Friday, September 18, 2009

Cross: LDS Contempt for the Christian Symbol

As some of my readers already know, I have received media attention lately in the Salt Lake Tribune and Mormon Times (published in the Deseret News). Although both stories covered research that I did for my MA thesis, the second article specifically reacts to the presentation I delivered at last month's SLC Sunstone Symposium.

Overall, I am quite happy with these articles. A couple issues that I have are as follows: The Salt Lake Tribune piece mentions how I (as a teenage kid) stole a cross necklace and wore it to church; but then the article gives the false impression that my mother knew about my theft, and was more concerned about me hiding the necklace than returning it. No. My mother never knew that I stole it (until recently, that is).

The Mormon Times piece is also good, but seems to have been overly concerned about Church PR. I understand and empathize with Latter-day Saints who may not like the words taboo / opposition / contempt / aversion. However, I remain convinced that these labels apply (in one way or another) to the general attitude Mormons have had toward the cross. "General" is the key-word here, since I fully understand that some Mormons embrace the symbol--but these people (as I see it) are hardly representative of the Mormon mainstream. The good news, though, is that the Mormon minority seems to be growing, and that the aversion still existing among most Latter-day Saints is softening. Will the Mormon mainstream ever drop their negative perception of the symbol? I suppose only time will tell. For the moment, the Church seems to be moving in that direction.

Image: Amelia Folsom Young (Briaham Young's polygamous wife). Photograph from Utah State Historical Society Classified Photo Collection, no. 14195.


Edit to add:

I am scheduled to appear as a guest for John Larson's Mormon Expressions podcast. The interview should be available September 22nd at the following link:

Also... here is a newspaper article that may be of interest to readers, which I think compliments my research (about Mormon/Catholic relations) quite nicely:

"Catholic-LDS relations through the years - warming trend follows a cold war," Salt Lake Tribune

Thanks to Seth Bryant for bringing this article to my attention.


  1. Most Mormons I know (not too empirical, right?) would express either discomfort or "nothing" in regards to the cross as a Christian symbol today. I still haven't had time to read the whole thing, Mike, but I still have it in my queue.

  2. BHodges: "Most Mormons I know (not too empirical, right?)...."

    Me: It would be nice to have a study done that could quantify current LDS attitudes. Although I think I have been able to get a general sense of existing attitudes in the Church, my study took on more of the cultural-historical approach.

    BHodges: "would express either discomfort or 'nothing' in regards to the cross as a Christian symbol today."

    Me: Among those that would "express" nothing, do you think a large portion of this group would still "experience" discomfort? On my mission, for example, an investigator announced to a ward-member, my companion, and I, that he received a revelation from God, confirming that he should join the Church. As we all expressed excitement over his decision, he then proceeded to tell us about the "sign." The night before, he had a dream of a large cross of flames. All three of us continued to express excitement and congratulate him for his decision... but deep down had concerns over the "sign" he claimed to receive. It didn't make sense to us that God would use this symbol to lead him to the Church.

  3. Correction: John Larson's Mormon Expression podcast interview isn't expected to be available until Oct 6th.

  4. Mormon Times did a story about an art exhibit recently put on displayed in BYU's Museum. I am very much encouraged by the following commentary on Chris Young's piece:


    [Christopher Young's] painting, "Man of Sorrows," shows Christ holding the cross he would be crucified on, but it is different from many such paintings.

    On various trips to Europe, Young says, "I've seen thousands of images of this moment in Christ's life. Most of them show him hunched over, in agony. But I wanted to show the triumph, the fact that he was able to bear this burden; that he is bearing the cross but also the burdens of man, and he is able to do it."

    So, instead of scarring the man, he scarred the wood. "In our Mormon culture, we sometimes tend to dismiss the cross as a symbol, but in many ways it is a beautiful symbol -- not a symbol of torture, but a beautiful instrument of the atonement."

  5. I tend to agree with Lenny Bruce, who said, "If Jesus had come today, we'd have a generation of parochial school kids walking around with little gold electric chairs around their necks."

    I don't need a representation of the instrument used for His execution to remind me of the sacrifices He made for me.

  6. QDman,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I am reminded of a time when my bishop (several years ago) spoke in sacrament meeting, and brought to the podium with him a piece of twisted metal. He explained how a month before, he and his wife got in a car accident, and his wife had nearly died. He gave a tearful account of the emotions that he felt just after the accident (while waiting for the ambulance to arrive at the scene), not knowing whether his precious wife would soon die. After expressing to the congregation his gratitude that his wife survived, and was on the way to recovery, he held up the piece of metal for all to see. The bishop explained that he kept the debris (that had fallen from the car during the accident), because it would serve an important reminder to him: To cherish every moment he had with his wife, from this time forth, for he could never know if it would be their last moment together in this life.

    Now... I doubt that my bishop ever made the connection between the value he saw in this twisted piece of metal, and the value Christians see in the symbol of the cross... but I sure did. There is cathartic value in religion for these kinds of things.

    Although most Mormons may reject the visual/material symbol of the cross today, they regularly tour Carthage Jail (where the prophet and his brother were killed). The location is treated as sacred space, in fact--a place where Mormons have spiritual experiences. You should also know that symbols of the nails used to crucify Jesus are found in the LDS endowment (see Isaiah 22:23), and that literary symbolism of the cross is pervasive in Mormon scripture. If you are LDS, and if references to torture should be viewed as abhorrent, as you seem to claim, then these things need to be accounted for and reconciled.

    Best regards,

  7. I am a non-practicing Mormon and I go to a non-denomanational church. Since I started going there, I have come to love crosses and actually have many of them that I wear. I see absolutely nothing wrong with the sign of the cross for Christians as it is a symbol of their faith that Christ died for us and then resurrected so we may also. I am reading the Book of Momon again and am leaning toward going back, however my Christian friends would not understand because they say Mormons are a Cult (of course, I know that they are not) because I have been a Mormon most of my life. I am 67 years old. Deanna

  8. Thanks for your thoughts, Deanna. And best of luck to you during your spiritual journey, wherever you may choose to go.

  9. as a mormon i see the cross as the thing which christ died for all our sins. when christ died he bore our sins on that cross. he was cursed on the cross. ( deuteronomy 21:23 ) so in a way the cross is a symbol of sin and and due to our sins christ had to die on it. the most important part of the crucifiction is his resurrection. and to know that he still lives. and we can share in that resurrection with him. btw the common symbol lds would use now would be the angel with the horn. the angel from revelation which will call the gospel to the world. mormon belive that this angel is moroni. and that the gospel is being called to the world.

  10. @Anonymous. Thank you for your comment. Yes, I know what Mormons typically believe about the symbol of the cross. Early Christians and Latter-day Saints, however, did not limit the meaning of the cross to death and sin. Early Mormons perceived the pre-Columbian cross (in archeological remains) as evidence confirming the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The LDS Church petitioned the Salt Lake City Council to erect a cross monument on Ensign Peak, to honor the Mormon Pioneers. Spencer W. Kimball reported receiving a sign from God (confirming to his mind that he was called to be an apostle) when he saw a cross. For more information about my research on the Mormon cross taboo, see the newspaper articles linked to in my opening post (above). My book "Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo" (John Whitmer Books) will also be published soon. I assume that you are aware that many Christians today (and even some LDS converts) see the empty cross as a symbol of resurrection. But even if you are right in presuming that such symbolism should be limited to death. Should symbolism of the nails (with which Jesus was crucified) be removed from the endowment? Should Latter-day Saints stop touring Carthage Jail (where Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed) and stop treating it as sacred space? Of course not.