Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Who owns the name “Mormon”?

A fledgling Mormon dating site reports that IRI, the intellectual property rights arm of the LDS Church, is attempting to shutter the planned launch of Mormon Match because of its use of the word “Mormon” and its appropriation of an image of the Salt Lake Temple.

Here’s what the front page of the site-in-progress looks like now:

Mormon MatchFor a good discussion of the issues involved, see Holly Welker’s post in Religion Dispatches. (I don’t think RD’s headline is quite accurate, though; as far as I know, the Church has not filed a lawsuit but applied pressure and commenced an “opposition proceeding.” According to, the lawsuit in question was filed by one of the dating site’s co-founders in response to that pressure, which would make the Church’s intellectual property division the defendant, not the plaintiff, in the suit.)

At any rate, the question at issue is this: Who, if anyone, owns the rights to the word “Mormon”?

And secondarily, what would be the consequences if a judge determined that only the LDS Church had the right to use the word “Mormon” for commercial purposes?

For an illustrative snapshot, here are some ways the word “Mormon” intersects with my daily life.

And that’s just a sampling. As you can see from this short list, liberals use the word Mormon — liberally. Conservatives use the word Mormon — also liberally.

Not one of the websites or organizations above is officially affiliated with the LDS Church, which also uses the word “Mormon” at will — the Mormon Newsroom, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Mormon Times, etc.

But surely the official LDS Church and its various arms are not the only groups that can lay claim to the moniker. “Mormon” is how we Mormons find each other. It’s probably how you found this blog post.

Many of the independent Mormon websites and periodicals sell products or advertising, making them commercial enterprises. When I go to the Mormon Mommy Blogs site, for example, I wade through ads for scrapbook tools and missionary gifts.

So, yes, someone over there is profiting, at least a little, from the word “Mormon.” But without that word, I might never have discovered the site in the first place. My poor Primary kids would be at the mercy of my own stunted imagination, and then I’d teach horrible lessons, and then I’d have to explain to all the parents why a whole crew of six-year-olds left the Church.

You see where I am going with this argument. Where would the Church draw the line to prohibit individuals and businesses from using the word “Mormon”?

This interference with the Mormon dating site already seems like a heavy-handed and provincial action for a denomination that aspires to be a global religion.

It seems perfectly fair to me for the Church to request, as it has done repeatedly, to be called by the name it chooses for itself: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, thank you very much. There is no such thing as “the Mormon Church,” at least in official usage. Fair enough.

What does not seem fair is to limit the use of the term “Mormon” to only those appropriations the Church formally approves of, which this statement suggests might be the Church’s ultimate goal:

“We believe we are well within our rights to protect both the use of the name of the church and the image of the Salt Lake temple and to make clear that the plaintiff’s business has no connection whatsoever to the church,” attorney Robert Schick told the Houston Chronicle.

By all means, protect the name of the Church. But as the Church has taken great pains to point out again and again, “Mormon” is not the name of the church.
In fact, two websites you would think might raise the hackles of the Church’s legal department — and — have not been “singled” out even though their names do approximate the official name of the Church.
Such a lack of clarity is enough to drive a Mormon — er, Latter-day Saint — er, Mormon — to drink.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • “As you can see from this short list, liberals use the word Mormon — liberally. Conservatives use the word Mormon — also liberally….By all means, protect the name of the Church. But as the Church has taken great pains to point out again and again, ‘Mormon’ is not the name of the church.”

    Excellent arguments, Jana. Well done.

    Who owns the name Mormon? We the people. The Mormon people in all of their big tented and more inclusive than just the LDS Church glory. Not the intellectual arm of the Church™ or the Cooperation of the President of the Church, etc.

    How’s that for a constitutional argument? Leave it to the people!

  • And there is also the related issue of fundamentalist Mormons, such as the FLDS. When I have blogged or commented online about the abuses in the FLDS I often was criticized by LDS members who objected to me referring to the FLDS as Mormons, or at least they wanted to make the differences clear to me.

    From my perspective, its a bit like how mainstream Christians of various denominations like to complain that fringe Christian sects and cults are not true Christians. But who has the right to judge and decide that? Religion reporter, Don Lattin, addressed that phenomenon in the introduction to his book on the Children of God cult: “Jesus Freaks: A true story of murder and madness on the evangelical edge”.

    He wrote:

    “SOME CHRISTIANS MAY take issue with the title of this book, Jesus Freaks: A True Story o f Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge. They may argue that the crazy cult chronicled in these pages has noth­ing to do with Jesus or the evangelical movement. They may say its founder was not a Christian-that he was a spiritualist or controlled by demonic forces. His sexual immorality, they may argue, is the very antithesis of moral values in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    “That’s an understandable reaction, but the odyssey of David Brandt Berg is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Berg, the founder of The Family, came straight out of American evangelicalism. His grand­father was a famous minister with the Methodist Church, and his father was ordained into another mainline Protestant church. His training as an itinerant evangelist was at his mother’s side in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. And it was in the Alliance that Berg began his own late-blooming ministry.”

    David Berg, by the way, greatly admired Joseph Smith for creating a home-grown religious church/cult and emulated him in some respects. There are many references to Joseph Smith in Berg’s writings. I wrote a blog article about some of the similarities between the two groups, “From Sex Fiends to Family Values”, but won’t link to it as it will likely offend many readers here.

  • My apologies for initially leaving the Modern Mormon Men blog off my list. A glaring lacuna, since corrected! That’s an awesome blog if you’ve never checked it out! –JKR

  • There are dozens of “Mormon” churches. The Utah-based LDS Church does not own the word. Mormon refers any branch of the Latter Day Saint movement of Restorationist Christianity.

  • Might I suggest that the difference between this site and the others mentioned is that there is a stronger First Amendment element in the blogs and associations. That would be much more of an uphill battle than this clearly commercial endeavor. LDS is also much more difficult to protect than Mormon because it is an abbreviation. LDS can also stand for lightweight directory service, laos deo semper, labor distribution system, etc.

    I also suspect that the use of the term Mormon on a website where Mormons make online profiles comes too close to the use of I can’t possibly be certain without talking to the Office of General Counsel about it, but those are my educated guesses.

  • They may not own the word, but legally they own the trademark (at least as applied to certain activities).

  • Camacho,

    You’re likely correct. On the web, there can arise issues with Domain Name Service, when sometimes websites, based on their content get too close to the name and visual presentation of another entity. Claiming internet domains has pretty much become a whole new frontier in and of itself. Making some errors in appearance and trademark visuals can create some confusion, at least in finding a given site.

  • I find it interesting that every article and blog post regarding this issue misses the same critical piece of information. It isn’t about the use of the word ‘Mormon’. It is about the manner in which the image of the Salt Lake Temple, which is VERY MUCH associated with the church, is being used. Using the temple image in the way they are on their site, links them, in the minds of their visitors, to the church.

  • My theory is that the church is trying to test the waters of legal action against the use of the term “Mormon” for commercial property. If, for example, another Book of Mormon Musical were to come about, and they’ve already set a presidence in court, they would have better grounds of fighting the name….

  • On the surface it seems like the church is more concerned with its business practices and brand than helping its members find (potential) eternal bliss.

    At least it’s getting lots of free publicity for (REDACTED) Match and their picture of the Salt Lake City (REDACTED)emple.

  • I think that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (thank you Elder Ballard) will put the kibosh on things they feel may not lead to their central mission: spreading the message of Jesus Christ.

    In this case, I can see that the… Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might see this dark-looking website turning into some Mormon stalking website. There are PLENTY of other websites that use the word Mormon (as you pointed out) that they don’t care to touch because they uplift and help with the mission of the church. I wonder if the design, message, goal, mission of MormonSingles was a little more in line with the teachings of… the Church, there wouldn’t be an issue. Interesting.

    I’m surprised they would go to such lengths to shut this site down, and not this one:

  • It’s interesting you chose to describe the church’s approach as “provincial”. Elder Holland made a point of confronting this word (as it is used to describe church leaders) earlier this month:

    ‘As [Abinadi] said to King Noah: “Because I have told you the truth ye are angry with me. … Because I have spoken the word of God ye have judged me that I am mad” or, we might add, provincial, patriarchal, bigoted, unkind, narrow, outmoded, and elderly.’

    Let me have provincialism and heavy-handedness–my trust in Jesus Christ and his church remains greater than my trust in the opinions of Jana Riess.

  • If I were to offer a product such as publication of fiction with a Mormon theme, and used a photo of Jana Reiss and a title “Mormon Flunkies”, I am pretty sure that Jana would be upset that I had appropriated her image in order to sell my services, implying that I was affiliated with her. In intellectual property law, if you don’t actively defend your control of your distinctive intellectual property, then you lose control of it. That is why Coca Cola has secret customers going to restaurants asking for “Coke” and, if they get a Pepsi instead, threatening to sue the restaurant. The International Olympic Committee went a little too far when they threatened to sue businesses on the Olympic Peninsula near Olympia National Park. But the law is the law: use it (and defend it) or lose it.

    An alternative term that can be used for a Mormon-oriented enterprise is “Zion”. There is a bank, no longer affiliated with the Church, and any number of other businesses, from car dealers to carpet cleaners, that use “Zion”. I think there is a business called “Restoration Hardware” that operates without any Church criticism.

  • Interesting — especially about the Coke/Pepsi thing. I’ve often seen waiters ask my husband if Pepsi products were OK when he ordered a Diet Coke. I always thought that was them making sure his taste buds would be satisfied — not that he was secretly planning to sue them!

    OK, I can see the argument about being protective about the use of the word “Mormon.” Why, though, has “LDS Singles” been a successful website for many years now, with no interference (that I am aware of) from the church’s lawyers? That is pinging off the official name of the church, the one the church says it wants to be called. Why the discrepancy?

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