"Sober-thinking and sound-reasoning people will sooner listen to the voice of truth, than be led astray by the vain pretensions of the self-wise," wrote the LDS prophet Joseph Smith. "I may safely say that the word 'Mormon' stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation." Apparently, this is still true. This past week, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked that the news media and church members refrain from using the word "Mormon" when referring to the church. LDS congregations had the new policy, which has hit a few snags to date, read to them last Sunday.
Historical records reveal that LDS prophets considered "Mormon" to be a badge of honor, although it started out as a slur. In May 1843, Smith answered the charge that Mormon came from the Greek "marmoo," which Bailey's Dictionary defined as "bugbear, hobgoblin, raw head and bloody bones." Not so, said Smith, who then displayed his talent for linguistics. "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.'" Or, as we say in Utah, gooder.
"What does the word 'Mormon' mean? In the strict sense, and as it was translated by the ancients, it means 'more good,'" LDS Church leader Brigham Young said in 1871. "'Mormonism' embraces all the truth that there is in heaven and on the earth; and if there is any in hell it belongs to us. Every truth in the sciences and in the arts, and all the knowledge that God has given to man," he continued, was incorporated in "what the world calls 'Mormonism.'" It was not vulgar to call his religion Mormonism, Young said. "Mormon was a good man, and he is in heaven, or in a good place at any rate; and the Book of Mormon is named after him, and we believe it."
Church President Joseph F. Smith noted that the Jews were hated because they were God's chosen people. Like the word 'Mormon,' "nowhere in the world today is the word Jew wholly disassociated with the feeling of contempt," he wrote in 1904. "Contempt is the heritage of a chosen people." This contempt had disappeared by 1930.
"Today the word 'Mormon' is a certificate of character in all parts of the United States and in many other parts of the world where we are known," President Heber J. Grant wrote. "The word 'Mormon' today is a synonym for an honorable, upright, sober, industrious person." Church President David O. McKay noted that "the Saints were first called Christians. It was first applied to them in derision just as the word 'Mormon' was first applied to the Church in this day, but later was accepted as an honorable title."
It may not be possible to persuade the world to use the full name of the LDS Church instead of Mormon, a wise LDS leader observed in 1990, but the nickname could win luster, honor and respect for the faith. "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," said President Gordon B. Hinckley. "They could do worse."
Historian Will Bagley believes he still is a Mormon.