Mormons and the cross

There are a couple of Mormons running for the presidency in the U.S., which means that the rather tiresome question of whether or not Mormons should be considered Christians is being discussed yet again. (Short answer: Do Mormons worship Jesus Christ? Yes, of course. Do they profess basically the same religion as Catholics and Protestants? No, of course not.)

I’m interested in a different but related question: Given that they believe in Christ and the crucifixion just as much as any other Christians, why don’t Mormons use the cross as a symbol?

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I was surprised at how hard it was to find the historical answer to that question. As far as I know, Mormons have never, even in the earliest days of the movement, worn the cross or used it as a decorative motif in churches, on Bible covers, etc. — but when I tried to find some statement by an early Mormon leader to the effect that the cross ought not to be thus used, I got nothing. It appears that the non-use of the cross among Mormons just sort of happened, without anyone ever making an official decision on the matter. (In a similar way, Mormon missionaries don’t tell converts from other denominations to stop wearing the cross; people just figure it out.)

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The earliest clear statement on the cross that I could find was in the fourth volume of Answers to Gospel Questions by Joseph Fielding Smith — not Mormonism’s founding prophet, but his great-nephew, who presided over the church in the early 1970s. Smith writes:

While we have never questioned the sincerity of Catholics and Protestants for wearing the cross, or felt that they were doing something which was wrong, it is a custom that has never appealed to members of the [LDS] Church.  The motive for such a custom by those who are of other churches, we must conclude, is a most sincere and sacred gesture.  To them the cross does not represent an emblem of torture but evidently carried the impression of sacrifice and suffering endured by the Son of God.  However, to bow down before a cross or to look upon it as an emblem to be revered because of the fact that our Savior died upon a cross is repugnant to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [source]

In 2005, Gordon B. Hinckley gave a similar explanation.

I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian colleagues who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the Living Christ. [source]

This reaction to the cross is certainly understandable and has often been expressed (Shaw stipulated that his tombstone not “take the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice”) — but always by people who did not consider themselves Christian. It is odd that none of the countless other Christian movements and denominations has ever interpreted the cross that way. (Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the cross either, but that’s because their ultra-literal reading of the Bible has led them to the conclusion that the σταυρός Christ was nailed to was a single upright stake.)

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The problem with Smith and Hinckley’s explanation is that there are many symbols of the dying Christ, not just the cross, and Mormons have no problem with most of the others.

Mormons administer a version of the Eucharist, though water is used in the place of wine. The sacramental prayers identify the bread and water as symbols of Christ’s broken body and spilt blood but make no mention of the resurrection. The sacrament is generally preceded by a hymn which emphasizes the torture and death of Christ, such as “Upon the Cross of Calvary” or “Behold the Great Redeemer Die.”

Two of Mormonism’s most sacred symbols — used only by the initiated within the walls of the temple — represent the nails that the were driven through Christ’s palms and wrists to fix him to the cross.

When I was a missionary, we often showed people a short film called The Lamb of God, which was basically a much less graphic version of The Passion of the Christ. (It was created before Mr. Gibson’s film was; I don’t mean to imply that the Mormons copied his idea.) The majority of the film deals with Christ being flogged and abused and crucified, with a few minutes at the end for the resurrection.

Though you’ll never find a simple cross or crucifix on the walls of a Mormon church, you may well find a painting of the crucifixion. The cross appears to be acceptable so long as it is used in a portrayal of the historical crucifixion rather than as an iconic symbol of the Christian religion.

(One exception: Mormons do sing the hymn “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war / With the cross of Jesus going on before.”)

All this leads me to the conclusion that Mormons have no problem with using symbols of the dying Christ, and that there must be some other reason for not using the cross.

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Another religious symbol which Mormons do not use is the ichthys or “Jesus fish.” This symbol makes no reference to the suffering or death of Christ. It represents an acronym of “Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” — “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” — a formula to which Mormons have no theological objections. It also alludes to Christ’s statement “I will make you fishers of men,” which should make it especially appealing to a missionary-oriented denomination like the Mormons. But they don’t use it. Nor have they ever used the Chi-Rho, which simply represents the word “Christ.”

Why not? Because, over and above their “literal” meaning, these symbols represent the institution of mainstream Christendom — and Mormons, while certainly “Christian” in the primary sense of that word, are not part of that institution.

Why is it that Britain’s Labour Party never uses that classic, instantly recognizable symbol of labor, the hammer and sickle? If that question were put to the party’s leaders, I’m sure they would be able to come up with some ad hoc reason — something about how, with the decline of agriculture and the rapid growth of the service sector, those implements no longer adequately symbolized the blah blah blah — but the honest answer would be that that symbol already “belongs” to other movements, movements which, while they have a great deal in common with Labour ideologically, are sufficiently different that Labour would not wish to imply they are the same by borrowing their symbols. And that, I think, is also the honest answer to the question of why Mormons do not use the cross.

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1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, Mormonism

One response to “Mormons and the cross

  1. bgc

    Very interesting analysis – I expect you are right.

    I have nothing to say on this, obviously, but from memory, McMurrin suggested it was (perhaps) related to a deliberate difference in emphasis wrt the death of Christ and what happened i that process – that Mormons emphasized the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ took upon himself the sins of the world (and sweated blood) – that for Mormons this was the focal moment of the crucifixion. (And therefore nothing to do with the cross).

    (Whereas mainstream Christians say that the key event happened when Christ was on the cross, or perhaps we simply follow the teachings of the Apostle Paul. However, there is a distinction between the Roman Catholic use of the crucifix and the Protestant use of the Cross only.

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