church’s ambivalent nomenclatural history may explain why media outlets are approaching the new guidance by refraining from immediate style guide changes. The first call on such matters always goes to the Associated Press, custodians of a style guide that drives usage across the industry. “We discussed this at length shortly after the church issued its new guidelines, and will continue to give it careful consideration,” said Kristi McNair, AP’s communications manager. “We will be monitoring how usage evolves in the church itself — including among church members who aren’t officials of the church — and the public at large. Clearly, the term ‘Mormon’ is deeply ingrained both in the church and in the minds of the general public, and the term previously has been embraced by the church.”
Jesse Lewis, multiplatform editing chief at The Post, told this blog, “We have not yet had a discussion on this since it is a new development. In the material I’ve read on this subject, it appears the church is itself in the process of resolving many of the related issues, since some of its high-profile organizations as well as its websites have to adopt the new naming convention.”
Susan Wessling, senior editor for editing standards at the New York Times, said, “We’ve had one brief email exchange about it among us all. Nothing else has been spoken about it that I know of. It’s something I’m sure we’re going to have to take up. … For now, ‘Mormon’ is both useful and recognizable.”
All these style mavens may peruse the Deseret News — a church-owned publication — to come face to face with how their copy would suffer from compliance with the church’s request. Doug Wilks, the newspaper’s editors, argued in a recent dispatch on the matter, “So we will do everything we can to accurately reflect the church, just as we do the Catholic Church or with the teachings of Islam for example. It’s the same journalistic standard for organizations that reflect diversity. News organizations typically accept how they identify themselves.” Even so, Wilks wrote that the Deseret News would have to figure out what to do with the Thursday section titled “Mormon Times.” “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Times” is the obvious choice.