Within a one-mile radius of my Boston apartment, there are literally dozens of churches. The buildings are each unique and beautiful, and the names they bear are equally diverse. On my regular walks around the neighborhood, I pass by the Chinese Christian Church of New England, First Church in Chestnut Hill, All Saints Parish, and Temple Bnai Moshe, among others. I often wonder what significance the names of the churches have for the worshippers within.
The church I attend is often known by its nickname (the Mormon church), but its true title is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’ve been a member of the church since I was baptized at age eight, so its name is not something I think about frequently. But I believe my commitment to God and my behavior toward others would improve if I regularly pondered the significance of the church’s name. Here is its condensed history:
With God directing his actions, Joseph Smith reestablished Jesus Christ’s original church in 1830. (Feel free to read the full story of the restoration here.) God also told Joseph Smith what to name his church. Hundreds of years prior, God had instructed another group of followers in the naming of his church. As recorded in the Book of Mormon, the resurrected Jesus Christ visited the people of the ancient American continent. Eager to worship as He would have them do, the people asked Christ what they should name the church. Here is his response, as found in 3 Nephi chapter 27, versus 7-8.
“Therefore, whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name; therefore ye shall call the church in my name; and ye shall call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake. 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.”
This shows that Christ’s church must not only be built upon his gospel, it must bear his name. So it makes sense that Joseph Smith would receive a revelation from the Lord in the 1830s with a similar message about the name of the reestablished church of Christ. It’s recorded in verse 4 of section 115 in the Doctrine & Covenants (a book of compiled modern-day revelations): “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
So now we know how the name came to be. But what does it mean? For me, there are three separate elements. The first, calling it Jesus Christ’s church, reminds me that he is the focus of it all. Jesus Christ is the son of God, and the savior of the world. His death and resurrection, and his mercy and grace, are what will allow us to return to live with God.
The second element – the “latter-day” part of the name – places the church in this modern era. After Christ’s death, his church gradually fell away. Apostles were martyred, and followers were persecuted for their beliefs. This period lasted hundreds of years and is known as the apostasy. Because Jesus Christ’s gospel is now on the earth again, it is fitting that its name designates the current dispensation of time.
The final word in the name, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” is one that really makes me stop and think. Am I a saint? What can I do to become more saint-like? One of the apostles of our Church summed it up nicely in a sermon he gave: “In the Lord’s Church, the members are Latter-day Saints, and they attempt to emulate the Savior, follow His teachings, and receive saving ordinances in order to live in the celestial kingdom with God the Father and our Savior Jesus Christ. The Savior said, ‘This is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do.’”
The name of the church is much more than a string of words on the front of a building. Each part of the name reminds me of my purpose on the earth – to live as a saint, following the example of Jesus Christ, in order to gain access to his atoning sacrifice.