The Church of Christ was the original name of the church founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. Organized informally in 1829 and then as a legal entity on April 6, 1830 in northwestern New York, it was the first organization implementing the principles found in Smith's newly-published Book of Mormon, and represents the formal beginning of the Latter Day Saint movement. Later names for this organization included the Church of the Latter Day Saints (by 1834 resolution), the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church of God, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (by 1838 revelation).
Smith and his associates intended that the Church of Christ would be a restoration of the 1st-century Christian church, which Smith taught had fallen from God's favor and authority because of a Great Apostasy. Upon Smith's death in 1844, there was a crisis of authority, with the majority of the members following Brigham Young to Utah Territory and several smaller denominations remaining in the surrounding states. All of the churches that resulted from this schism consider themselves to be the rightful continuation of the original 'Church of Christ'.
There isn't a known record of an early Mormon concept of a Church of Christ prior to Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon from April to June 1829. During the course of this translation, the outlines for a community of believers or church structure gradually became apparent. Such a structure would have authority from God, ordinances such as baptism, and ordained clergy. Some time in April 1829, Smith translated a story of Alma the Elder, the former priest of a wicked king, who baptized his followers by immersion, "having authority from the Almighty God", and called his community of believers the "church of God, or the church of Christ". (Mosiah 18:13-17). The book described the clergy in Alma's church as consisting of priests, who were unpaid and were to "preach nothing save it were repentance and faith in the Lord". (Mosiah 18:20). Alma later established many churches, which were considered "one church" because "there was nothing preached in all the churches except it were repentance and faith in God." (Mosiah 25:22). In addition to priests, the book mentions that the clergy of these churches also included teachers. (Mosiah 25:21). Later, the book mentioned that the churches had elders. (Alma 4:7).
Nevertheless, in May 1829, a revelation by Smith described the "church" in informal terms: "Behold, this is my doctrine: whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church: whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me: therefore, he is not of my church." (Book of Commandments 9:16). Smith's further dictation of the Book of Mormon also stated that there were "two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil". (1 Nephi 14:10).
As a response to the book's ideas about baptism and the organization of churches, Joseph Smith, Jr. and Oliver Cowdery baptized each other by immersion in May 1829. They also began baptizing dozens of people, as early as June 1829. (History of the Church 1:6, p. 59). These converts, however, did not belong to an actual formal church organization. Nevertheless, this community of believers referred to themselves as "the Church of Christ", and included converts in three New York towns: Fayette, Manchester, and Colesville.
In June 1829, in response to concerns by Oliver Cowdery, Smith dictated a revelation stating that "in [the Book of Mormon] are all things written, concerning my church, my gospel, and my rock. Wherefore if you shall build up my church, and my gospel, and my rock, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you." (Book of Commandments, p. 35, verses 3-4). Some time between June and December 1829, Oliver Cowdery said he received a revelation about "how he should build up his church & the manner thereof". This revelation was called the "Articles of the Church of Christ", and it indicated that the church should ordain priests and teachers "according to the gifts & callings of God unto men". The church was to meet regularly to partake of bread and wine. Cowdery was described as "an Apostle of Jesus Christ". According to David Whitmer, by April 1830, this informal "Church of Christ" had about six elders and 70 members. (Whitmer, Address to All Believers, 1887, p. 33).
On April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith, Jr., Oliver Cowdery, and a group of approximately 30 believers met with the intention of formally organizing the Church of Christ into a legal institution. It is uncertain whether this occurred in the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr. in Fayette, New York, or whether it occurred in the log home of Joseph Smith, Sr. near their property in Manchester. Soon after this formal organization, small branches were formally established in Manchester, Fayette, and Colesville. Although the purpose was to effect a legal organization, it may have had no actual legal effect, as no records of incorporation have been found in either the Manchester/Palmyra area, the Fayette area, or in several other counties around this time period, as required by state law at the time, and the church evidently did not follow the required legal formalities.
Prior to 1834, all church publications and documents stated that the church was organized in the Smith log home in Manchester, New York. (Technically, the log home was just barely north of the town border in Palmyra (Berge 1985), a fact likely unknown to early Mormons.) Beginning in 1834, however, several church publications began to give the location as Fayette, at the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr.. The Whitmer home had been the site of many other meetings near the same time period. Even after 1834, however, several official church accounts said the meeting was in Manchester, and several eye-witnesses continued to say the event took place in Manchester.
Historian Michael Marquardt argues that the evidence suggests the organization occurred in Manchester, and that the confusion was likely due to the effect of memory tending to conflate memories of several meetings in Manchester and Fayette years earlier. Another suggested possibility is that the location of the organization was intentionally changed in 1834 around the same time the church's name was changed to the "Church of the Latter Day Saints", in order to make it seem like the new church organization was different from the "Church of Christ", as a tactic to frustrate the church's creditors and avoid payment of debts.
On the other hand, there is also evidence pointing to Fayette. For example, a headnote to the earliest known version of chapter XXII of the Book of Commandments says that the revelation was dictated in Fayette on April 6, 1830 after the church was organized. For some unexplained reason, this was changed to "Manchester" when it was published in 1833. Officially, the major denominations of the Latter Day Saint movement claim Fayette as the birthplace of the religion, and Joseph Smith's official history, begun in 1838, listed Fayette as the founding place. In 1887, one other eye-witness David Whitmer also recollected that the event occurred in his father's home in Fayette (Whitmer 1887, p. 33). However, years earlier in 1875, Whitmer had already told a reporter that the event occurred in Manchester (Whitmer 1875). Marquardt argues that the event described by Whitmer in 1887 bears more resemblance to Fayette meetings such as the founding of the church's Fayette branch five days later on April 11, 1830.
By later accounts, the April 6 organizational meeting was a charismatic event, in which members of the congregation had visions, prophesied, spoke in tongues, ecstatically shouted praises to the Lord, and fainted. (Joseph Smith History, 1839 draft). Also, the church formally ordained a lay ministry, with the priesthood offices of deacon, teacher, priest, and elder. Smith and Cowdery, according to their 1831 account, were each ordained as "an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church". ("Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ", Painesville Telegraph, April 19, 1831). This account was edited in 1835 to state that Smith was ordained the "First Elder", and Oliver Cowdery was ordained the "Second Elder." (LDS D&C 20:2-3).
In the early 1800s, Alexander Campbell and others began to popularize the idea among Christians in the United States that the division among Christian sects had been caused by a Great Apostasy from the original teachings of Jesus, practiced by the primitive Christian church. Campbell and his associates founded the Restoration Movement, arguing that the true practices of Christianity could be achieved by restoring practices described in the New Testament. The Restorationists also intended to eliminate sectarianism, arguing that there should be only one Christian church and that it should be named, the "Church of Christ."
Some historians of religion categorize the Latter Day Saint movement as part of or an off-shoot of the larger Restoration movement, but there are significant differences. While early Latter Day Saints believed in the need to "restore" the "true church of Jesus Christ", they also believed that direct authority from God was essential for the restoration to be valid. Joseph Smith, Jr., the Latter Day Saint movement's founder, claimed to possess that authority as a Prophet.
Smith's revelations authorized and commanded the organization of the Church of Christ in 1830, and in many of the revelations Smith claimed to receive, God referred to the church by that name. Smith taught that this church was a restoration of the primitive Christian church established by Jesus in the first century A.D. Moreover, Smith taught that this restoration occurred in the "Latter Days" of the world, i.e., the time immediately prior to the Second Coming of Jesus.
The fact that the churches of other Christian Restorationists, including the Campbellites, were also named the "Church of Christ" caused a considerable degree of confusion in the first years of the Latter Day Saint movement. Because of the distinct belief in the Book of Mormon among Smith's followers, people outside the church began to refer them as "Mormonites" or "Mormons." Smith and other church elders considered the name "Mormon" derogatory. In May 1834, the church adopted a resolution that the church would be known thereafter as The Church of the Latter Day Saints. At various times the church was also referred to as The Church of Jesus Christ and The Church of God.
In the late 1830s, Smith and those loyal to him founded a new headquarters in Far West, Missouri. At Far West in 1838, Smith announced a revelation renaming the organization the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Up to the time of Smith's assassination, the church was known alternatively as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After Smith's death, competing Latter Day Saint denominations organized under the leadership of a number of successors. The largest of these, led by Brigham Young and now based in Salt Lake City, Utah, continued using Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints until incorporating in 1851, when the church standardized the spelling of its name as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The name Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was also used by members who recognized Smith's son, Joseph Smith III, as his father's successor. Smith III became prophet-president of this group on April 6, 1860. However, the church incorporated in 1872 as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to distinguish it from the larger Utah church, at the time in the midst of federal issues related to polygamy. In 2001, the church changed its name again to "Community of Christ"—consciously echoing the original "Church of Christ" name.
Other Latter Day Saint denominations returned to the original name or a variation of it, including the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), the Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite), and the now-extinct Church of Christ (Whitmerite).
Virtually every Latter Day Saint denomination claims to be the rightful successor to the original Church of Christ and claims Joseph Smith, Jr. as its founding prophet or first president. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Community of Christ, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), Church of Christ (Temple Lot),, and Church of Christ with the Elijah Message all claim to have been organized by Smith on 6 April 1830, the date on which the Church of Christ was organized. Other denominations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), acknowledge that their organizations were created after this date, but nevertheless claim to be a re-establishment of the original church.
In an 1880 lawsuit, an Ohio court declared that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church, since renamed "Community of Christ") was the lawful successor to Smith's original Church of Christ. The court also explicitly held that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not the lawful successor because it "has materially and largely departed from the faith, doctrines, law, ordinances and usages of the said original Church".
In 1894, a federal United States court in Missouri held again that the RLDS Church was the lawful successor to the original church. However, on appeal the entire case was dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit without any discussion by the court of the issue of legal succession.