C is for the Cross

Heavy competition in the C’s, including Chastity, Church Administration, and Coffee, but I chose the Cross because I have rarely seen more than a cursory one-sentence discussion of why the LDS Church declines to use the image of the cross in its churches and its literature. The standard explanation is that the cross is a sign of Christ’s death, whereas in the LDS Church we celebrate His Life. In this post I’ll review the seven sentences of the TTTF entry, then discuss the pros and cons of the LDS position.

The entry is mildly and surprisingly positive toward the cross as a symbol of Christianity: its use in Christian churches is described as "a symbol of the Savior’s death and Resurrection and as a sincere expression of faith." It then repeats the standard LDS position ("[B]ecause the Savior lives, we do not use the symbol of His death as the symbol of our faith"), not explaining why Mormons, too, are not able to use the cross as a symbol of His resurrection as well as His death or as a sincere expression of faith. It’s worth noting that the TTTF article The Atonement of Jesus Christ notes that the Atonement "took place in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary." So the cross could also now serve for Mormons as a symbol of the Atonement. The article notes that LDS chaplains are the only Church officials who wear a cross, a pleasant sign of the pragmatic Mormon approach to such issues.

This determination to avoid using the cross in LDS iconography and architecture is puzzling given the insistence by LDS leaders and scholars that the Church should be considered a fully Christian denomination. They have even gone so far as changing the title of the Book of Mormon itself (adding "Another Testament of Jesus Christ" as an official subtitle) to emphasize our Christian bona fides. Simply putting up a few crosses here and there would be an easy way to signal that the LDS desire to be considered more Christian is sincere. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the LDS Church’s studious avoidance of Christianity’s universal symbol represents a considered rejection of identification with mainstream Christianity.

On the other hand, the LDS Church has been fairly successful in establishing its own religious identity. "Their churches don’t have crosses" is one of several distinguishing features of the modern LDS Church, and if you want to be recognized as a distinct denomination, you need distinguishing features. I don’t feel especially deprived to attend church in a chapel that’s devoid of crosses. Personally, padded benches and air conditioning do more to enhance my worship experience than a variety of religious symbols beveled into the woodwork or chiseled into stained-glass windows. So it’s hard to argue that the lack of crosses really has any particular negative effect on the LDS image or on the experience of individual Mormons.

Here’s my parting question: What then is the defining symbol of Mormonism? The Moroni image? The Book of Mormon? A pair of Anglo missionaries in white shirts and ties? These and perhaps a half-dozen other symbols are candidates for the defining symbol of Mormonism. What’s your favorite symbol of the Church?

[Earlier posts: A B]


  1. Temples.

  2. john fowles says:

    President Hinckley has recently written that the way we live our lives is the symbol by which the Church is and should be known. That puts a heavy onus on all of us.

    Perhaps the TTTF doesn’t mention this (out of political correctness?) but couldn’t idolatry have something to do with this? The early leaders of the Church, particularly Joseph Smith, took the injunction to avoid idolatry (that is, the worship of idols) very seriously. I have great respect for most Christian churches (even looking past their generally ubiquitous anti-Mormonism) but must still admit the impression of idolatry I get when observing a baroque crucifix of the tortured Christ in, e.g. Regensburg, or gazing at the massive golden statue of the crucified Christ, albeit sans crucifix, that hangs ominously above the congregation in Berlin’s Gedächtnis-Kirche near Zoo Station. I actually greatly appreciate these items for their artistic merit but shy away from the thought of worshipping them, even as only a symbol of the living and triumphant Jesus that I have come to know through the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The angel Moroni, you might counter, is just as much the idol as is the giant hanging golden Jesus in the Gedächtnis-Kirche. I have to disagree with that because there is no way in which the Church can accurately be described as worshipping a statue of Moroni. The statue of Moroni is more analogous to the statues of Luther, Zwingli, Melanchton, and Calvin in the Berlin Cathedral, which I don’t think that our Church necessarily has anything against. After all, we have our share of statues of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Karl G. Maeser, etc. These are just works of art, not to be worshipped.

    The devotion given to the crucifix with its tortured Christ, rightly or wrongly according to strict tenets of doctrine in those churches, actually seems to closely resemble Greco-Roman worship of statued deities. If for that reason alone the Church has pursued the correct course in choosing not to raise the cross, despite the Church’s obvious central focus on Jesus Christ. This actually applies also to the devotion given to statues of the Saints in the Catholic Church. Nowhere was this more evident to me than while visiting the Wieskirche in Bavaria last month. To reiterate, I highly value the contribution of the Catholic Church to the righteousness of our societies, and I love the artistic value of these things, but standing the Wieskirche looking at the “gegeiselte Heiland,” I couldn’t shake the impression of Greco-Roman idol worship.

  3. john fowles says:

    (“der gegeiselte Heiland” is “the flagellated Christ” and the idol is Christ chained to what looks like an Amsterdam post, his entire body bloody with whip lashes.)

  4. We had a good discussion about this at United Brethren a while back.

  5. Yeah. I was gonna say that President Hinckley said the lives of the members are our symbol, but John Fowles got that already. I was a convert, and had to “give up” my cross necklace (decades ago) when the missionaries told me to. I never understood that, and never felt very good about it. But two things have changed that, so I do feel better about our not using crosses. One, in a talk that Ezra Taft Benson gave to a largely Jewish group, he told them about the Church, and said, come to see us. There are no crosses in our buildings. You must understand how much the Jewish people see the cross as something that was used to torture and kill them. I believe that the Lord has instructed us not to use it so as to keep our arms wide open for greater numbers of people who might have trouble with the image of the cross. Two, I had a good Bishop who praised a family who gave a portion of land to Riverside County, CA, with the stipulation that the cross at the top of the Mount (Mount Roubidoux) had to remain or the land would revert to the family. Why did he praise this? Because the county wanted to get rid of the cross as a religious symbol, but they could not. I realized that although we do not make use of the cross, thereby allowing more of God’s children to feel comfortable coming to our Church, we DO recognize the cross as a symbol of Christ and Christianity in this world, and not something to be denigrated. In this increasingly godless world, those of us who believe in the Almighty, and particularly in the Savior, will need to respect each other’s efforts to win the battle.

  6. John,

    I think you’re conflating two things that are quite different. I mean, there are crosses and there are crosses. Der gegeiselte Heiland might make you uneasy, but it’s a LONG way from a simple cross. I don’t have a theological problem with the former (au contraire, was not the Passion an experience of brutal, horrible agony?), but aethetically I would prefer not to adorn my home with pictures of torture. But a simple cross, like a Celtic cross or an Armenian cross in particular, would be welcome in my home.

    Remember why Moses lifted up the staff in the wilderness? Because our hope, our only hope is Jesus and his atonement. All other symbols (Moroni etc.) pale in comparison.

    From United Brethren’s discussion: Mormons DO focus on the cross. Where’s Gethsemane in the Book of Mormon? What’s the holiest token in the Temple? What symbols does Jesus carry even now on his body? The True to the Faith explanation is just plain PC twaddle. The real reason? To draw a distinction between us and traditional Christians. The Cross as a corporate symbol has a tainted history (Ku Klux Klan anyone?) and it’s sensible to reject it, as a corporate symbol. But as a personal symbol of one’s devotion to Jesus? Fine by me.

  7. john fowles says:

    Ronan, what do you think of the similarities between the crucifix (and the statues of saints) and Greco-Roman statue deity worship?

  8. Ronan, I only have time for a short browse (Buttgold’s wedding is friday, my best friend is coming with her bratty daughter, I have to change the sheets and clean the house and run down to Costco to shop for cream puffs–I hate weddings!)but that is a good discussion.

    I, too, have wondered about this issue. I’ve honored it, but because I was raised attending many different churches, I find comfort in the cross symbol. When my daughter (aka BG) who is very faithful, decided rather rebelliously and untypically for her, to buy a cross necklace, I let her. She got bored with it, nobody commented, I don’t think it’s sinful. They are quite pretty.

  9. John,

    The same way I think about the similarities between Enuma Elish and Genesis, Gilgamesh and the Flood, Psalm 82 and the Hymn to the Aten, Jesus and Dumuzi, the Christmas tree and the pagan tree, and the temple and Freemasonry…

    …i.e. that symbols are fluid from one religion to another, that connections between the two are hard to resist but difficult to prove, and that once a symbol is imbued with a new meaning, its origin is largely irrelevant.

    So, if the cross has a pagan origin, I don’t care. When Christians revere the Cross they are not revering Zeus.

    Now, when they are burning it whilst lynching blacks, that’s another issue entirely…

  10. RoastedTomatoes says:

    Simple crosses are welcome in our home and our lives. We get substantial comments from church members, however, about our framed print of Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross.

    I’ve seen missionaries go to great lengths to coerce new converts into removing crosses from their houses or their personal effects. However, these extremes seem unjustified to me. The cross isn’t a symbol of the LDS church, which is well established. So what if new converts use the cross not as a symbol of their status as Saints but rather as a symbol of family tradition or of membership in the broader community of Christians? All of this seems fairly unproblematic to me.

    With respect to the church’s decision to avoid crosses, I think it’s a reasonable marketing decision. It helps differentiate our product on the religious market, and that’s fine. The theological justification has always seemed weak at best to me, however. Other Christians don’t use the cross to commemorate a dead Christ; they use it to celebrate the atonement and Christ’s sacrifice–and, as Dave noted, to remember the resurrection. We do the same when we eat the sacrament. So we’re obviously not opposed to commemorating the atonement and the resurrection. Nor does our supposedly distinctive emphasis on the living Christ prevent us from reading the last few chapters of each Gospel. So this all strikes me as an essentially shallow justification of a marketing decision.

  11. I’m ok with us not using crosses or crucifixes, and I’m also glad that we seem to be becoming more tolerant towards those who do use them.

    Unlike John, I don’t why a cross or crucifix would be any more “idolotrous” than, say, the Thorvaldsen “Christus” statue that we love so much.

    I recommend that everyone read the discussion on Ronan’s blog (comment 4) if you haven’t already. It is one of my favorite posts in the whole bloggernacle.

  12. My, Ed, thanks. The cheque’s in the mail.

  13. Our churches are distnctively void of icons. The more modern ones don’t even have stained glass windows (actually most of the chapels don’t even have windows of any kind) that tell a gospel story or pay homage to a biblical character. But what about the iconographic symbols found in many of the temples? It was recently pointed out to me that the Washington DC temple (my home temple) has a depiction of the North Star and the Big Dipper engraved in the marble facing. I haven’t actually verified the existance of this symbol but the claim was made by our emeritus stake patriarch who was here for the building and dedication of the temple. The metal gates at the front door of the DC temple also have astrological symboles incorporated in the design. What about the sunstones and moonstones on the Nauvoo temple. What is their significance and why do we promote such symbolism there but not in our meeting houses?

  14. Agreed. That whole notion of “the cross is the symbol of Jesus’ death” is what I call the fallacy of re-defintion of terms. You see, the cross, in its orthodox setting, isn’t ours to define. After all, we don’t use it the way orthodoxy does. With that said, I think it is a fallacy for us to define what the cross means to other people who do employ it. It’s almost the same as someone saying that the Moroni statue on top of a temple is the symbol of angelolatry. It’s not. That would be someone else, outside of Mormonism, defining a Mormon symbol for us. Ask an orthodox Christian if he/she feels that the cross is the symbol of Jesus’ death, and ONLY Jesus’ death, and they’ll disagree with you entirely. Why? Because to them it symbolizes much more than Jesus death. They would probably reply that it’s a symbol of their faith, and/or a symbol of (orthodox) Christianity, etc. etc.

    And I have yet to see a Christian actually adore the cross above and beyond the Christian God. The cross is a reminder of their faith, just as your garment is a reminder of your temple endowment, or the clothing of the clergy is a reminder of their ordination, etc.

    As for me, I welcome the cross and think it’s a beautiful symbol.

    I wish there was a more clear historical reason WHY the church never picked up on it, but I have concluded, to say the least, that it was to differentiate us from both classical orthodoxy (Catholic church) and Protestantism.

  15. Ronan, as long as you’re handing out cash rewards, I’ll jump on the bandwagon and praise your earlier post, which I somehow missed at the time. Had I seen it earlier, I might have chosen a different C topic.

    PS — You haven’t got any bang-up posts on debt or divorce lurking in your archives, do you?

  16. No, but do divorce. That’ll be fun.

  17. I appreciate this discussion of the cross. The insistence (which seems to be lessening now) that converts shun wearing their crosses has felt quite oppressive to me. What can’t we simply accept people when they join us, and not try to make them look and think and talk like us?

  18. I think the question could be asked “How much would it hurt to use the cross” in the churches? One of the attacks against the church heard so much is that there are no crosses used.

    Yet I see so many have CTR rings, and little SLC temple tie pins or Statue Moroni tie pins, yet the cross is wrong? Symbolism is used a lot in the church just below the surface.

    So how many here have a symbolic item they wear that is religious based? Ring? Tie clip? Something embossed on your scripture covers?

  19. gunner wrote: “Yet I see so many have CTR rings, and little SLC temple tie pins or Statue Moroni tie pins, yet the cross is wrong? Symbolism is used a lot in the church just below the surface.”

    My point exactly. Gunner’s reasoning explains precisely what I was thinking: we don’t use the cross because of bad karma or whatever, but to distinguish ourselves from those who do use it. We have our own symbols too, and many of them are, I believe, more pointless than the cross.

  20. I vote for more masonic symbols. I love the FARMS crosses between the masonic “all seeing eye” that one sees on many old religious structures in Utah (and quasi-religious art around the country from that era) and then the Egyptian eye. Personally that gets my vote. That or the beehive, which is just a cool symbol on so many levels.

  21. Clark, if you like the beehive symbol, then you need to see Plan Ten from Outer Space. Actually, you probably just need to see that anyway.

  22. Space Chick says:

    I don’t mind crosses in general, but a church near my house in Colorado had three wooden ones clustered together in the front yard. I know they were intended as a spiritual symbol, but it always gave me the creeps–I wondered (irrationally) if I would someday see three bodies on them as I drove by.

  23. Right on Laurie. Bruce R. said this:
    “Keep all the truth and all the good that you have. Do not abandon any sound or proper principle. Do not forsake any standard of the past which is good, righteous, and true. Every truth found in every church in all the world we believe. But we also say this to all men—Come and take the added light and truth that God has restored in our day.”

    I know Pres. Hinkcley has said something similiar. But we don’t seem to put this injunction into practice very well. I guess it is hard to draw the line….should former Muslims keep praying to Mecca, Catholics to Saints?…but I would rather err on the side of leniency. It would make our church more vibrant and colorful if people really did keep a hold of some of their truths, from the cross to saying “Amen!” during sermons.

  24. Clark: Anything Masonic is welcome in my home. I even have one of those compass/square tie tacks with the “G” in the middle. I’m not a Mason, but I wear it sometimes for shock value. (My mother’s side of her family were all Scottish Rite dudes). And because it draws attention away from my face (and formerly long hair). Bring on the Masonic revolution!

    Katie: After attending a non-LDS religious school for my M.A. for two years, I have fallen into the deep, dark, deadly, spiteful, pernicious, evil pit of saying “Amen” under my breath when I agree with what is prayed. I also say it during talks (when I’m actually listening, which is close to never). Furthermore, I gave up the KJV (too many problems in translation, especially in the Hebrew, and even moreso in the Aramaic) and replaced it with an updated (1995) NASB, and sometimes I say “you” and “your” in a prayer vs. “thee” and “thine.” I say go for it because for me, prayer is from the heart, not the tongue.

    The cross would be a great addition to our religious matrix, but it would most likely ignite the fury of the critics of the church to no end. “You see! They think they’re Christians!” I was actually told about two years ago that I was “pseudo-Christian.” Nice.

  25. Amen David, I like your style.

    I am also getting my masters at a non-LDS religious school. But it is Methodist and they have sadly shied away from the amens like we have.

    Are you getting (or have you gotten?) your degree in religion, or are you just attending a religious school? What are you doing/planning on doing with your degree?

  26. Ever the party pooper here…

    I see the cross as an icon as well. If we were ever pressured to introduce the cross, we could be eventually, also be pressured into introducing a chalice to Sacrament rites, as well as pressure into adding other symbols to designate season or life of Christ changes.

    We could also be pressured into adding othe “bling” such as candles, an ark, the American flag on the podium, a Jesse tree, Christmas tree, Sacrament kneelers, Advent wreaths/candles, vestments for speakers, vestments for altar pieces, and other icons symbolizing the significance of the number seven as seen in other churches. Everything would probably have to be uniform throughout the world – which may not be practical in some areas. Also, I’ve felt that when auxiliaries of other churches begin to add home sewn/made touches, the church begins to deviate from the message to a focus on the adornments.

    I find our Chapels quite tasteful, refreshing and simple. The uniformity helps me feel at home when I’m visiting other wards. It’s not as austere as a Quaker Meetinghouse, but has the same feel that allows members to commune individually as well as a group. The gore images of some Christ figures on the cross bothers me too (but that’s mo). The simplicity of the Chapel, and the homey touches (wood, plants, lighting) help make it a place to focus on the message of the day and the meaning of the Atonement during Sacrament.

    That said, I do like “bling” added to the RS meetings:)

  27. Well Concierge, I believe that it is demonstrable that women can only feel the spirit in the presence of a center piece.

  28. David and Katie, what programs are you in and where?

    “I even have one of those compass/square tie tacks with the “G” in the middle. I’m not a Mason, but I wear it sometimes for shock value.”

    I’ve wanted to do this for a good while (especially to Institute classes I’ve taught), but decided that the Masons I know wouldn’t approve.

  29. Katie and David, your experiences at non-LDS religious schools are indeed instructive. I would like to hear more about your experiences.

    Katie, thanks for the Bruce R. quote. I also like the statement of B.H. Roberts, that we seek and embrace truth everywhere it is found.

    In reality, the cross issue is tied to the convert issue. Converts are often assumed to be lesser. Investigators are to sit there and learn; we seldom position ourselves to learn from them. It is not uncommon in church meetings to hear references to how converts often have to adjust to the higher moral code once they join the Church–the implication is that they lived a life-style that was morally our inferior.

    I seize these opportunities to reveal that the Baptists regarded me as joining the pit of inquity when I joined the Mormon church–after all, Mormon young women could wear lipstick, make-up, and dance. These things were prohibited by the Baptists at the time.

    MIA even had Dance Instructor as a church calling!

    This was enough to send the older Baptist ladies in church (in the South, no less) fanning themselves to keep from dropping in a dead faint!

  30. I’m with Clark. I like Masonic stuff, but I like beehives more…

  31. Two of the most sacred symbols of Mormonism (used only in the temple) are fairly graphic references to the crucifixion. Until that changes, it’ll hard to make a case that the crucifixion shouldn’t be a central symbol of the LDS faith.

    I think it’s all about distinguishing ourselves from mainstream Christianity. We don’t use the “Jesus fish” symbol, either, and no one’s offered any doctrinal reason for that. Mormons want to be seen as Christians, but that desire only goes so far. In the end, most members see the CoJCoLDS as a unique religion, not just one denomination among others.

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