What Does “Mormon” Mean, Anyways?
What an unusual word. It sounds rather mysterious, like a word from a Harry Potter spell, or the name of some character from Star Wars.
But what does it mean?
First of all, most people associate it with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They use it as a nickname for the church. As Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the Mormon Church, explained in a letter:
“The name Mormon, and Mormonism, was given to us by our enemies, but Latter-day Saints was the real name by which the church was organized.” (Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 458. Standardized.)
Part of the reason this happened is that the correct name of the church is cumbersome. It is more like a tongue-twister than a name. So the short name sticks.
In some ways this is helpful, since by using a shorter name, we can communicate quicker. On the other hand, this causes problems. First, we use this mysterious-sounding word instead of the proper name. We are not publishing the fact that this denomination is a Christian denomination. And that is tragic.
Second, to the English-speaking ear, it sounds unusual. Do members of this denomination worship a being named “Morm”? And is this being like Gozer the Gozarian from Ghostbusters? Or like H. P. Lovecraft’s demiurge Cthulhu? The word has a specific denotation, but its various connotations can be fertile ground for a runaway imagination.
So where does this word come from?
One the surface, it comes from the title of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. Mormons consider this to be a book of scripture that supplements (not supplants) the Bible.
The title page explains the point of the book:
THE BOOK OF MORMON
AN ACCOUNT WRITTEN BY THE HAND OF MORMON UPON PLATES TAKEN FROM THE PLATES OF NEPHI
Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites—Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile—Written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation—Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed—To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof—Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile—The interpretation thereof by the gift of God.
An abridgment taken from the Book of Ether also, which is a record of the people of Jared, who were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, when they were building a tower to get to heaven—Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations—And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment–seat of Christ.
That is the sum and substance of the book: “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD.” The capitals are in the original, so as not to miss the fact of Christ in the book.
And the book has nothing to do with Dungeons and Dragons, and Mormon is not a Dr. Seuss nonsense word.
So it is called the Book of Mormon. Mormon was the name of an ancient prophet who lived in the Americas. He was the principle compiler and editor of this history book, so it bears his name.
In the book, the prophet Mormon explains himself this way:
And behold, I am called Mormon, being called after the land of Mormon, the land in which Alma did establish the church among the people, yea, the first church which was established among them after their transgression.
Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life.
And it hath become expedient that I, according to the will of God, that the prayers of those who have gone hence, who were the holy ones, should be fulfilled according to their faith, should make a record of these things which have been done—
Yea, a small record of that which hath taken place from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem, even down until the present time.
Therefore I do make my record from the accounts which have been given by those who were before me, until the commencement of my day;
And then I do make a record of the things which I have seen with mine own eyes. (3 Nephi 5:12-17)
So the word Mormon is really just a name. Of course it sounds unusual to our ear because it is a foreign word. But imagine if you had H. G. Wells’s time machine, and went to the past. I imagine people would snicker at our names the same way we would laugh at Hammurabi’s, Xerxes’s, or the pharaoh Qa’a’s name.
As Mormon explains, he was “called after the land of Mormon.” This is not unusual; look at my name: Kendal Hunter. Hunter is obvious, since it comes from a profession. Kendal, however, is the homeland of some of my English ancestors. Pay close attention—my name has one “l,” exactly as the city’s name is spelled. I also have a niece named Jamayka. So it runs in the family.
This Land of Mormon was the setting for a wonderful event. The ancient exiled saints were gathered in hiding in this place. There, the prophet Alma called the group together and then preached to them.
Here is the full narrative:
And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
And now when the people had heard these words, they clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts.
And now it came to pass that Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying: O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.
And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.
And after Alma had said these words, both Alma and Helam were buried in the water; and they arose and came forth out of the water rejoicing, being filled with the Spirit.
And again, Alma took another, and went forth a second time into the water, and baptized him according to the first, only he did not bury himself again in the water.
And after this manner he did baptize every one that went forth to the place of Mormon; and they were in number about two hundred and four souls; yea, and they were baptized in the waters of Mormon, and were filled with the grace of God. (Mosiah 18:8-16)
The Land of Mormon was sacred ground. It was a place of consecration, covenant, and atonement. The prophet Mormon, in an editorial paean, explains:
And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever. (Mosiah 18:30)
These ancient believers looked at the Land of Mormon the same way we look at the Holy Land, Jerusalem, or the place where we proposed to our spouses. We could never forget them.
Our story would stop there, but for one editorial letter written by Joseph Smith. Just like today, there was confusion about the word “Mormon” in the 1800s. Since some things never change, here is what Joseph Smith wrote:
Through the medium of your paper I wish to correct an error among men that profess to be learned, liberal and wise; and I do it the more cheerfully because I hope 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.
The error I speak of is the definition of the word “Mormon.” It has been stated that this word was derived from the Greek word mormo. This is not the case. There was no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of the Lord, translated the Book of Mormon. Let the language of the book speak for itself.
On the 523rd page of the fourth edition, it reads: “And now, behold we have written this record according to our knowledge in the characters which are called among us the Reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech; and if our plates had been sufficiently large, we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; therefore He hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.” (Mormon 9:32-34)
Here, then, the subject is put to silence; for “none other people knoweth our language;” therefore the Lord, and not man, had to interpret, after the people were all dead. And, as Paul said, “The world by wisdom know not God;” so the world by speculation are destitute of revelation; and as God in His superior wisdom has always given His Saints, wherever he had any on the earth, the same spirit, and that spirit, as John says, is the true spirit of prophecy, which is the testimony of Jesus. I may safely say that the word “Mormon” stands independent of the wisdom and learning of this generation.
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 terms, to say that good is among the most important in 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.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 299-300)
Thus “Mormon” means “more good.” That is the golden thread which links all of the senses and shades of the word: a book of scripture, a prophet, and a place of covenant. Each of these things brought about more good.
The Book of Mormon brought about more good by testifying of Christ. The prophet Mormon brought about more good by compiling this additional witness of Jesus Christ. And the Land of Mormon was a place where a body of believers sought sanctuary and sanctification by being baptized. They came to Christ.
So all of these were good. And they lived up to their name. And behind the word “Mormon” is the name of Jesus Christ, the Author of all that is good.
Gordon B. Hinckley, the fifteenth president of the Mormon Church said this:
The Mormon Church, of course, is a nickname. And nicknames have a way of becoming fixed. I think of the verse concerning a boy and his name:
Father calls me William,
Sister calls me Will,
Mother calls me Willie,
But the fellers call me Bill.
(“Jest ’Fore Christmas.”)
I suppose that regardless of our efforts, we may never convert the world to general use of the full and correct name of the Church. 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.
They could do worse. More than fifty years ago, when I was a missionary in England, I said to one of my associates, “How can we get people, including our own members, to speak of the Church by its proper name?”
He replied, “You can’t. The word Mormon is too deeply ingrained and too easy to say.” He went on, “I’ve quit trying. While I’m thankful for the privilege of being a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of the Church which bears His name, I am not ashamed of the nickname Mormon.”
“Look,” he went on to say, “if there is any name that is totally honorable in its derivation, it is the name Mormon. And so, when someone asks me about it and what it means, I quietly say—‘Mormon means more good.’ ” …
His 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.”
We may not be able to change the nickname, but we can make it shine with added luster. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Mormon Should Mean ‘More Good’,” Ensign, Nov 1990, 51)
That is our goal—to add luster to this nickname. For us, Mormon must always mean “more good.”