Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo

Confession:  When I was just a teenage boy, I shoplifted from a local mini-market a silver plated cross necklace, and defiantly wore it to church on the following Sunday.  I wore the necklace for the purpose of making a statement to my congregation, testifying of my spiritual status before God.  Strange this story may sound. One may perceive these actions as paradoxical, since my sin of stealing would undermine the message of the cross generally understood by Christians today.  But I was no typical Christian, and herein lay the answer to the riddle: I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Since Latter-day Saints (LDS) tend to believe that the cross is a symbol of apostasy, it is understandable that I (a rebellious teenager at the time) would have found no contradiction in wearing the stolen jewelry to church.  As my theft was contrary to expected LDS behavior, so too was my display of the cross: “[Crosses] are inharmonious with the quiet spirit of worship,” says Apostle Bruce R. McConkie in his highly published and widely influential book Mormon Doctrine.[1]  My display of the cross was an act of rebellion against the ecclesiastical authority and teachings of the Church.

Having grown older, less defiant, and more responsible since my teenage years, I chose to serve a two-year mission for the LDS church.  In the early months of my service, however, I was again confronted with a paradox related to the Mormon cross taboo.  My companion and I were teaching an investigator who was seriously considering the possibility of joining the Church.  We encouraged him to read the Book of Mormon and seek the Lord’s guidance through prayer; the following week, with tears in his eyes he enthusiastically told us that he had received an answer from God to join: the night before he saw in a dream a “cross of flames”, which as a convert from Catholicism, made complete sense to him, but as a Mormon missionary I was very confused.  Unsure how to respond, all I could think to do was raise my eyebrows and asked him, “Will you be baptized?”  I was happy that he accepted the invitation; however, I remained disturbed over the idea that God would answer a prayer with an apostate sign in order to lead someone toward the Church.  “What do you think about Gabriel’s dream?” I asked my companion; to which he replied, “I don’t know Elder?”  My companion seemed to be as confused as I was.

Turning to LDS literature made reconciliation all the more difficult for me, as I discovered that Apostle McConkie had not only claimed that the cross was inharmonious with Mormonism, but he also identified its sign as the Mark of the Beast (citing Revelation 13:16-17).[2]  Equally confusing, I read Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith’s disregard for the cross, claiming that it was “repugnant and contrary to the true worship of our Redeemer… [It is] very poor taste and inconsistent to our worship.” Smith continues,

We may be definitely sure that if our Lord had been killed with a dagger or with a sword, it would have been very strange if religious people this day would have graced such a weapon by wearing and adoring it because it was by such a means that our Lord was put to death.[3]

Joseph Fielding Smith’s rationale, which reduces the symbol to a mere instrument of torture and death, has become a popular[4] rebuttal for Latter-day Saints responding to the claim that they are “enemies of the cross.”[5]

The Mormon disdain for the symbol has at times been acted out in extreme ways.  On one occasion, a group of LDS young women arrive to Girl’s Camp, shocked to find within their tent crude wooden crosses displayed above each of the cots.  Having identified the crosses as “symbols of the Great Whore of Babylon,” the adult counselors instructs the young girls to cut all of them down with their pocketknives.  To their chagrin, they realize later that they had actually cut down the frames for hanging mosquito netting![6]

On other occasions, the negative stigma has born less humorous fruits. A Baptist pastor writes a letter to the administration of an Indiana elementary school predominately attended by Latter-day Saints:  “Several times this new school year,” the Pastor tells of his first-grade daughter, “as well as a time or two last year, she has experienced some difficulties because on occasion she wears a cross necklace to school….  [S]ome children in her class have told her that it is bad to wear the cross.  One child even said that he hated the cross and that she should take it off.”[7]  Similarly, but from a different report, an LDS elementary school teacher was said to have flipped a crucifix worn by a little girl, “asking her why she was wearing dead bodies on her.”[8]

To give one more example, two Mormon missionaries visit an investigator’s home, notice a decorated homemade cross hanging on the wall, and ask if they can have it.  The investigator hands it over – presumably as a gift, thinking that they liked it and perhaps wanted to hang it on their own wall.  But after the missionaries leave, they tear the cross to pieces in disgust.[9]  Why did these missionaries do such a thing?  The return missionary explains, “We both believed that… having that cross there was inviting Satan into his home, and that was causing this guy problems accepting our ‘truth’.”  In hindsight he expresses regret over these actions, “Yeah, pretty stupid, I know. But so things go,” he says, “Mormons take things so literally, and so seriously, there simply must be a reason we do the things we do.”[10]  No longer accepting the LDS rationale for rejecting the symbol, he now compares this experience to the story of a woman cooking a pot-roast:

A newly-wed husband noticed that every time his wife cooked a pot roast she would first cut an inch off either end before putting it in the oven. When he asked why, she said “Because that’s how you are supposed to cook pot roast.” Unsatisfied with her answer he pushed until she admitted that she learned it from her mother.

Waiting until a visit with his wife’s mother, the husband asked, “Your daughter tells me you taught her to cook pot roast by first cutting an inch off each end?” to which the mother replied, “Well of course, that’s how pot roast is cooked.” But the husband was not to be deterred, and after pressing his mother-in-law on the subject she finally admitted that she’d learned it from her mother.

This meant the husband had to ask the wife’s grandmother. When he finally got his chance he asked: “Your granddaughter’s mother told me you taught her to cut an inch off each end of a pot roast before cooking. She swore it was a requirement, but I’m dying to know why? Is there any sane reason to throw away two inches of perfectly good meat in order to cook a pot roast?!?

Laughing, the grandmother said “Oh, heavens no! You see in those days we were very poor and didn’t own much cookware. I cut the ends off the pot roast so it would fit in my only pan![11]

I agree that this parable is quite fitting.  Mormons have assumed that they are supposed to reject the symbol of the cross, without really understanding the actual basis for the taboo.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Mormon disdain for the symbol was more of a late development in Church history, emerging at the grass roots around the turn of the 20th century, and was institutionalized in the 1950′s under the direction of President David O. McKay, on grounds that it was a catholic symbol.  Prior to this time, many Latter-day Saints (including Church authorities), embraced and promoted the symbol of the cross.

My recently published book, Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo (John Whitmer Books, 2012) traces the development of LDS attitudes toward the symbol, and shows that the cross aversion in Mormon culture actually began as a means to disassociate the Church from Catholicism.  The book includes many 19th century photos of the cross being worn as jewelry, stitched it into quilts, framed and hung on walls, incorporated in funeral floral arrangements, etc.  Perhaps most interesting of all, I explore in detail the LDS Church’s 1916 Ensign Peak cross monument proposal—a proposal to the Salt Lake City Council that had stirred great controversy within and outside the Church

 


[1] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 172.

[2] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 712.

[3] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 1963), 4:17-18.

[4] “To us the cross is merely the vehicle upon which our Lord and Savior died. If he had been hung, stoned, or stabbed, would his true followers venerate a noose, rock, or knife?  We think not.”  Stephen W. Gibson, One-Minute Answers to Anti-Mormon Questions (Bountiful Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1995), 163.  “Suppose Jesus had been killed with a shotgun; would this be any reason to have a shotgun hanging from our necks or on top of the church roof?”  Michael T. Griffith, Signs of the True Church of Christ (Bountiful Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1989), 107; “‘One Mormon,’ recalls The Utah Evangel’s Robert Mckay, ‘said to me at the 1984 Utah State Fair that putting a cross on a church building is the same as giving a place of respect to a butcher knife that was used to murder one’s brother.’” Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Provo Utah: FARMS, 1992), 132.

[5] See James K. Walker, Enemies of the Cross, http://www.believersweb.org/view.cfm?ID=537

[6] Harbinger [pseud.], Recovery From Mormonism Board, http://www.exmormon.org/boards/w-agora/index.php?site=exmobb&bn=exmobb_recovery

[7] Robert L. Millet, Getting at the Truth: Responding to Difficult Questions about LDS Beliefs (Salt Lake City:Deseret Book, 2004), 24-25.

[8] Linda Olster Strack, “Provo Ministers Oppose Religious Discrimination in Schools,” Sunstone REVIEW 2, no 10 (1982): 3.

[9] Sethbag [pseud.], Mormon Apologetics & Discussion board, http://www.mormonapologetics.org/index.php?Showtopic=16418&st=80&p=1207992762&#Entry1207992762

[10] Sethbag [pseud.], Mormon Apologetics & Discussion Board,  http://www.mormonapologetics.org/lofiversion/index.php/t16418-50.html

[11] Michael Schinkel, Mike Schinkel’s Miscenaneous Rabmings http://www.mikeschinkel.com/blog/conventionalwisdomassumptionsandpotroast/

Comments

Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo — 10 Comments

  1. Ah! This was a subject that I had contemplated researching. I’m glad there will be a book on it!

    Do you address the question of Pauline passages that speak of the “cross” in a manner symbolic of the whole sacrifice of Christ? Do leaders seek to replace the word (“cross” = Atonement), or do they just ignore it? Might disassociation from the cross cause, or be caused by, ignorance of some New Testament writings?

  2. My understanding was that the Mormon church didn’t use the cross originally for the simple fact that almost no Protestant in Joseph Smith’s day used the cross as a symbol, including the Southern Baptists – viewing it as a symbol of the corrupt papacy.

    Did I get that right?

  3. From what I recall of Mike’s research, he found that you’re correct that Protestants at the time didn’t use the cross, but you’re incorrect in thinking early Mormons followed this trend. Early Mormons did use the cross, and only stopped using it much later.

  4. I once mentioned in a blog post my own experience with this:

    2. Girl B was a casual high school friend. One day I saw that she was wearing a cross. I promptly gave her a self-righteous Mormon lecture, about how we don’t wear the instrument of Christ’s torture around our necks. Why, oh why would I say such a stupid thing? I’ve spent most of my life since kicking myself for being such a jerk, and desperately wishing I could have that moment over again.

    For the full post, titled “Oy, What a Jerk I Was!” see here:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2006/06/17/oy-what-a-jerk-i-was/

  5. Wow! Such strong feelings towards cross is something alien to me. Living in a Lutheran country, where most members are converts, I have never experienced any manifestations of hatred toward cross. Not that one would see members wearing crosses here either, but it wouldn’t be a big deal if someone had a cross.

  6. I’ve used that anecdote about the Pot Roast in my last two Sacrament meeting talks, in the context of not learning because of unwillingness to question or re-evaluate traditions. I’d actually be interested in knowing where that story originated.

  7. Thanks Mike. Congrats on the publication of your book! I ordered it last week, and read it over the weekend. I was very interested in the Ensign peak saga, as well as how BH Roberts and others pointed to the cross as evidence of BOM authenticity. I was also intrigued to see the picture of the cross on BH Roberts’s grave stone.

    Great work, and congrats again on the book.

  8. Niklas, I suspect that prejudice against the cross may not be a church-wide thing. Even in Utah and Idaho. I imagine sentiment varies from ward to ward and stake to stake.

    I don’t hear much comment on it here in my Colorado ward.

  9. I appreciate the comments. Thanks for explaining my basic thesis, Chris. I had forgotten your story, Kevin. Thanks for that. Niklas, being that it is a Mormon cultural taboo (emerging at a time when there was the first real catholic presence in Utah), it is understandable that concern for the cross could be found less influential the further one gets from mainstream Utah-Mormonism of early to mid 19th century. Mike Paulos, I am glad you enjoyed the book.