Mormonism and the Cross: Looking at the History
Last year during a discussion about why Mormons do not wear the cross I made the following statement:
I think it is very important to look for historical explanations, rather than contemporary or popular explanations for why Mormons do not wear crosses or have crosses on their meeting houses. For that matter, it is important to draw a distinction between the cross as a doctrinal symbol, an architectural symbol and for personal adornment.
In regards to meetinghouses, Bushman observes that “During the course of his life, [Joseph] never built a standard meetinghouse, even in Nauvoo, where the Mormon population exceeded 10,000.” Rather, Joseph’s “architectural imagination focused on temples.” Bushman explains, “However culturally anomalous, the City of Zion occupied a central place in Joseph Smith’s design for world renewal. He conceived the world as a vast funnel with the city at the vortex and the temple at the center of the city.” I haven’t found any historical evidence that Joseph taught using crosses in architecture was somehow unfavorable or improper, but rather he was looking towards the tradition of ancient Israel for his inspiration and sought to create “a church of cities rather than a church of congregations.” (RSR, 216-222).
In regards to wearing crosses, Robert L. Millet offers this food for thought. “Inasmuch as many of our early converts came from a Puritan background, they, like the Puritans, were essentially anti-ceremonial, which included not using crosses. For that matter; Baptists did not have crosses on their churches for a long time, at least until they began to move into mainstream Protestantism.” (Claiming Christ, 100). This corresponds to Bushman’s response that “The cross was used by very few Protestant churches in 1830 . . . Thus it required no decision on Joseph’s part. No one around him used the cross.” I haven’t found any historical evidence that somehow the early saints are were encouraged not to wear crosses.
In regards to popular explanations, the unfortunate notion that the cross on a necklace represents merely an instrument of death and that many people were crucified and not just Jesus of Nazareth may be partly correct as far as the naked facts are concerned, but I find it utterly lacking in sympathy and in understanding of the beliefs of others. Not only is it uncharitable it is entirely unpersuasive. It would be good to retire this indefinitely. All religions choose symbols to imbue with religious significance. For many Christians, the cross is an intimate symbol expressing their faith, love and devotion. One convert from Mormonism to Catholicism quipped that if Christ was executed in a gas chamber, he would find the biggest gas chamber he could find and wear it.
Furthermore, I think there is a lack of understanding about the two symbols: the cross and the crucifix. For many Protestants the cross is notable because it is an empty cross in contrast to the crucifix. In this context, the empty cross represents the resurrection of Christ, an empty tomb, He is not here, he is risen! There is a deep irony that for one person this symbol points to the resurrection, another chooses to see this as merely a means of torture. Also, while one can find Protestant polemics against the Catholic crucifix as a means of religious symbol we would do well to have religious sensitivity and tolerance for both symbols.
Lastly, in regards to doctrinal symbolism, my perspective is that the cross is definitely a symbol for Christ and his redeeming atonement even in the Mormon tradition. For the Nephite prophets, the cross was highly important and Nephi, Jacob and King Benjamin preach and prophecy of Christ and the cross. There is absolutely nothing incompatible with the cross and Nephite orthodoxy. Millet quotes Joseph F. Smith’s words that “having been born anew, which is the putting away of the old man sin, and putting on the man Christ Jesus, we have become soldiers of the Cross, having enlisted under the banner of Jehovah for time and for eternity.” (Ibid; quoting JD 18:273, Joseph F. Smith, April 8, 1876.)
What all of this tells me is that there is often a very unfortunate result when we feel compelled to make up some sort of explanation for why we are different from someone else that has no basis in history. To point out that Latter-day Saints do not use a particular symbol in the same way as other religions is not an explanation but merely an observation. In addition, a Latter-day Saint may explain why he or she personally does not use wear crosses, but this is a completely different question from why the Latter-day Saint church and tradition historically did not adopt the cross in its architecture or in personal adornment. If we are seeking to explain the latter, then we must use historical sources. If we are seeking to explain the former, I simply suggest we proceed with caution because the results can be disastrous. (Comment made July 15, 2008, briefly edited from original).
Recently, Michael G. Reed (MA California State University, Sacramento) presented findings at Sunstone based on his master’s thesis on the history of Latter-day Saint attitudes and the cross. Michael De Groote of MormonTimes covered the presentation (Sunstone speaker attempts to explain LDS ‘aversion’ to cross) and included interesting photographs of early saints, including a 1895 photograph of Amelia Folsom Young, a wife of Brigham Young, wearing a cross. Other photographs include a floral arrangement in the shape of a cross during the time of Joseph F. Smith and a request by the LDS Church in 1916 for a monument in the shape of a cross to be erected to honor the Mormon pioneers.
I’m pleased to see more historical research done on this point. As I’ve tried to explain in my discussions with others on this topic, there is no theological reason in Mormonism against using the cross as a symbol either from Joseph Smith or from the Book of Mormon. Therefore, it is a mistake to try to construct a theological reason post hoc for why LDS do not use the cross. I’m not against someone actually discovering a theological reason in the historical record, but to my knowledge no one has done this and I doubt anyone could ever find something like this.
Reed also seeks to explain what happened in the history that lead to Latter-day Saints not using the cross. According to De Groote, Reed’s hypothesis is that David O. McKay held the view that the cross was a “purely Catholic” symbol, and at one time in his life David O. McKay harbored private criticism of the Catholic Church. This view was later abandoned through McKay’s personal friendship with Catholic Bishop Duane Hunt. See Gregory A. Prince, William Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (University of Utah Press, 2005) pp. 113-123. Unfortunately, after years of President McKay and Bishop Hunt building a cordial and respectful relationship, a book titled “Mormon Doctrine” penned by Bruce R. McConkie arrived on the scene that added to anti-Catholic sentiment and, according to Prince and Wright, “infuriated” President McKay. (p. 122). While the aftermath is something beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say, the lesson I draw from these events is that we need 1) more historical understanding and less theological conjecturing, 2) more personal relationships with those of other faiths, and 3) more caution when trying to explain attitudes and practices in the Church.
I look forward to reading Reed’s full master’s thesis and I hope doing so will answer questions about the nexus between private feelings of McKay and the creation of an “institutional” aversion to the wearing of a cross in Mormonism. At any rate, I would like to stress that we should respect the feelings that those of other faiths have to either the cross or the crucifix and also understand that early Latter-day Saints apparently felt no hesitation to adorning themselves with the cross.