Book deals with that ‘Mormon Taboo’ … the cross

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) The Mormon Church has an ambivalent history with Christianity’s most iconic symbol, the cross. For about 70 years, the cross was generally tolerated within the church’s cultural fabric. However, the first decades of the 20th century initiated a slow but steady expression of disapproval of the cross; a criticism influenced by LDS leaders’ willingness to publicly declare the Roman Catholic Church as the “church of the devil” described in LDS scripture.

“Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo,” (John Whitmer Books) by Michael G. Reed, is a slim but valuable volume on the history of the Mormons’ relationship with the cross. As Reed notes, the Mormon Church was founded during an era of widespread Protestant hostility to the cross, a hostility that was due to that era’s wariness of Catholicism.

As Reed notes, Mormons were generally no fans of Catholicism, but they were more responsive to the cross as a religious symbol. There are two reasons for this. The first was that Mormonism was founded during a time of spiritual awakening in the early United States. While “organized religion” was criticized, individualistic spirituality flourished. Within these “rebel theologies,” spiritual manifestations were not uncommon. The symbol of the cross often played a role. Another reason the cross was tolerated by early Mormons, according to Reed, was due to founder Joseph Smith’s interest in Freemasonry. In fact, Nauvoo in the early 1840s was a hotbed of Freemasonry interest.

That interest is a key reason that the symbol of the cross traveled with the saints to Utah. Reed presents many photographs, both central to Mormonism and 19th century Utah, in which the cross is prominent.

However, as Reed notes, criticism of the cross started to creep more into the Mormon culture as a the 20th century began. Reed cites statements from leading Mormons, including then-apostle Moses Thatcher, that connected the cross to anti-Catholicism. Around 1915, a proposal in the Salt Lake area to put a cross on Ensign Peak received significant opposition, one that initially surprised LDS supporters. The eventual failure to place a memorial cross at Ensign Peak is cast — correctly by Reed — as a dispute between church leaders. The author writes that younger church leaders, such as David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith, had not grown up in the early era of the LDS Church and therefore had not been influenced by the more liberal, anti institutional, even anti-government thought of the 1840s to 1860s LDS leadership. Also, they had not been influenced by Freemasonry.

In my opinion, it’s important to note that in the first 30 years of the 20th century the LDS Church leadership had what might best be referred to as a “second Mormon reformation.” Leaders such as McKay, Fielding Smith, and later J. Reuben Clark, Mark E. Peterson and Bruce R. McConkie, successfully moved the church to extremely conservative ideology, including a renewal of harsh rhetoric against Catholicism.

As Reed notes, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, “To bow down before a cross or to look upon it as an emblem to be revered because of the fact that our Savior died upon a cross is repugnant …

The more blunt McConkie described the Roman Catholic Church as “being ‘most abominable above all other churches,’” writes Reed.

What I describe as a conservative era eventually endured about as long as the early Mormon Church’s initial tolerance of the cross. In the 21st it has waned. As Reed notes, it would be shocking to hear an LDS leader denounce Catholicism as McConkie once did. However, Reed still sees an institutional taboo against the cross in the LDS Church. To still use the term “taboo” though, is too harsh.

While it’s true that an anti-Catholic diatribe by an LDS leader would be greeted with shock today, it’s also true that a talk about the symbolic spiritual value of the cross would mostly be greeted with non-surprised acceptance by most Latter-day Saints.

This article, from the LDS publication The Ensign, is evidence of a stance on the cross that would have been at odds with the rhetoric of church leaders of the past. A specific condemnation of the cross may be an occasionally tactless utterance from some church members, but most others would find such beliefs offensive. Today, Latter-day Saints define the cross as a reminder of a responsibility to live a righteous life. That seems a pretty ecumenical position.

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37 Responses to Book deals with that ‘Mormon Taboo’ … the cross

  1. ScottH says:

    Many Latter-Day Saints are clearly unopposed to using religious symbols to denote their personal faith. It seems that the CTR symbol is frequently used by LDS members similar to the way the cross is used by other Christians. The LDS Church’s current position on use of the cross as a symbol seems more like boundary control; making it clear that Mormons hold themselves apart from other Christian faiths. I suppose this is not unlike the evangelical position that Mormons and Catholics are not true Christians. It has less to do with antipathy toward Mormons and Catholics and more to do with defining the boundaries of the evangelical movement.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      It’s true that there was an institutional Mormon antipathy to the cross. In fact, the book mentions the LDS Church’s efforts to have vets buried, in an official sense, without a cross. I do think though that those sentiments are virtually gone now.

    • Erick says:

      I think CTR may be more closely aligned with WWJD.

  2. Leonard says:

    It might be helpful to know that Reed once worked on articles for the Maxwell Institute BYU and has now taken a more secular route in his reviews and studies and is touting this book on exmormon.org.

    I assume the book will reveal what is meant by “…generally tolerated within the church’s cultural fabric.” and which 70 years he is speaking about. I believe that statement is still true today and has been for a while. So if it is the first 70 years he is describing and for the last 50 years it’s been tolerated, then there must be a very short period of time this book actually covers. It will be interesting to see what evidence he uses to explain his theory, but I doubt a few pictures will be able to express the church’s direction as a whole on the subject. Taken in light of what Ensign peak means to Mormons, I’d say putting a cross up there would be inappropriate. An ensign is an ensign and a cross is a cross. I agree with ScottH. The choice of our symbols does define our theology or boundary.

    I believe the book is just one more effort to undermine the Mormon faith.

    • packsoldier says:

      “I believe the book is just one more effort to undermine the Mormon faith.”

      The truth tends to do that…

    • Craig says:

      And there’s the mormon persecution complex at its best. Such bold statements without even opening the cover.

    • andrew h says:

      “I believe the book is just one more effort to undermine the Mormon faith.”

      Turn off the persecution complex for a moment my friend. I am as LDS as you will find, dyed in the wool, true blue, etc. – I loved the book, in fact, it has become one of may favorite books that deals with LDS history and doctrine. It in no way undermines or is meant to undermine faith. I have also met the author and I think that he is a pretty cool guy, he is interested in scholarship, not attacking the Church.

  3. D. Michael Martindale says:

    And they’re great for warding off vampires.

  4. Bob Becker says:

    During the recent kerfuffle about erecting roadside crosses for fallen state troopers, I don’t recall anyone objecting that crosses would not be appropriate for troopers who were LDS.

  5. Pingback: 20 June 2013 | MormonVoices

  6. Mike Reed says:

    Thanks for the review, Doug!

  7. E B says:

    Every time you quote McConkie I cringe. “McConkie doctrine” doesn’t always match up with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  8. LaVerl 09 says:

    Thanks Doug for bringing this item to our attention. Not only have we become more accepting of the symbol of the cross, but we are also buying and selling statues of the “Cristus” in our Church authorized book stores. I have even seen room corner shrines of this statue with back lights on it.
    Elder McConkie at first, as well as many others have used I Nephi 14:10 to point at the Catholic Church, but a careful reading will show that the verse talks of only “two” churches in the whole world. One is the Church of the Lamb of God and the other is the “church of the devil”. Simply said, “ALL” those who oppose the Church of the Lamb are of the church of the devil. And of course there is plenty of room left to define the Church of the Lamb. For instance does it include good Christians regardless of their denomination and does it exclude Mormons who work against the system?
    I read a poem once that really impressed me: “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it behooves none of us to [judge] the rest of us.”

  9. jonathan says:

    The modern reason for a lack of focus on the cross for me and for others of the Mormon faith is that we prefer to think of the resurrected Savior as opposed to the cross. That does not mean it is bad or evil to have a cross on around your neck and we understand that it means that the person is “trying to be like Jesus” just like we are. I lived in Europe for quite a while and it was hard for me to see the gruesome depictions of the Savior on the cross. I more interested in focusing and praying about what that Atonement means to me and others in the doctrinal aspects of immortality and eternal life.. the result of the suffering and not the suffering itself. For me it doesn’t have anything to do about being anti anything but PRO Gospel and what that means in our life and the result of lives of service, learning and betterment and then being saved by the grace of God. (and for I believe most members of the Mormon church — even my ancestors and early members of the church).

  10. Rockgod28 says:

    The cross was a device for humiliation and torture. A public display of shaming and execution to the Roman Empire that killed many thousands by this method of death. The pain is extreme and how you die isn’t starvation, exposure or blood loss. It is being unable to breath.

    The weight of your body hanging down prevents adequate airflow. That is why when the Romans want to end the torture they break the legs of the crucified. It is a horrific, terrible and cruel device of death that was used on Jesus, the Son of God.

    The message and testimony of the LDS Church has been since the beginning that He Lives.

    There is no symbol of the LDS Church or icon. There are two official icons or symbols of the LDS Church which are not really symbols or icons: Membership and the words The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter Day Saints. The closest is the angel Moroni, but it is not.

    The focus is only on two parts Jesus and members. Or God and man. It is interesting we don’t market ourselves with a symbol at all like a cross.

    I personally feel as Mormons we should distinguish ourselves from Traditional Christians, because we are not traditional Christians. We are Latter Day Christians with practices that resemble Judism more that Christianity. The Gospel and Baptism are about all we have in common. After that the divide becomes very wide from traditional Christianity.

    Temples are the main difference. There is no secret that temples set us apart from traditional Christianity and even modern Judism. What goes on inside the Temple. You can see for yourself with presentations at Temple Square of a model showing the interior of LDS Temples. Baptisms (proxy immersion) for the dead, Endowments (covenants), and Sealings (celestial marriage). That is what happens, no secret and no symbols.

    There isn’t going to be any at all either.

  11. Mike Reed says:

    LaVerl 09,
    I don’t want to be explicit about the endowment… So I will just quote Isaiah 22:23 and expect you to know what I mean. Are these symbols of the instruments of torture Jesus endured? Consider this. Consider also that the main literary symbol of the atonement in LDS scripture is, not Gethsemane, not the empty tomb… but rather the cross. Why is that? Why also do LDS visit carthage jail and treat it as sacred space? I mean… Joseph Smith’s still alive, right… and his work extends beyond the grave, right? Then why do we do that? –Mike Reed

    • Mike Reed says:

      Not quote, but reference…

    • Mike Reed says:

      Perhaps my last post should have been directed more to jonathan and rockgod28 (strange name btw)… pardon me…

      • Rockgod28 says:

        Take up your cross. Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23

        What is so strange about my name?

        We set ourselves separate from Traditional Christianity, because we are not traditional Christians. Our similarities end after baptism. I appreciate your treatment of the sacred ordinances of the Temple with respect.

        I hope you realize since you know about that reference then you know the focus of the ceremony. Jesus Christ is central to our worship as demonstrated in the Temple. It is not remembering the cross, but what happened for us to him.

        When a nail is driven through the wrist it hits a nerve that is extremely painful and causes the hand to close. All it is for us is a commitment and covenant to serve The Lord in a small way that Jesus did for us. Because we believe.

        The LDS Church does not make Cathage Jail our symbol. The jail is not sacred ground, but it is a place we reverence the Prophet Joseph Smith closing his testimony with his blood. The sacred places of LDS worship is where God is, not Joseph.

        When Jesus was executed we reverence the place, but it is not sacred. What is sacred about execution? Nothing. He suffered and died in front of his mother, his friends and disciples. It is horrible and awful that Jesus was declared innocent, then killed to appease the people.

        We know Joseph’s spirit is alive going about the work of The Lord. The same as Peter, James, and John and other servants are alive also doing the work of The Lord. Now we are talking about to different things. Symbolism in the Temple is not the same as creating a symbol like a cross.

        Constantine used the symbol of the cross for power and divine protection against his enemies. The cross was used as a political symbol. That is rejected by the LDS Church since our symbolism is covered up and more internal, not outward except on how we live a life as close to the savior’s.

        • Brian Harris says:

          I have been an ‘inactive Mormon” all my adult life, 45 years now, and the only Sacred places I have ever know are the Temples, that being said, I have been to most of the Mormon tourist sites and they are very interesting but not sacred sites.

  12. mormonengineer says:

    Say what you want, but the Mormon church is awesome. There is too much knowledge here to ignore. People, go into the quiet of your home, read to find the truth, pray to find the truth and many will find a feeling as if to say “there is something here”. Been in it since 38 yrs old. Now 53.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I have read the book and it is just an interesting historical study of how Mormons dealt with the religious prejudices of American Protestants against the Catholic crucifix. Anti- Catholic feeling was so strong a century ago that anti-Catholic amendments were added to many state constitutions including in Utah. Howevet, most Protestants got over their aversion to the cross with ots Catholic connections and devided instead to compete with Catholics by adopting the cross in their own architecture. Originally the Protestant churches of New England and New York had no crosses, and Mormon architecture in Kirtland, Nauvoo and Utah reflected that. Protestants who criticize Mormons for not using the cross are hypocritically attacking a viewpoint that was dominant in their own denominations until a.century ago.

  14. Lasvegasrichard says:

    I’ve had it put to me as such ; that if Christ had been executed with a gun or club or sword , would one still revere the symbol of death ?

  15. yossef roblah says:

    é verdade cruz é o simbolo do capeta,e não adianta discordar nem achar
    ruim porque um dia terão certeza disso.

  16. Bob says:

    We as humans have seven main energy centers in our bodies which control all things having to do with our lives. When one or more of these energy centers become blocked then we experience problems in our lives.
    These centers align with our spines starting with the base of our spine and going to our crown. The eye center is located in the center of our forehead where the left brain and right brain come together. Understanding that the right side of our brain controls the left side of our body and the left side of our brain control the right side of our body.
    The cross appears naturally in the human. Knowing that the right side of our brain controls our hearts then we know how our hearts can be healed by Christ. The God influence is in our right brain, where our healing, intuition, imagination, love joy, happiness and peace reside.
    When we use too much analytical thinking, our left brain, then we lose our right brain influence. Our connection to this earth is in the left brain and our connection to the universe is in the right brain. In order to be happy in this life we need a balanced amount of left and right brain influence.this is done by taking our out of balance thinking to the cross, the third eye, and restoring our balance healing our hearts.
    When Christ said that the kingdom of God is within that is what he meant. All of the great teachers of our time knew that we had all of the tools available to us to make us genuine and by being genuine we can become a genius.

  17. Howard says:

    The Cross is not Christian. It is a 4000 yr old Icon prohibited by the 2nd Commandment. Jesus was Crucified on a Tree ref Jn 19:31

  18. Howard says:

    References to “Tree” are found in Deut 21:23; Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal 3:13 1 Pet 2:24. Jn 19:31 uses “Cross” as a translation of Xulon “Piece of Tree” used to affix the 3 “Bodies” to the Tree (Stauros). The Cross is the T used in Egypt as the “Ankh” and in Mesopotamia as the T for Tammuz.

    • Brian Harris says:

      Well said Howard . . . now we are getting to the crux of the cross discussion. The very old and powerful world wide symbols seem to be: the cross (death), ankh (life), swastika (to be good or higher self), and the horizontal figure eight (eternity). All have their uses and are appropriated for such, but for Jesus Christ I choose none of them.

  19. Mike Reed says:

    Brian and Howard (and anyone who believes that the cross was not an early Christian symbol), You should read the appendix to my book.

    • Howard says:

      No need Mike, 4000 years ago in Babylon, worshipers of Tammuz used ashes from the previous year’s Yule Logs to put a T on their foreheads during 40 days “Weeping for Tammuz”; we call this Lent now. The Ankh and Tau came from this.
      The oldest form of the Cross is the Celtic Cross; the Circled Cross symbolized the 4 Quarters of the Earth in Sargon I day just after the Flood; broken at the corners, it became the Swastika.
      Constantine I instituted veneration of the Cross in 325AD with his fake vision of “IHS” (In Hoc Signo vinces or By this sign Conquer) Conquer who? Christians of course; he was Pagan. Back then, Pagan carried the Crucifix in the form of a Twisted Crucifix, the blasphemy of which can be seen carried by Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis I.
      There are no Christian Symbols; not the Cross nor the White Bearded Jesus; Christianity resides in hearts of Born Again Christians

      • Mike Reed says:

        You are wrong about Constantine being the one responsible for instituting the cross. You really need to read my appendix.

  20. Dave says:

    I’ve been a Christian/Mormon all of my life. My mother grew up Protestant and taught us that the cross was an idol, yet had no issues with us wearing CTR rings, as long we we remembered they were not holy. I wear a cross and have since I was 16. It reminds me of my faith. As a Latter-day Saint, the cross is a symbol of my commitment to pick up my cross and follow Jesus. I had always thought that we didn’t promote the cross for the same reason we stopped growing beards – to separate ourselves from the hippies. McConkie is an idiot, and I don’t count much of anything he said a “Mormon Doctrine.” He did a good job of spreading confusion among the saints and spreading hate. When he said something true, he was dead on, the rest of the time he was just an arrogant fool spreading myths. I can see why the Lord called him to be an apostle, but I can also see why he was never going to be the head of the Church. We need a 3rd awakening, to get rid of the right wing nonsense he and other leaders made up.

  21. Howard says:

    I read your Appendix Mike; I’ll debate you anytime in any setting. You are a Gnostic just like the men you claim were Christian: Jerome, Clement and Origen. Early Christians did not draw the T or + on their foreheads; that practice came to Jews from Babylonian Captivity.
    The Cross is a Pagan Idol; Constantine’s mother Helena, the daughter of King Coelus, a Druid King, falsely claimed to have found Pieces of the “True Cross” and her Pagan son Constantine the Great claimed his vision before battling his brother in law Maxtentius to rally Christians to pick up the sword. Crusaders followed that same path following Knights Templar.
    You are recycling the age old garbage and charging money for it. Shame on you!
    Real Christians need no Symbols; they have the Blood of Jesus Christ as Melchisdek to protect them.
    I’ll bet you claim the Melchisedek Priesthood don’ you Mike? King of Jeruslem and Priest of the Most High is what that title means. Tell us; what was Abraham like; you did collect Tithes from him didn’t you?

  22. Rob says:

    I’m glad at least one of you mentioned the crucifix as opposed to a “cross”. The main complaint of protestant, muslim or jew is the corpus representing a crucified man on a cross. You rarely see them in movies (unless it’s a horror film) because they are not “politically correct”. To this day, I still get grief from non-Catholic christians when I wear one. I remember going to a Preference Dance at BYU and my date shaming me for wearing it under my shirt. It is a bold statement and you can’t blame it on pagan practice other than it was a pagan execution. I believe God took what was known as a curse, “Cursed is he who is hanged on a tree” and turned it into a blessing. Yes, the cross, even a crucifix, is a sign of contradictionto today that slaps us in the face. St. Paul was well aware of this fact, evident in 1 Corinthians 1:23+27 “For we preach Christ and Him crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness… God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the the things that are strong…” 1 Cor 2:2 “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” The cross, a symbol to the Protestants a symbol of resurrection, victory over death. The crucifix, a symbol to Catholics one of sacrifice, propitiation, expiation, a supreme offering to man. Remember how Jesus Himself spoke: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” John 3:14-15

    • Howard says:

      Right on Rob. The Cross is a Pagan symbol first used in Earth Measurement just after the Flood; Tikkun Olam is the Hebrew term for “Repair the Earth” to pre-flood conditions. The Old Covenant ended when its Author Jesus Christ was Crucified between 2 Thieves, one of whom went to Heaven because he recognized God was in his same predicament, the other did not.
      6 uplifted arms surrounding the Head of Jesus “KING OF THE JEWS” formed the 7 branched candlestick Moses constructed. Gnostics have since replaced this with the Menorah; no more a Jewish symbol than the Cross or Crucifix is Christian.

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