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Mormons and the cross

Published May 1, 2009 3:22 pm

Research » Historian learns early Mormons did not eschew the cross as a symbol.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's no accident that Mormon steeples, temples and necks are free of Christian crosses.

LDS leaders long have said the cross, so ubiquitous among traditional Christians, symbolizes Jesus' death, while Mormons worship the risen Christ. Some Latter-day Saints go even farther, condemning the cross as some kind of pagan or satanic symbol.

Now a historian at California State University in Sacramento claims in a just-completed master's thesis that Mormon aversion to the cross is a relatively recent development in LDS history, prompted in part by anti-Catholic sentiments.

"It first started at the grass-roots level around the turn of the 20th century, " Michael Reed argues in the thesis, "The Development of the LDS Church's Attitude Toward the Cross."

"It later became institutionalized during the 1950s under the direction of LDS Prophet David O. McKay," Reed writes.

Before that, Reed says, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used and promoted the revered Christian symbol as a potent expression of personal and collective faith.

That's a welcome conclusion, says Mormon scholar Bob Rees of southern California.

Reed's research explains Mormons' "ambiguous, confused relationship to the cross," says Rees, a former LDS bishop. "At one time there was an informal acceptance of it as an overt symbol, but in the 20th century its use has been discouraged by church leaders. Wanting to maintain its distinctive identity among Christian churches, the church essentially rejected outward manifestations of the cross, one of the most compelling symbols in all of Christendom - even though there's nothing doctrinally, theologically or scripturally that keeps us from embracing it."

Lifelong fascination » Reed came to his thesis naturally. As a Mormon child in Sacramento, Reed was fascinated by the cross. He once stole a cross necklace and wore it to church on the following Sunday. His mother viewed the theft and jewelry as signs of his apostasy, Reed says. "She asked me to put it under my shirt."

Later, his rebellion toned down, but his attraction to the cross continued.

While Reed was a Mormon missionary in Baltimore, a potential convert said he had dreamed of a cross in flames, which he interpreted as a signal to join the church. Uncomfortable with the cross as divine message, Reed later sought answers in Mormon Doctrine , a book by the late Bruce R. McConkie. McConkie, vehemently anti-Catholic, equated the cross with the Bible's satanic "mark of the beast."

The missionaries also consulted the work of another expert, LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith, who compared the cross to a guillotine. Smith, who was church president from 1970 to 1972, believed that both items were merely "tools of execution."

A complex story » Early leaders of the LDS Church did not share that hostility, Reed concluded.

While Mormons, like Protestants, preferred simple buildings with little art, founder Joseph Smith used a cross to mark the spot for a future temple on his plans for the City of Zion. Many Saints used the Greek or Maltese cross common in folk beliefs, Freemasonry and other popular rituals of the time. They also used the cross from pre-Columbian America, Reed writes, as evidence that their unique scripture, The Book of Mormon, was a literal history from that era.

In pioneer Utah, crosses of various styles were common in jewelry, church art and funeral arrangements. Amelia Folsom Young, one of Brigham Young's wives, sported a cross necklace, and a floral cross was prominent on the caskets of Daniel H. Wells, Young's first counselor in the First Presidency, and John Taylor, the third LDS president. Architects designed the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City as well as LDS tabernacles in Vernal and Loa, Utah, on a "cruciform" plan.

But the clearest example was Charles Nibley's 1916 proposal to place a giant cross on top of Ensign Peak as a way to honor the Mormon pioneers. Karl A. Sheid, Salt Lake City's commissioner of public affairs and finance, emphatically supported the move, saying: "That the 'Mormon' Church, which has so frequently and so unjustly been accused of not being a Christian church at all, should volunteer to place Christianity's most sacred emblem on Ensign peak - that place so hallowed by the memory of pioneer days -- is to my mind an event of first importance: One that should be and doubtless will be heralded to the four quarters of the globe, to the ultimate benefit of this commonwealth."

Others, especially Apostle Orson F. Whitney and members of the LDS 20th Ward in Salt Lake City, opposed it as a strictly Catholic symbol. The proposal eventually was discarded.

Still, for a couple more decades, Mormons continued to find meaning in the cross.

When Spencer W. Kimball was called as an apostle in 1943, for example, feelings of inadequacy rocked the future president. On a hillside hike, Reed writes, Kimball saw a "sign that gave him assurance God was with him."

It was a "huge cross with its arms silhouetted against the blue sky beyond," Kimball wrote in his journal. "It was just an ordinary cross made of two large heavy limbs of a tree, but in my frame of mind, and coming on it so unexpectedly, it seemed like a sacred omen."

A ban institutionalized » Roots of opposition to the cross were laid in the 1920s, when then-apostle McKay was president of the church's European Mission. He noted with disdain one Catholic celebration in Belgium, where people were "drinking and carousing until 6:30 a.m."

He also saw the obstacles Mormon missionaries faced in Catholic countries such as France, Italy and Spain, while having more success in Protestant areas such as Great Britain.

Tensions in Utah arose in the 1930s, Reed writes, when the state's Roman Catholic Church became more concentrated and powerful. Catholic Bishop Duane Hunt launched a radio show intended to reaffirm the faith of the state's Catholics, but the Mormon leadership -- including McKay, by then in the First Presidency -- saw Hunt's addresses as a veiled attempt to convert Mormons.

Two years after becoming president in 1953, McKay pointed to a Catholic church in California and commented: "There are two great anti-Christs in the world: Communism and that church."

In 1957, McKay established the LDS Church's no-cross protocol, saying it was not proper for LDS girls to wear it on their jewelry, saying the cross is "purely Catholic. ... Our worship should be in our hearts."

Though McKay later tempered his comments about Catholicism, his opposition to the cross became church policy. From that day to this, Mormons look askance at any member who pays too much homage to the ubiquitous Christian symbol.

"If someone is wearing a cross, we get very uncomfortable," Rees says. "Yet we believe the scars of his crucifixion is how Christ identified himself in ancient America, ancient Israel and to Joseph Smith. If Christ so openly displayed the marks of the cross, shouldn't we be more open to its symbolic possibilities?"

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