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42 Questions


Question 38
LDS Church name change

Much is made of the name of the Church by its missionaries, who claim that there was no church on the face of the earth called "The Church of Jesus Christ" when the "church" was restored in 1830.  What is the explanation for the fact that the Church changed its name twice in the first eight years of its existence?  According to The Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 27:7-8) it was to be called after Christ's name; and for the first four years, it was called "Church of Christ."  In 1834 the name was changed to "Church of the Latter-day Saints."  Finally, in 1838, it became "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."  Wouldn't one think that there is a serious problem of contradiction here, because Jesus made a point to instruct the Nephites on what the Church should be named, and one should reasonably assume that Christ would have informed Joseph in 1830 exactly what he wanted the Church to be called, yet He didn't speak to the point until 1838--after two different names had been used already?

Response by John A. Tvedtnes
Revised 12 August 2008 (for accuracy and completeness)

The “Church of Christ” was incorporated in New York State in 1830, and employed that name for the first several years of its existence. A letter of the First Presidency of the Church, dated 22 January 1834, noted “the organization of the Church of Christ, or the Church of the Latter-day Saints, on the 6th of April, 1830” (History of the Church 2:22). The following month, we read the “Minutes of the Organization of the High Council of the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kirtland, February 17, 1834” (History of the Church 2:28), employing a name nearly identical to the one used today. On 3 May 1834, Kirtland was the scene of “a Conference of the Elders of the Church of Christ” at which “a motion was made by Sidney Rigdon, and seconded by Newel K. Whitney, that this Church be known hereafter by the name of ‘The Church of the Latter-day Saints.’ Remarks were made by the members, after which the motion passed by unanimous vote” (History of the Church 2:62-63). This name change did not come as a result of revelation, but by vote. Significantly, when the Lord finally did speak in 1838, it was the name he gave the church that became official and has remained so ever since. “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (D&C 115:4). 

The question itself distorts what the Book of Mormon says, by leaving out the context of 3 Nephi 27:7-8. Reading from the beginning of the chapter, we note that the Nephite disciples had already been traveling about, preaching and baptizing, and that when they “were gathered together and were united in mighty prayer and fasting” (vs. 1), Jesus came to them and they asked him “Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter” (vs. 3). From this, it is clear that Christ did not name the Church he established among the Nephites until after the Church had already begun growing in numbers. This is parallel to what happened in the latter-day Church, when different names were applied until the Lord himself revealed precisely how the Church should be named. In the case of both the Nephite and latter-day Churches, the question of the name was not settled until Christ revealed his will.

Two other points should be made:

1) Even before the Nephite disciples prayed to know how they should call the Church, “they who were baptized in the name of Jesus were called the church of Christ” (3 Nephi 26:21). For some reason, there were disagreements about the precise name that should be used.

2) Latter-day Saints look to the scriptures, not to missionaries, as the final source of truth. Moreover, the name of the Church, while important, is not what makes the Church true or false. When answering the Nephite disciples’ questions about the name of the Church, Christ said, “but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel” (3 Nephi 27:8). Being built on the gospel of Christ and having authority from him is far more important than the name of the Church.