Hey guys, so if you visit a Latter-day Saint church building one of these days you might notice that while Christ is at the center of our worship services, we don’t have any crosses anywhere. And the cross, as a symbol of Christ and his Atonement, is quite popular among other Christian faiths. So, why don’t we use it? Let’s talk about it.
Alright, so you don’t see many Latter-day Saints using the cross as a symbol of their faith largely due to a long history of cultural factors. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the cross as a symbol of your faith in Christ. There’s no doctrine in our faith saying that crosses are bad. You won’t get kicked out of our church for having a cross. Guess what? I have a cross in my office. And just like other Christian faiths, we believe that Christ’s death on the cross was part of His atoning sacrifice. We’ve got artwork in our buildings depicting the cross, we sing about the cross, our scriptures talk about the cross, and our leaders teach about the cross.
Traditionally, when people ask why we don’t use the cross as a symbol of our faith, Latter-day Saints generally say something like, “Well, the cross reminds us of Christ’s death, and we prefer to focus on the resurrected, living Christ.” But we also recognize that there’s nothing wrong with remembering Christ’s death. We do it each week with the sacrament. And we also recognize that in many faiths the cross is more than a symbol of Christ’s death, but rather of his resurrection and atonement in general, as well.
And as it turns out, the cross actually was a symbol used by Latter-day Saints for a long time in the early years of the Church.
One of Brigham Young’s wives, Amelia Young, is seen here wearing a cross. This cross is on the gravestone of Latter-day Saint leader B. H. Roberts. This is the anchored cross at President John Taylor’s funeral. The cross appeared on the spine of the 1852 European edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, and for a time a cross was even set up as a pioneer tribute in Emigration Canyon.
“It appeared as tie tacks on men’s ties and watch fobs on men’s vests. It appeared on cattle as the official LDS Church brand. Crosses were on church windows, attic vents, stained-glass windows, and pulpits. They were on gravestones and quilts.”
In fact, on May 4, 1916, the Church itself, through Presiding Bishop Charles Nibley, made a fascinating proposal to the Salt Lake City Council, requesting “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.”
Reactions to the idea were mixed. Some people believed that setting up a religious symbol on public land was a violation of the separation of Church and State. City leader Karl Scheid thought it was a great idea. “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 … is to my mind an event of first importance … [the cross] is a common heritage. It belongs to all of us.”
Others disagreed, saying the cross was specifically a Catholic symbol. Perhaps partially reflecting some of the anti-Catholic sentiment shared by a lot of Protestants in that era. One prominent Latter-day Saint, James Stewart (not that James Stewart), noted that while he was prejudiced against the cross, it was also a symbol Protestants might “look upon with contempt and as a victory for Catholicism.” You may not have known this, but after the Protestant Reformation “The Reformed churches … resisted such use of the cross until the 20th century, when ornamental crosses on church buildings and on communion tables began to appear.”
Long story short, for whatever reason the Ensign Peak cross was never built. Relations between Catholics and Latter-day Saints were periodically rocky through the first several decades of the 1900s, which didn’t bode well for the potential continued use of the cross in our culture. Over time you start to see how these strained relationships sort of reinforced the idea that the cross was a Catholic symbol—and it started to fade away in our culture, especially as these perspectives were voiced by leaders of the Church.
For example, in 1957 the Presiding Bishop solicited President David O. McKay’s thoughts on jewelry being sold to young women that featured the cross. McKay’s reply was that the cross “is purely Catholic and Latter-day Saint girls should not purchase and wear them.” To him, the cross did not represent our faith, and while relations with the Catholic Church have improved significantly over the years, this idea that the cross does not represent our faith has stuck around.
But ultimately, the meaning you take from the cross depends on the meaning you attribute to it. As we’ve just seen, symbols mean different things to different people at different times. For some past Latter-day Saints, the meaning they gave to the cross stopped at “this is a Catholic symbol.” Some even thought it wasn’t a Christian symbol at all, but a pagan Roman symbol of execution. In 1975, President Gordon B. Hinckley popularized the paradigm that to our faith the cross only symbolized the dying Christ, while the message of our faith is about the living Christ.
But ultimately, whether you’re a member of our faith or not, if the cross is a symbol for you of Christ’s love for humanity, his death, resurrection, and atonement, that’s awesome! If you prefer to use a different symbol or no symbol at all to represent your faith, that’s cool too.
This was probably more information than you ever wanted to know on the subject, but there it is. Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info on this subject, and have a great day!
- “Mormons and the cross,” Deseret News, Sept. 10, 2009: http://bit.ly/2Z9UVdk
- Book review on this subject by Alonzo Gaskill: http://bit.ly/3qfH9C9
- Book review on this subject by Boyd Jay Peterson: https://bit.ly/3jJwSeN
- From the Church’s website: http://bit.ly/378I2Vj
- “A Gauge of the Times: Ensign Peak in the Twentieth Century,” by Ronald W. Walker: http://bit.ly/3aY8thG
- Some history on the cross, via the Encyclopedia Britannica: http://bit.ly/2NrnMri
- “When America Hated Catholics,” by Politico Magazine: http://politi.co/3pn7ixG
- Recommended reading: “Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo,” by Michael G. Reed. Preface this with Alonzo Gaskill’s review of the book.