My favorite musical is “Paint Your Wagon.” It’s about a group of miners who strike gold in California and set up a community called “No Name City.” The city has one glaring problem: All of the citizens are men. Early in the movie a man rides into town, and the miners discover that he has two wives with him. “I’m a Mormon,” he explains, eliciting the confused reaction from one deprived miner: “What’s a MORMON?”
Although I have only ever had one wife (she’s great enough to count for two), I have been answering this question all of my life, although less frequently do people ask why we are called “Mormons.” It’s worth paying a couple of minutes worth of attention to this question, since the appellation of “Mormon” has caused no small amount of difficulty for the Church when people have incorrectly assumed that it means that we aren’t Christian.
First, it is important to understand that it is a name we assented to rather than chose. The formal name of the Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But that is quite a mouthful, and if you type it too often you can get carpal tunnel syndrome. Early in the history of the Church, those who were opposed to the Church began referring to its members as “Mormons,” and the term just sort of caught on. At various times the Church has pushed back a bit, trying to emphasize that our church bears the name of Christ. But nicknames have a way of sticking. Ask any 60 year-old guy named “Junior.”
The name comes from The Book of Mormon, which is recognized as scripture by the LDS Church, as is the Bible. We believe that The Book of Mormon is a record of a group of people who lived in the Americas from roughly 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. We believe that it chronicles their dealings with God, including a visit from the resurrected Christ. It is an abridgment of records kept by a long series of prophets, and that abridgment primarily was made by a prophet named Mormon. He did the heavy lifting, so to speak, so he gets his name on the book.
As an aside, Joseph Smith(whom we believe to have translated The Book of Mormon) was once asked what the name “Mormon” meant. He replied “more good.” I’ve never known if he was speaking literally (names reflecting character traits wouldn’t be unusual–I met a person just last week who has the misfortune of bearing the surname of “Goodenough”), or if he was poking a little fun at the person asking the question, something that would not be out of character for him. I like the story better if he was teasing.
Even though we sometimes use the name “Mormon” to refer to ourselves (for example, in mormon.org, or our old commercials that were “from the Mormons”), the prophet Mormon holds no position more significant to our theology than any other prophet. There are five “Books of Moses” in the Old Testament, but nobody worships Moses. Same kind of thing here. The name is really less connected to us than, say, John the Baptist is with the Baptists, or Martin Luther with the Lutherans.
That said, I have never been bothered in the slightest when people refer to me as “Mormon.” As far as monikers go, there are worse ones to carry around.
I think names are important. My wife and I tried to name each of our children after people that were important to us, with the hope that their names would be regular reminders of a type of personality we would like them to emulate. Taking the name of Christ through baptism is a sacred covenant and significant commitment. In a similar fashion, I kind of like the name “Mormon.” And I think I have good reason to do so.
According to The Book of Mormon, the prophet Mormon lived about 400 years after the crucifixion of Christ. He was born in a time and place of extreme wickedness, similar to what Noah experienced. Mormon recounts that his society had become so deeply corrupt and willfully rebellious against God that no one enjoyed the influence of the Holy Ghost. The people were so desperate for a leader that they chose him to lead their armies when he was only 15. He was entrusted with the responsibility to watch over the historical record of his people when he was only 10. And despite the wickedness of those around him, Mormon said that he personally had been “visited of the Lord and tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus.” (Mormon 1:15).
Mormon remained faithful to the end of his life, despite the constant sorrows he experienced as a result of his people’s disobedience. As such, Mormon exemplifies the virtue of remaining firm and steadfast in your faith despite all that is going on around you. He was the one bright light in a dark society.
As I look at the world around me, I don’t believe that it is as bad as what Mormon described of his day; however, there is plenty to be concerned about. We have embraced lower standards of morality, exalted violence, and treat each other with disdain and prejudice. It is a difficult world for anyone trying to choose the right. If being called a Mormon reminds me of who he was and encourages me to follow his example of staying rooted in the faith despite the winds of adversity and worldliness, then I don’t mind it at all. I would be proud if I could live up to that.