'Mormons' and Polygamy

'Mormons' and Polygamy

Commentary

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — often referred to as the “Mormon Church” — has repeatedly asked journalists to make clearer distinctions between the 13-million-member worldwide Church and polygamist groups in Utah and surrounding states.

Inevitably, media attention will turn once again next week to the topic of polygamy when the trial of Warren Jeffs on polygamy-related charges begins. Jeffs is the leader of a polygamist group that has members in the Intermountain West of the United States and in western Canada. Jeffs is not now, and never has been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). Neither does he have any connection or association, official or unofficial, with the Church.

There is good reason to make this clarification once again. In covering his arrest and reporting the activities of other polygamists, many news outlets have in the past left their viewers and readers confused by careless use of the term “Mormon” either in text or in headlines. (See examples in Additional Resources.)

For example, a headline in the British Guardian newspaper last August stated “Fugitive Mormon leader's reign of fear ended by traffic violation,” and left readers to assume that Jeffs was somehow connected to the Church. (To its credit, The Guardian later corrected the headline on its Web site, although too late to prevent the story being republished on several other sites.)

A journalist at The Age, an Australian daily newspaper, reviewed a television show about a polygamist family in Utah and called a main character “a devout Mormon.” He went on to say the show “takes a frequently maligned culture and lets us in on a little secret: Mormons can be good people too.” The reality is that the polygamous subjects of the show are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Associated Press style guide tells its reporters that the term Mormon “is not properly applied” to the other churches that resulted from the split after Joseph Smith's death. It should be obvious why the AP has adopted that policy. It is widely understood that the word “Mormon” refers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sends out “Mormon missionaries,” sponsors the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” and builds “Mormon temples.” Associating the term “Mormon” with polygamists blurs what should be a crystal-clear line of distinction between organizations that are entirely separate.

For the record, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued its practice of polygamy in 1890, and for 117 years Mormons have followed a monogamous lifestyle.  Yet careless headline writing or sloppy reporting still causes millions of Mormons to have to answer questions from their neighbors, coworkers, friends and neighbors: "Are you a polygamist?" "Is that your church I read about in the newspaper?" or "How many wives do you have?"

We ask journalists to clearly make the distinction between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and polygamous groups. We also hope Church members and other readers will politely remind news organizations that continue to report inaccurately to make the effort to avoid these mistakes.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.