I recently finished reading Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo, written by Michael G. Reed. The book traces the use of the cross as a symbol of Mormon Christian tradition from the time of the founding of the church (1830’s) to the late 20th century.
Early Perceptions of The Cross
The Mormon church was founded in a Protestant environment. During the early 1800’s, Protestants associated the cross with the Catholic church and in some cases had a violent aversion to its display in their churches. As such was rarely used, in Protestant worship as it represented the idolatry of the Catholic church from which they wished to disassociate.
Nevertheless, the cross was a symbol that Mormon’s did not find objectionable during Joseph Smith’s time and embraced it in some situations. Reed suggests that this was possibly due to the association of the cross as a mystical symbol used both in the folk magic at the time and also common in Masonic practices, the details of which Reed devotes his most length chapter.
While the use of the cross was found among Latter-day Saints, including in sermons, architecture, literature, and personal jewelry, it was still not widely used. While American Protestants began to soften their position on the cross, Mormons, moved in the other direction.
As late as 1943, the cross as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice was considered consistent with Mormon thought. When Spencer Kimball was called to the apostleship, he sought comfort while hiking and was reassured when he encountered a naturally formed cross. (See Banishing, pg 111-112)
The Taboo Cross
The formalization of the taboo of the cross occurred under the leadership of President David O. McKay. Due to several personal circumstances over many years, he formed a negative association with the cross and regarded it as a Catholic symbol.
McKay’s anti-Catholic bias, coupled with his equation of the cross with Catholicism contributed directly to the formalization of LDS Church on the cross in 1957. McKay wrote in his journal:
“Bishop Joseph L. Wirthlin called me by telephone and asked me the Church’s position on the following question: He stated that he had been asked today if it would be proper for L.D.S. girls to purchase crosses to wear. It is Bishop Wirthlin’s understanding that there is a company downtown which is pushing the selling of these crosses to girls.
“I told Bishop Wirthlin that this is purely Catholic and Latter-day Saint girls should not purchase and wear them. I stated further that this was a Catholic form of worship. They use images, crosses, etc. Our worship should be in our hearts.
“Bishop Wirthlin said that this had been his opinion, but he felt that he should check with me before making a statement.”
Thus began the formal church policy banning use of the cross among Mormons. (Banishing, pg 115-116)
Other influential leaders during this period also had strong feelings concerning the cross; they saw it as a Catholic symbol, against which they held strong feelings and were not afraid to voice them.
Among the most prominent and influential to do so were Apostles J. Reuben Clark, Mark E. Petersen, and Seventy (and later Apostle) Bruce R. McConkie. . . . In addition to these three church authorities, Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. (McConkie’s father-in-law) and Gordon B. Hinckley … reaffirmed the symbol of the cross as incompatible with the Mormon faith. (Banishing, pg 117)
These are all well respected, prominent men. McConkie was a strong, confident personality and his writings are well respected by the LDS community (and well mined by critics). Nevertheless, the antagonistic position that McKay and the others held should be recognized as their personal positions and is typically recognized as such when critical quotes from these men surface today.
Where Do We Stand Today?
While the aversion to the crucifix (cross with the dying or dead Jesus attached) is understandably disturbing to many people, the empty cross is suggestive of the victorious, risen Christ. The empty cross as an invitation for us:
One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. (KJV Mark 10:21)
For it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell. (3 Nephi 12:30)
And he that will not take up his cross and follow me, and keep my commandments, the same shall not be saved. (D&C 56:2)
Now, I say unto you: Arise and gird up your loins, take up your cross, follow me, and feed my sheep. (D&C 112:14)
These and other references indicate that the cross is very much embedded in Mormon theology as a symbol of the burdens we must carry as followers of Christ.
Is There Room For a Mormon Cross?
Negative attitudes toward the cross in the LDS Church have softened since the second half of the 20th century . . . . However . . . Old habits die hard, resistance to change is even greater when certain practices are institutionalized . . . by Church authorities. It may indeed be that Church leaders will eventually decide that there is no real doctrinal or revelatory basis for the taboo, and hence feel inclined to weigh the costs against its benefits. Until this happen (sic), interfaith tension over the issue will likely persist and interfere with the Church’s efforts to be accepted into the Christian denominational family. Many new coverts will also remain disheartened by the taboo, and feel compelled to hid jewelry, discard decorations, and pack away cherished heirlooms that were once used to expressed (sic) their faith in and love for Jesus Christ. (Reed, Michael G., Banishing the Cross, John Whitmer Books, 2012, pg 148)
I have been in the home of an active, LDS member who converted from Catholicism a few years ago. She has strong spiritual ties to the cross and displays it in various forms in her home and wears it to church meetings. Her sacred experiences cannot be taken from her.
Fiona Givens, a prominent author and scholar, has suggested a Mormon cross is possible and has designed one that is overlaid with an Easter lily. Crosses used in some early Mormon art overlaid an anchor. Other forms of the cross that emphasize the living Christ may be more palatable to Mormon thought while still eliciting the invitation of Jesus to take up our cross and follow him.
Is your Mormon congregation accepting of those that wear a cross as a reminder of sacred experiences? How do you remember to “take up your cross” in your walk with Christ?