(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.