“What changes have been made in the name of the Church? Its full designation does not appear in the revelations until 1838. (D&C 115:4)” Ensign, Jan. 1979, 13–14
Richard Lloyd Anderson, professor of religion and history, Brigham Young University A concise answer to this question is found by comparing the name of the Church on the title pages of the first three printings of the revelations: “The Church of Christ” (Book of Commandments, 1833), “The Church of the Latter Day Saints” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1835), and “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1844).
The Savior told the Nephites that his church should be called in his name. (See 3 Ne. 27:8.) As a result, the restored Church’s official title from 1830 to 1834 was “The Church of Christ.” That title is found in the revelation on the organization and government of the Church (D&C 20:1) and in early minute books. During this period, however, members of the Church regularly called themselves “saints”; the word saint is used approximately three dozen times in the D&C before 1834.
On 3 May 1834, official action modified the name of the Church. In a priesthood conference presided over by Joseph Smith, a motion passed “by unanimous voice” that the Church be known as “The Church of the Latter Day Saints.” (See The Evening and the Morning Star, May 1834, 2:160.) This alteration was not seen as a de-emphasis of Christ; on the contrary, it was done in hopes that the name of the Church would more clearly reflect the fact that Christ was at its head.
In the same issue of the Kirtland newspaper in which the announcement appeared, an editorial explained that the change stemmed from a misleading nickname: the “Mormonite” church. The new name also had these advantages: (1) Since American Christians, including Congregationalists and reformers, frequently designated themselves as “The Church of Christ,” that title did not distinguish the restored gospel from a host of Protestant sects. (2) Since Paul and Peter used the Greek word saint (“a holy person”) to refer to believers in Christ, the term Latter-day Saints implied that Church members were modern followers of Christ. Thus it also asserted the claim of restoration.
Just as the term saint flourished when the official name was “The Church of Christ,” the name of Christ regularly supplemented the official name of “The Church of the Latter Day Saints.” For example, in 1835, the church was referred to as “the church of Christ” and the Twelve apostles were commissioned as “special witnesses of the name of Christ.” (D&C 107:59, 23) The Saints certainly did not feel that the Church was leaving out the name of Christ.
Sometimes during this period the first and second titles would be combined—“the church of Christ of Latter Day saints”—as they were in priesthood minutes (Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 1836, 2:266) and in the publication of the first high council minutes (see headnote, D&C 5, 1835 edition).
A vivid illustration of the way members then understood the official name of the Church is found in a letter from John Smith, the Prophet’s uncle, to his son Elias before the latter was converted. Writing 19 Oct. 1834, Uncle John answers the question of why the name could be changed:
“The Church of Christ is the Church of Saints and always was. This is the reason why the apostle directed letters sometimes to the Church of God, others to the Church, and again to the Brethren, sometimes to the Saints, always meaning the Church of Christ.” (Archives, University of Utah)
Thus, the final version of the Church’s name was no radical shift from the previous practice of using both “Christ” and “Saints” in designating the restored Church and its members. Revealed on 26 April 1838 (D&C 115:4), the full title, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” is striking by comparison to the names of the scores of churches that obscure their Christianity under the label of their founders or of some characteristic belief or aspect of church organization. It is a highly effective name, for while it is distinctive, it indicates that Jesus is at its head. It is also descriptive of divine restoration. And it is more than a name—it is a public commitment to a holy life through the Savior’s power.