Jack Mormons

Jack Mormon once meant something else

The Salt Lake Tribune



     While rooting around in old Tribune files, Robert Kirby came upon this little gem and forwarded it to me. I pass it on to you.

    "A gentleman writing us from Boise, asks us, 'What is a jack-Mormon?' It is a nondescript between a Gentile and Mormon; in the animal kingdom known as the mule. In some countries it is better known as the What-is-it, and is without gender. In Utah it does the dirty work for the Mormon Priesthood, who first grease it, then pat it, and finally kick it because it has no friends. Tom Fitch, of Nevada, ex-Governor Fuller, of New Jersey, George Seizer, of Michigan, are all fair samples of the jack-Mormon. Others, fresh from the green pastures of the East, are traveling the same road. The jack is a dirty animal . . . ."
    The Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 17, 1875.
    The gentlemen mentioned in the article were "gentiles" on good terms with the LDS Church.

    I always thought a Jack Mormon was a nominal member of the LDS Church who had outsourced his or her moral compass to hard-partying secular humanists. But the Tribune's definition from 123 years ago makes it clear it used to mean something quite different.

    Sometime between then and now, "Jack Mormon" was transformed in popular usage from a non-Mormon who was friendly to Mormons, to a Mormon who is way too casual with regard to his church's values.

Several people think the term denotes Mormons with a fondness for Jack Daniel's. Actually, it goes back to early meanings of "Jack."

    As early as the 14th century, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the term "Jakke fool." Jack of beanstalk fame was a gullible dimwit who traded the family cow for half a handful of beans. And, of course, there are jackasses of animal and human origin.

    On the early frontier, "Jack Mormon" couldn't mean anything other than a dupe with some connection to Joseph Smith's new religion.

    The Story of The Latter-day Saints explains, "Because of their friendliness toward the beleaguered Saints, the helpful citizens of Clay and other counties were criticized by hostile elements in Jackson County and dubbed 'Jack Mormons,' a term applied widely in the 19th century to friendly non-Mormons."

    The first use of the term is credited to Thomas C. Sharpe, a ferocious anti-Mormon from Illinois. Sharpe lobbed verbal bombshells at nearby Mormon Nauvoo, Ill., from his newspaper, the Warsaw Signal. In 1846 the following item appeared in his paper:

    "A certain Jack-mormon of Hancock county, we won't call him big-head, (but the Saints used to) is in the habit of shaving the hair off his forehead, in order to give it an intellectual appearance."-'Warsaw (Ill.) Signal,' 6 Feb., page 3/1.

    Somewhere in the early 20th century, Jack Mormon came to its current meaning. LDS author Preston Nibley used the term, in its turned-on-its-head incarnation, in the 1940s. Since then, Jack Mormon is another term for those straddlers who, in LDS theology, fence-sat during the War in Heaven.

    Jack Mormon is mildly derogatory, and can carry a sense of shame with it. The lapsed LDS fighter Jack Dempsey reportedly wrote, "I'm proud to be a Mormon. And ashamed to be the Jack Mormon that I am."

    It is also a kind of war wound, proudly worn by many who are still technically "in" the dominant culture, but not "of" it.


Leaving the Mormon Church

October 8, 2008
By Sharon Lindbloom

Last week Jeff Spector over at Mormon Matters wrote about an interesting phenomenon. In “Hedging Your Bets: Refusing to Leave the Church” Mr. Spector talked about inactive Mormons and the negative reactions from some of them when they are visited by their Home Teachers. Mr. Spector wrote:

“I have been yelled at, cursed at, threatened with the police, etc. just for showing up at a member’s door and asking about them. And yet, most do not want their name removed from the Church rolls.

“Either, they have family concerns, are just too lazy to write the letter, or don’t care enough to do anything about their Church membership other than request no contact from the Church….

“So, it has always intrigued me as to why these folks seem unable to completely divorce themselves from the Church. Even though they want no contact.”

Many of the comments left in response to Mr. Spector’s blog center on whether people who have requested no contact from the Church should be left alone. But I’m more interested in the original question. Why don’t people who want nothing to do with the LDS Church have their names removed from membership?

LDS leaders have been fond of saying that people might “leave the Church, but they cannot leave the Church alone” (e.g., Neal A. Maxwell, “‘Becometh As a Child’,” Ensign, May 1996). This is usually applied to vocal ex-Mormon critics, but the saying has equal relevancy for Latter-day Saints who drift into inactivity. It carries with it an implication that these people know the Church is true, and they just can’t shake the conviction. Happily, I didn’t see this kind of rhetoric at Mormon Matters.

I think Mr. Spector’s short list of reasons is a good one, though it’s certainly not exhaustive. The last two suggestions are really just one: being too lazy to write a resignation letter has its root in not caring about Church membership at all. Why bother to write a letter and endure the possible fallout (i.e., efforts to convince the person to change his or her mind) if there is no real reason to go to the trouble?

Family concerns are another matter. One commenter at Mormon Matters wrote,

“I think a lot of people don’t want to take hope away from their family! It could devastate parents or a sibling to think they won’t make it into the celestial kingdom with them.”

Another commenter told this story:

“My parents provided my brother’s contact information to the Church’s Lost Sheep program when they called asking his whereabouts. He’s been inactive for 15 years at least.

“My brother was livid. He wanted no contact at all with the Church and told my parents never to do that again.

“Yet I doubt he would bother with forms and letters to avoid the possibility of contact entirely. His name’s mere presence on the rolls performs some minimal comforting function for my parents, who think his testimony is just weak, or that he is going through a phase.”

According to the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions, the removal of a person’s name from Church membership “cancels the effects of baptism and confirmation, withdraws the priesthood held by a male member, and revokes temple blessings” (Book 1, page 129, 1999 edition), while mere Church inactivity does not carry with it these consequences. For some inactive Mormons, then, remaining on the Church role is done out of consideration for their LDS loved ones.

Another possible reason for people remaining on the Church membership list was suggested by Mr. Spector’s article title: Hedging Your Bets. People who don’t know what to believe sometimes look at church membership or completed ordinances as a sort of fire insurance. This isn’t unique to Mormonism; people from many faith backgrounds have told me they’ve been baptized, said a prayer, or given money to a church “just in case.” They are hedging their bets.

For Mormons, though, there is another level of insecurity that might enter into a person’s reasons for remaining a Church member, even if it is in name only. According to one of the commenter's at Mormon Matters,

“Also of note is the relatively recent church policy of only one re-baptism per person. If you request name removal, are re-baptized, and then are excommunicated for any reason, or request name-removal again, you cannot get re-baptized in mortality. You’ll have to hope someone does it in the temple for you.”

Add to that another LDS Church policy which states, “First Presidency approval is required to perform temple ordinances for deceased persons who…had their names removed from Church membership records” (Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1, page 75, 1999 edition), and it’s easy to see why some people may be hesitant to “divorce themselves completely” from the LDS Church.

I’m thinking that Mormon Coffee readers may have some interesting insight into the question posed by Jeff Spector: Why don’t people who want nothing to do with the LDS Church have their names removed from membership?

What has been your experience, and what do you think?