This video discusses the history of Latter-day Saints’ treatment of the cross symbol, the meaning this symbol holds for other Christian religions, and how our understanding of these differences can increase respect and interfaith dialogue.
Okay. So, in this video I want to talk about the cross, using the cross as a symbol. Hopefully it’ll help us with some of our interfaith dialogue with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters. And also talk a little bit about our history. It’s a lot more complicated and complex and lesser-known, many parts of it, in relation to this and from the 19th century. So I think it’s helpful to have some of that background, as well.
So let’s start out with a fairly well-known statement from President Hinckley about how we view the cross and why we don’t use it in our worship as a symbol here. There’s been many quotes from church leaders and articles in the Ensign, but this is one of the most classic ones here that you may be well familiar with. So let’s play that now.
I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian brethren who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the alters 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. The lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith. And in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.
Okay. If you note on that particular phrasing he said, “For us, the cross is a symbol of the dying Christ.” For most Christians, it’s not. For them, it’s actually more of a symbol of His life and overcoming death. That would be the way that they look at it. So we can give offense to them with the way that we maybe have dialogues about this. Or maybe you’ve even heard people use the analogy, would you wear a gun around your neck to honor Martin Luther King, Jr that was assassinated, as an example? And that’s just not the way we should talk about these kinds of things in the way that they would view the cross as a symbol. So we can be offensive in the way that we say that. We need to understand how we view the cross is not the way that our our fellow Christian brothers and sisters view the cross.
So I want to talk about the three main types of crosses in Christianity. You’ve got the Roman Catholic cross, the Orthodox cross, and the Protestant cross. The first two crosses are called crucifixes because they’ve got the body of Christ on them.
So let’s first talk about the Roman Catholic cross. If you look, here’s an example here. This is to really show Christ dead or dying, and to illustrate profound suffering that was required for our redemption. We do this through partaking of the emblems of the sacrament every week, but this is one way that they do it. I want to share some beautiful words from a Catholic scholar on the history of using the cross in the Catholic Church. And I thought this was beautiful.
And I will say, the early Christians also struggled in using the cross, the very first Christians, in the sense that they were threatened with death and so they had to be very secretive. Also, it wasn’t a good symbol to be proselytizing the Jews and the Gentiles in the Roman Empire. And really it was also fear of it breaking the second commandment, viewed as an idol possibly. All that went out the door with Constantine later, but here’s this quote. This is from the Catholic scholar Steve Ray, The Cross and The Crucifix. He wrote, “The Christians of the first centuries did not actually add the figure of Christ to the cross. The crucifix is a Latin cross with the body of Christ attached to it. In early Christian art, the crucifixion was represented by the Latin cross alone, but by the fifth century, the body of Christ was painted on the cross and later became a sculpture attached by four nails, one in each hand and foot. The Church added the figure of Christ to remind the faithful of the great suffering that brought about their redemption.”
“During most ages of the Church, Christians were illiterate. In fact, in the Roman Empire, only 10% of the population could read and write. The great and beautiful symbols in the Church, including the Crucifix, were the gospel for the illiterate. Bibles were not available because the printing press had not been invented. The great images and stained glass windows gave the poor and illiterate the opportunity to gaze upon the Christ and the gospel and tell the stories in picture to their children and the unbeliever. These images also inspired adoration and faith in the believers as they worshiped their Savior.”
Isn’t that beautiful when you think about visiting some of these ancient cathedrals and how beautiful they are? But to think about this as the gospel for the illiterate, those that couldn’t read, inspired adoration and faith in their believers.
Now let’s take a look at the Orthodox cross, or I should say the Orthodox crucifix, here. The focus of this is typically on Christ being alive, shown being alive, sometimes shown looking up, showing that he has overcome death there.
And if we look here at the Protestant cross, it doesn’t have a body on it. This is to symbolize Christ has conquered death, and it’s also a symbol of the Resurrection, because He left the cross behind. I think that’s very cool. So again, good reminders of how they view the cross very different than the way we do, in a sense.
Now getting to some of our own history. And I will recommend if you want to go deep into this, this is a fascinating book written by a member of the Church. He’s got a PhD in Christian History, Michael Reed, called Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo. And in fact, it started by, he actually was writing a master’s thesis with this concept that the influence of Protestants joining the Church and coming into the Church, very few Catholics coming in, and that that was probably why we didn’t use the cross in the Church as a symbol. And what he found was a very different message, in a sense, and it was so fascinating and so much history there, he decided to write a book on it.
And it was really interesting because the Protestants really rejected the cross as part of the reformation, in fact, tore down different buildings and art and things. Martin Luther did not. That was the the exception, but they really protested the cross, essentially, as Catholic and even talked about it as idol, as well. So in the United States, very Protestant nation, essentially, at the start. So in 1820, there were 195,000 Catholics. By 1850, there were 1.75 million. It was a ninefold increase. Now the population also increased, but it went from 9.6 million to 23.2 million. That was about two and a half times in growth. So the Catholics were growing at a much higher rate. It did create some consternation about this high growth, increased the anti-Catholic feeling, still very much a minority there.
And so the cross, again, was not used here except for the Latter-day Saints had some use of the cross. And there were several reasons, but the one that really persisted, and this flip-flopped, actually in the next coming century, the Protestants began to adopt the cross. And today it’s used throughout Christianity of all types, except the Latter-day Saints in the mid-1950s and I’ll get to that, essentially banned using the cross, basically, as a symbol.
But prior to that, one of the reasons we did, one of the big reasons was the pre-Columbian crosses that had been found and the evidence we felt like it had towards the Book of Mormon in ancient America. In fact, take a look at this picture here. This is an example of a pre-Columbian cross found in Chiapas, Mexico at the Temple of the Cross Complex here, and it’s called the Tablet of the Cross. So you can see the cross very well there.
Take a look at this. So Quetzalcoatl was an ancient deity in the Mesoamerican culture, and here’s the apostle John Taylor, he is talking about this and the discovery of this. In Lord Kingsborough’s Antiquities of Mexico, published in 1831, he observed, “The 73rd plate of the Borgain codex is the most remarkable of all, for Quetzalcoatl is not only represented there as crucified upon a cross of Greek form, but his burial and descent into hell are also depicted in a very curious manner.” So the crucifixion part is the one you’re seeing here in the symbol.
So another great example of … these crosses made the members feel like, “Hey, there was Christianity at some point in ancient America. That’s what the Book of Mormon says.” So it was a very powerful aspect of validating for these early saints, the Book of Mormon and the historicity of the Book of Mormon happening in ancient America. Well, it also gave them good vibes about the cross, in that sense, as a symbol. And so there was some of it that was being used in various forms.
So here are some pictures just to give you some ideas. Here’s some jewelry here. These are two members of Brigham Young’s family here. One wearing a brooch, another wearing an earring, both crosses.
Okay, here’s another one, Benjamin F. Johnson, wearing a cross on a watch chain, if you look there. On the right, the daughter of John Whitaker wearing a cross necklace. And then on the right, the daughter of John Whitaker Taylor wearing a cross necklace. You can see that.
Okay. Some building examples. Here’s the Salt Lake Liberty Ward building, stained glass with crosses. If you look there on both sides.
Here’s the building up in Ogden, the Utah Deaf Branch Meeting House, with crosses there. Also in Salt Lake City, the Whittier Ward Chapel stained glass cross rosette. There’s three there.
Okay. How about some floral arrangements at funerals. On the left here, the anchor cross, this was in 1887, President John Taylor here. In fact, that anchor cross was used in early Christianity, even, to disguise the cross a little bit. And it was also that Hebrews 6:19, the anchor of hope for the soul. And then Joseph F. Smith speaking at a funeral in Brigham City, and you can see there’s a cross-shaped floral arrangement there.
Okay. How about this? Here’s some other examples, an early pioneer quilt with crosses on it.
Here’s an actually fascinating early edition from Europe of the Doctrine and Covenants, crosses on the spine of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Here’s a temporary cross monument in Immigration Canyon, which read, “This is the place,” Brigham Young.
Here’s a headstone, B. H. Roberts, the apostle B. H. Roberts. Note the date here, 1933. Even that late using the cross there.
And now, if any of that was surprising, this one will be a big shocker. So B. H. Roberts really pushed for a massive cross to be put up as a monument to the pioneers on Ensign Peak, wanted it to be seen throughout the city. That’s how big they wanted it to be. And in fact, the Church agreed to send the petition to the Salt Lake City Council to erect this.
And here’s the actual quote here, this was in the Deseret Evening News in May, 1916, this is the Presiding Bishop with the petition. He says, “Your petitioner, in behalf of the Church he represents, requests the privilege of erecting on Ensign Peak a suitable cross, the symbol of Christianity, as a memorial to the Mormon pioneers who first established here that which the cross implies. We would like to construct it of cement reinforced with steel of sufficient dimensions that it can be readily seen from every part of the city. Your petitioner believes that it will add to the interest of strangers who are visiting our city and constitute one more work of art or memorial, which will emphasize the fact that this is the place.”
Okay. And it was received and did create a bit of a controversy. Here’s a positive one, Karl Sheid, Commissioner of Public Affairs and Finance, said, “It has the potential to do more to remove prejudices and create harmony among fair-minded people than all of the drafting of statues and ordinances, the preaching of sermons, or the publishing of newspapers can ever do in this city and state. 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, should be and doubtless will be heralded to the four corners of the globe. The cross is a common heritage. It belongs to all of us.”
But there was a lot of controversy, also, that came along with it. The biggest thing was Ensign Peak was owned by the state, so there was this conflict between church and state. And at the end of the day, that’s really what drove this down where it just didn’t get get through, the problem there.
There was also a big uproar that had happened actually down in Mexico. We actually had a very sad story. This was during the Mexican Revolution, it was happening about this exact same time, and there were two converts down there that were murdered. And it was very sad. Branch president named President Monroy and his cousin Vincent Morales. As an excuse to persecute these new converts, President Monroy had been falsely accused of being a leader of a revolutionary faction. And they were given one last chance and they had to do two things. They had to renounce their religion, and they had to confess before the Virgin Mary. They wouldn’t do it and they were shot and murdered. So that created a huge firestorm, also, about the same time. So a lot of those things were happening.
Well, next few decades things bounced around. Interesting story with Spencer W. Kimball, when he was called to the Twelve in 1943, he had six days, very restless, he felt overwhelmed, inferior, not worthy of the call. He went on a hike to seek peace. And this is what he actually says that happened to him. “As I rounded a promontory, I saw immediately above me the peak of the mountain and on the peak a huge cross with its arms silhouetted against the blue sky beyond. 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 a sacred omen.” Quite fascinating.
So then in the late 1940s, 1948, J. Reuben Clark debated on KSL the Catholic Bishop Duane Hunt. And it went back and forth, and Bishop Hunt was saying, “We need to follow the pope,” and members were really upset. “This was on KSL. Why are we allowing this?” But really, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, in reality, was a publication of a pamphlet. Bishop Hunt’s assistant published a pamphlet that was lamenting the poor living conditions of the Catholics in Utah. The pamphlet said nothing about proselytizing the LDS, but it was entitled A Foreign Mission: Close to Home. That was the title of it. And mission, obviously, had radically different connotations between the Latter-day Saints and the Catholics.
In fact, listen to this, this was in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, Prince and Wright wrote this. “In the Catholic vernacular, and certainly in the context of the pamphlet, mission meant a rudimentary, underfunded parish. In the LDS vernacular, however, mission meant only proselytizing. A Mormon who saw the pamphlet without reading its content could thus easily have concluded that it was the first foray of a new initiative to lure Latter-day Saints away from their own faith into Roman Catholicism. One such Mormon was David O. McKay. Speaking to local church leaders in his hometown of Huntsville, ‘I presented to them the avowed activity of the Catholic Church here in Utah and called their attention to a leaflet that designates Utah as a foreign mission close to home.'” So that’s really what started the institutionalization of banning the use of the cross in the Church.
McKay had some firsthand experience as a mission president in Europe and saw very few Catholics joining the Church, a significant number of Protestants joining, had some different experiences with the Catholics in Europe there. And so here is really when this became final in the book here, Banishing the Cross. And 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 LDS 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 or wear them. I stated further that this was a Catholic form of worship. They use images, crosses, et cetera. 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.”
So it was never a revelation, per se, but it has became a practice entrenched for what? Six and a half decades or so now there. I don’t see it changing or anything, but the point is, if we understand, particularly be a lot more sensitive, maybe, to how we talk about the cross with others and understand how they view it in particular. I hope this video is helpful for that and subscribe for more. Thanks.
Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo by Michael Reed
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.