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Mormons and the cross

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In 1916 a church asked the Salt Lake City Council to allow them to build a huge cross, "the symbol of Christianity," on Ensign Peak. "We would like to construct it of cement, re-enforced with steel, of sufficient dimensions that it can be readily seen from every part of the city," the request read.

That request came from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The cross was to honor the Mormon pioneers.

Even though the proposal was approved by the City Council, the monument was never built.

Today there are no crosses on Mormon temples. Yet two are shaped like a cross. Mormon chapels do not have crosses either. But many have prints of the crucifixion hanging on their walls. Michael G. Reed, who has a bachelor of arts in humanities and religious studies and a master of art in liberal arts from California State University, Sacramento, explored at a recent Sunstone Symposium what he called, in rather charged language, the "LDS Contempt for the Christian Symbol."

Reed also uses the word "contempt" for how Protestants feel about the cross — 19th-century Protestants, that is. It turns out that cross "aversion" was a Protestant pastime in times past. Its source was anti-Catholicism. Reed quoted historian Ryan K. Smith, who said that from 1820 to 1850 the number of Catholics in the United States grew from about 195,000 members to 1.75 million members, the largest religious body in the nation. And Catholics used crosses.

And so the Protestants didn't. "To Protestant Americans, the cross was perceived to be a strictly Catholic symbol," Reed said.

So the Mormons got their "opposition" to the cross from the Protestants?

Not so fast, according to Reed. Mormons did not pick up their feelings about the cross from the Protestants. At least not entirely.

"While searching for evidence to support the assumption that early Saints had initially rejected the symbol of the cross, I couldn't find any," Reed said.

As a church of converts from other churches, it shouldn't be surprising if some attitudes crept into Latter-day Saints' attitudes. But Reed couldn't find any hints of the Protestant cross attitudes until around 1877. By that time, Protestants had already begun adopting the cross as their own symbol.

Instead, Reed found the cross all over Mormondom. It appeared as jewelry on Brigham Young's wives and daughters. It appeared in floral arrangements in funerals. 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.

Even two temples, the Hawaiian and the Cardston, Alberta, Canada Temple were described in a 1923 general conference as being built in the shape of a cross. Reed said the cross "taboo" was grass roots and began around the turn of the 20th century.

In 1916, when LDS Church Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley asked the Salt Lake City Council to approve the church's plan to erect a large cross to honor the pioneers, he didn't anticipate any opposition. He was, according to Reed, "quickly criticized, and even accused of succumbing to Catholic agenda."

Anti-Catholic feelings quashed the effort.

Mormon missionary work in predominantly Catholic countries "was very challenging," Reed said. Mexican (and presumably Catholic) revolutionaries had executed a Mormon branch president and his cousin the year before. The two were told before they were shot, "If you will renounce your religion and confess before the Virgin Mary, we will spare your lives."

"As a result of conflicts with Catholics abroad such as this, smaller conflicts with Catholics in Utah had a tendency to get blown to greater proportions," Reed said.

Just two weeks before the LDS Church's cross proposal, Catholic Bishop Joseph S. Glass complained about Mormons dancing on Good Friday. He decried a "city of unbelievers" and called upon others to protest. "Are there not enough Christians in Salt Lake City to command some kind of general respect for the holiest day of the year?"

Reed said Bishop Glass' protest offended Mormons, who traditionally did not observe Good Friday. Non-Mormons also thought it was "arrogant" for the bishop to "impose his religious convictions upon others."

This controversy was "fresh on the minds of many Utah citizens who opposed the 1916 Ensign Peak proposal," Reed said.

Plans for a monument on Ensign Peak were reluctantly set aside for almost two decades. But it was only a year later, on July 24, 1917, that a This Is the Place monument in the shape of a cross was erected at the mouth of Emigration Canyon.

For 40 more years the symbol of the cross continued to polarize Latter-day Saints. "While some rejected the symbol," Reed said, "others continued to embrace it."

In 1957, a jewelry store in Salt Lake City advertised cross jewelry for girls. LDS Church Presiding Bishop Joseph L. Wirthlin called President David O. McKay to see if it was proper for LDS girls to purchase the crosses to wear.

Reed believes that President McKay "institutionalized" the LDS Church's feelings toward the symbol in his reply. President McKay expressed two reasons why he didn't think it was a good idea.

He told Bishop Wirthlin that the crosses were "purely Catholic and Latter-day Saint girls should not purchase and wear them. … Our worship should be in our hearts."

According to Reed's reading of Gregory Prince and Wm. Robert Wright's book "David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism," President McKay had developed some critical attitudes toward the Catholic Church when he served in the 1920s as president of the LDS Church's European Mission.

These attitudes ended when Catholic Bishop Duane Hunt met with President McKay about an LDS author's book that was highly critical of Catholics. President McKay began to "privately re-examine his own beliefs" about Catholicism, according to Reed.

Reed said that members of the LDS Church have rid themselves of "much of the anti-Catholic ideas of the past."

But even when the use of the cross is divorced from anti-Catholicism, Mormons, as a whole, still do not generally use the cross as an outward symbol of their faith.

In 1975, President Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, spoke in general conference about the symbol of the cross. He recognized and respected how other churches view the symbol, and said, "But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the living Christ."

"Contempt." "Aversion." "Opposition." "Taboo." Reed struggled throughout his presentation to find the right word to describe how Mormons feel about using the cross as a symbol. In a recent telephone interview, Robert A. Rees, an LDS scholar (and the "response" to Reed's presentation at the Sunstone Symposium), used the word "ambivalence" to describe Mormons' feelings toward using the cross as a symbol.

Not hostility, but a shifting ambivalence.

The attitude of Mormons toward the cross has changed over the years. Members of the LDS Church did not accept the 19th-century Protestant prejudice against the cross. Over time, some embraced the cross as a symbol and others avoided its use. Some even used it as a way to denigrate the Catholic Church.

Today members of the LDS Church concentrate on the body and blood of Christ more than the nails and wood. The cross may not be used as a special outward symbol any more than the crown of thorns, the whip and the spear, but thoughts of the cross and what it represents still cause Latter-day Saints to stand all amazed.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com