Latter-day STET: A Copy Editor’s Thoughts on the Church’s Name Style Suggestions

Eschewing the term "Mormonism" in favor of clunkier, if correct, uses will prove difficult for journalists and PR efforts.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] range of reactions followed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ statement this week on how it would like media outlets to refer to the church’s name and other matters related to the faith.

Some reacted with snarky jokes, others reacted with indignation and questioned the church’s priorities, still others reacted with counter-indignation toward the snarky jokes and the original indignation. And there was a swath of speculation on why the church would make this statement now.

I’m not here to do any of that. I’m here to write a relatively boring analysis post on the statement and the Mormon Newsroom suggested style guide from the perspective of:

  • A Latter-day Saint
  • A copy editor
  • A Latter-day Saint who worked as a copy editor at the Deseret News, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (I worked there nearly eight years and very much enjoyed it.)

This website is kind enough to let me share these thoughts, so if you’re not up for reading a mundane, nerdy post, go to one of your other tabs, but don’t close this one for at least 3 minutes, so you can help pad the analytics stats. OK, thank you.

For those still here, we’ll take this point-by-point:

The official name of the Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The full name was given by revelation from God to Joseph Smith in 1838.

Let’s establish one thing right away. Mormon Newsroom can have that second sentence in its style guide, and it’s not a problem. Guides like The Associated Press Stylebook, however, would need to add a phrase like “The church teaches that …” or “Members of the church believe that …”

That’s an important thing to remember when reporting or editing religion stories, you have to be careful that you’re not passing off unique beliefs as if they’re objective facts. This will come into play later in the article.

As for the first sentence, one of my pet peeves as a copy editor was when it was difficult to find the official name of an organization, so I give credit to any organization that makes their official name easy to find.

In the first reference, the full name of the Church is preferred: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

This is perfectly reasonable. I support doing this for the official name of any denomination, e.g. Church of God in Christ. You need to establish which religious body(ies) you’re talking about. Or if you’re writing about Lutherans, is it the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod? This matters.

When a shortened reference is needed, the terms “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ” are encouraged. The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged.

This one is interesting. “The church” would be a standard second reference in a story that is mainly about a specific denomination. But here, it’s suggested that “Church” should be capitalized. Why, I’m not sure.

Related: At the Deseret News, we had a religious style rule that differed from AP. For religious leaders, on first reference we would use their title and name (e.g. “Elder Jeffrey R. Holland”) and on subsequent references the title and the surname (e.g. “Elder Holland”). We made it consistent across all faiths, whether it was “Bishop,” “Rabbi,” or “Cardinal.”

I think if a news outlet decided to capitalize “the Church” for one denomination, it would need to do so for all denominations.

“Church of Jesus Christ” is an example of a reference that would be difficult to expect other news outlets to use. Journalists are taught to write as concisely as possible, and that’s a very cumbersome phrase to use multiple times in a story. Plus, if an article is published in a region where there may be another kind of church called “The Church of Jesus Christ,” an editor would have to forgo this phrase to avoid confusion.

“Restored Church of Jesus Christ”: Please see first bullet point. This phrase is doctrinal, based on a church teaching that Christ restored his original church to earth, now known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. No editor should let it appear in print as a second reference because it effectively passes off a belief as though it were an objective fact. That needs to be avoided even when you’re a Latter-day Saint copy editor for the Deseret News.*

Let’s look at the Catholic Church as an example. “Catholic” is a word that means “universal.” That is essentially a church teaching and a belief held by Catholics. But to use the phrase “the universal church” as an independent reference in a story about the Catholic Church would not be good practice for a media outlet that strives to be objective.

* (It’s worth noting that the LDS Church News, published by the Deseret News, is a publication whose primary audience is church members. These phrases and the other suggested guidelines would be completely acceptable for its stories.)

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. 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.”

First, I do get annoyed when I read the phrase “Church of the Latter-day Saints” in news stories because, as I said before, I’m a stickler for getting the official names of organizations correct. Learn the whole thing or don’t use it at all. Looks sloppy when you don’t get that right.

I would prefer the use of “LDS Church” over “Mormon Church,” for concise writing, but at the same time, “Mormon” is the more likely term to be used in internet search engines, which is a big reason why websites with addresses like “” exist, so the church could respond to what most people are searching for online. Now the church appears to be abandoning that.

When referring to Church members, the terms “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “Latter-day Saints” are preferred. We ask that the term “Mormons” not be used.

I see no problem with asking news organizations to use “Latter-day Saints” to describe church members. I also think that for concise writing purposes, “members of the church” and “church members” would work if the story is only about the LDS Church (I’m sorry!).

I really hope the Public Affairs Department isn’t assigning someone to read every story about the church published around the world and write a letter of correction whenever “Mormon Church” and “Mormons” are used in an article. That employee will end up like Mickey trying to manage the brooms and the water in “Fantasia.”

“Mormon” is correctly used in proper names such as the Book of Mormon or when used as an adjective in such historical expressions as “Mormon Trail.”

This makes sense, but what of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? I think a lot of folks are on the edge of their Tabernacle seats about what will happen with that name.

The term “Mormonism” is inaccurate and should not be used. When describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is accurate and preferred.

*Sigh* I guess I did have a bit of indignation. Here we go …

First, as many have pointed out, the church has suggested some of these style guidelines in years past. However, the last time I remember, “Mormonism” was deemed acceptable for describing things related to the church in general. Now it’s verboten.

Again, I don’t know the church’s rationale for this. At the same time, “Mormonism,” in my opinion, is a very nebulous word that can mean different things to different people, and any reporter who uses it would do well to specify what it means in the context of their story. So I can see the wisdom in proscribing the word to avoid tangents in your reporting.

However (here comes my indignation), referring to the church’s unique combination of doctrine, culture, and lifestyle as “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ”? No, no, and no. I honestly believe that the church is doing itself a disservice here.

The word “gospel” means something hyper-specific throughout Christianity. It is a word meaning “good news,” specifically that Jesus Christ was sent to Earth as the Son of God, atoned for our sins to make it possible for us to repent and be forgiven, subjected himself to death on the cross, then resurrected from the dead to overcome death so that we, too, could be resurrected and have the possibility of eternal life. There are aspects of it unique to the LDS faith, but that definition is a baseline in the Christian world. It isn’t anything, good or bad, regarding the culture or lifestyle of the church.

And doctrine is something I regard as any official teaching of the church at any time. All of the gospel is doctrine, but not all doctrine is the gospel.

My personal faith has been strengthened as I look at the church (institution and culture) and the gospel as two different things. There is much harmony between those two things, and I believe they can’t exist without each other, but they are still different things. I would guess that there are many church members who struggle mightily with aspects of the church institution and Mormon culture, but they participate in church life because they have a deep testimony of the Savior and hope in the gospel. It would be better to drop this suggestion.

This Twitter thread explains it more eloquently than I aim to in my post.

When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, it should be stated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not affiliated with polygamous groups.

The church may have a goal of distancing itself ideologically from polygamous groups. I understand that. This suggestion would be good practice for a news outlet, but for a different reason. A media organization has no public relations stake in keeping the Salt Lake City-based church distinct from polygamous groups, but it could be cautious to make sure readers are not confused and don’t think it’s talking about what is considered the “mainstream” Mormon Church (sorry again!). The simple principle of educating readers on what different religious bodies exist makes this a must-do. It can be accomplished by noting where a polygamous group is based, e.g. Colorado City, Arizona.

There is ultimately no problem with an organization asking to be identified a certain way in media coverage (again, I’m looking at this through the lens of my profession and not considering issues of timing and priorities, thought I do have my opinions on those matters). It would behoove said organization to understand when it is part of a larger landscape, and that the journalistic profession has its own practices and editorial philosophies. In light of those factors, while I see the what the church is doing as a good faith (tee-hee, no pun intended) effort, it isn’t reasonable to expect complete adherence to your own suggested style from journalists across the country and the globe.

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