I have been a Mormon all my life and am an active member of my church. All my life people have asked me why we’re called “Mormons” and what the name means. Here’s the answer.
Mormon was an ancient prophet in the Americas who lived a few hundred years after Christ. Mormon compiled the writings of several other prophets into what we now know as “The Book of Mormon.” Because we believe in the teachings of Christ found in that book, some people have come to call us “Mormons.”
The term “Mormon” is not at all offensive to us (we even call ourselves Mormons), but the actual name of the church is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”
That’s really all there is to it.
Who Was Mormon?
We believe the Bible to be the word of God. We read the Bible, study it, love it, and reverence Jesus Christ whose life we learn about in the Bible. We also believe that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, and that it teaches us about Jesus Christ.
We believe that, in addition to God’s teachings to the people of Jerusalem, God also had his gospel and commandments taught to all the nations of the earth, and that God called prophets in the Americas just as he did in the Biblical world.
Many prophets in the Americas–Nephi, Ammon, Alma, Moroni, and others–wrote down their dealings with God. These prophets lived in the Americas between 2,000BC and 600AD. Mormon was one of the last prophets to record his revelations from God, and also compiled the works of the other ancient prophets into one book, which he named “The Book of Mormon.”
We revere Mormon in the same way that we revere and respect Moses, Peter, Abraham, John, Adam, and Paul. Each of them were prophets of God who testified of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Mormon, and other prophets whose writings are contained in the Book of Mormon, also wrote about Christ.
The pinnacle event in The Book of Mormon was when Jesus Christ, after his death on the cross and ascension to heaven, visited the people in the Americas. If you really want a flavor for what the Book of Mormon is about, read this short portion which is the account of Christ appearing to the people in the Americas.
How Did Mormons Come to Be Called “Mormons” Originally?
After Mormon compiled the records of the ancient prophets, he hid up the writings (approximately 400 AD). In the 1820s, God sent down the angel Mormon’s son, Moroni, to deliver the writings to Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was tasked with revealing this book of scripture to the world.
Although Mormons believe very much in the Bible, the uniqueness of also believing in another book of scripture was not lost on others who came to know the church during this period. Thus, they began to call members of this church “Mormons” and “Mormonites” as early as the 1830s. I believe this term was originally a pejorative, but is not viewed as such now.
In fact, we use the term “Mormon” regularly to refer to ourselves. We have the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Mormon Pioneers, etc.
The earliest usage of the word “Mormon” I could find was in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1833.
“Mormon Church” Is Not Accurate
While members of the church certainly aren’t offended in any way by being called “Mormons” we prefer not to use the term “Mormon Church.” The reason is that we want to make it clear that Mormon does not own our church–Jesus Christ does.
Joseph Smith prayed to ask God what the name of the church should be, and God’s answer to him was that the name should be His (God’s) name. And thus, the name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
We just want to make it absolutely clear that we worship Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father–and never the ancient prophet Mormon. He was just a great leader in God’s kingdom who helped to bring about the Book of Mormon. Even to the name “Book of Mormon” we have been careful to add the subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
In the Book of Mormon, the people anciently asked Jesus Christ what they should name the church. Jesus responded, “And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; 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).
Christ’s answer to those who asked him is exactly why we are careful to call the name of the church by its actual name: The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-Day Saints. We want to be sure that anyone who comes to learn of the church knows that we are Christians and believe in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world.
In the latter-days, the Lord revealed the name of His church to Joseph Smith, saying “Thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (D&C 115:4.)
Meaning of the Word “Mormon”
Joseph Smith added to our knowledge of the word “Mormon” by providing a meaning for the name by which the ancient prophet was known.
“Before I give a definition, however, to the word, let me say that the Bible in its widest sense, means good; for the Savior says according to the gospel of John, ‘I am the good shepherd;’ and it will not be beyond the common use of the terms, to say that good is among the most important use, and though known by various names in different languages, still its meaning is the same, and is ever in opposition to bad. We say from the Saxon good; the Dane, god; the Goth, goda; the German gut; the Dutch, goed; the Latin, bonus; the Greek, kalos; the Hebrew, tob; and the Egyptian, mon. Hence, with the addition of more, or the contraction, mor, we have the word MORMON; which means, literally, more good.” (Joseph Smith, Times and Seasons 4:194; 15 May 1843)
The above quote may or may not have been written by Joseph Smith. Some have attributed it to W.W. Phelps or others. However, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “[Joseph Smith’s] statement intrigued me—Mormon means ‘more good.’ I knew, of course, that ‘more good’ was not a derivative of the word Mormon. I had studied both Latin and Greek, and I knew that English is derived in some measure from those two languages and that the words more good are not a cognate of the word Mormon. But his was a positive attitude based on an interesting perception. And, as we all know, our lives are guided in large measure by our perceptions. Ever since, when I have seen the word Mormon used in the media to describe us—in a newspaper or a magazine or book or whatever—there flashes into my mind his statement, which has become my motto: Mormon means “more good” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Mormon Should Mean ‘More Good’” C.R. October 1990).