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Q&A: Why Latter-day Saints seem to avoid the symbol of the cross

Three crosses, representing the cross that Christ was crucified on as well as the crosses thieves hung from on both sides of him, stand outside of the new Nephi Baptist Church in Nephi on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.
Three crosses, representing the cross that Christ was crucified on as well as the crosses thieves hung on from both sides of him, stand outside of the Nephi Baptist Church in Nephi next to Interstate 15 on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. A BYU professor has authored a book exploring the meaning of the symbol of the cross.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Many Christians churches around the world feature the cross on steeples, in artwork and as jewelry, among other uses, primarily as a symbol of their faith in Jesus Christ.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also focus worship services on the Savior, but you won’t see a cross on buildings or many paintings depicting the crucifixion of Christ in meetinghouses.

Why do Latter-day Saints seem to avoid this widely accepted Christian symbol?

It’s a question that John Hilton III, associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, has researched in recent years while writing his book, “Considering the Cross: How Calvary Connects us with Christ.”

“The biggest misperception is that the symbol of the cross is only about the death of Christ,” the professor said. “Of course, we worship the living Christ. At the same time, symbols are multifaceted and invite additional meaning. The cross can be a symbol of Christ’s love, it can be a symbol of his triumph, it can be a symbol of his solidarity. ... I think it opens a lot of doors to see the cross in different ways.”

Alex Bury and Juliana Snow carry the cross as it leaves the First Presbyterian Church during the Good Friday Procession of the Cross in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 25, 2016. At back left is the Rev. Eun-sang Lee of the First United Methodist Church. BYU professor John Hilton III recently authored a book that explores the history and meaning of the cross, along with the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Alex Bury and Juliana Snow carry the cross as it leaves the First Presbyterian Church during the Good Friday Procession of the Cross in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 25, 2016. At back left is the Rev. Eun-sang Lee of the First United Methodist Church. BYU professor John Hilton III recently authored a book that explores the history and meaning of the cross, along with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

In “Considering the Cross,” Hilton draws upon the scriptures and teachings of church leaders to go in-depth on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as well as the history of the cross as a symbol.

As Christians around the world celebrate Holy Week and the Easter holiday, the author spoke with the Deseret News about Latter-day Saint views of the cross and what he learned while writing his book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: Nearly all Christians believe Jesus Christ died for our sins. For many Christians, the cross represents their faith in Christ. Why is there a tendency for Latter-day Saints to avoid the symbol of the cross?

John Hilton III is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.
John Hilton III is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.
Kylea Knecht, BYU

John Hilton III: It likely stems from our lack of cross iconography collectively as a church. When Latter-day Saints are asked about the cross they often paraphrase words stated by President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1975. Although President Hinckley did not directly discourage individuals from wearing or displaying crosses, he explained the church’s institutional practice of not having crosses in our buildings by relating an experience he had while giving a tour of the Mesa Arizona temple. A Protestant minister pointed out the absence of the cross throughout the temple and, noting that it was the symbol of Christianity, asked how Latter-day Saints could claim to be Christians without the image of the cross. President Hinckley responded, “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 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. ... The lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.”

The importance of worshipping the living Christ cannot be overstated. I love these words from Elder David A. Bednar: “With all the energy of my soul, I witness the resurrected and living Christ directs the affairs of His restored and living Church.” Jesus Christ lives, and I testify of that reality. At the same time, if we focus on the cross exclusively as a representation of a dying Christ, we ignore the fact that symbols are multifaceted: They permit, even invite, layers of meaning.

In 1915, the YW Journal published this statement: “The cross that was then a sign of disgrace has become a symbol of love and salvation.” In 1933, the Relief Society magazine published this statement: “Christ changed the cross into a symbol of Glory.” Eliza R. Snow referred to “the triumphs of the cross.”

Many early church members spoke positively about the cross and used it as a symbol — so in some ways it is part of our heritage that we may have forgotten about.

Tech Sgt. Crystal McClellan, Religious Affairs noncommissioned officer in charge, shows how a plain cross for Protestant services or the crucifix for Catholic services can be displayed in the sanctuary at Hill Air Force Base on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019.
Tech Sgt. Crystal McClellan, Religious Affairs noncommissioned officer in charge, shows how a plain cross for Protestant services or the crucifix for Catholic services can be displayed in the sanctuary at Hill Air Force Base on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019. John Hilton III, a BYU professor, recently wrote a book that explores the history and meaning of the cross, along with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

DN: As a growing global church, what difference would it make if more Latter-day Saints were open-minded towards the cross and its significance to other faiths?

JH: Coming to a deeper knowledge of the Savior’s crucifixion will give us more love and awareness as we interact with hundreds of millions of Christians for whom the cross is the primary symbol of their belief that Christ was both crucified and resurrected. As we talk with other Christians about our shared faith in Jesus Christ, we can highlight that the Book of Mormon itself testifies Christ died on the cross to atone for our sins (see 1 Nephi 11:33).

The importance of Christ’s crucifixion is something Latter-day Saints and other Christians can agree on. In an era where religious liberties are frequently attacked, working with others of faith is increasingly important. Learning more about Christ’s crucifixion can help us build bridges, both individually and as a church collectively, with other Christians.

DN: How can studying Christ’s crucifixion increase a person’s appreciation of the Savior’s Atonement?

JH: President James E. Faust taught, “Any increase in our understanding of (Christ’s) atoning sacrifice draws us closer to him.” Better understanding any aspect of Christ’s atonement — including his crucifixion — can deepen our relationship with the Savior. Because among some Latter-day Saints there is a tendency to focus on Gethsemane and the Resurrection, but spend less time with Calvary, we have a valuable opportunity to learn more about it now.

DN: What have you learned in writing this book that you didn’t know before?

John Hilton III is the author of “Considering the Cross,” which explores the meaning of the symbol and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Deseret Book

JH: This is a hard question, because I’ve learned a lot. While I was researching for “Considering the Cross” I realized that artwork and movies, rather than historical facts, had shaped my mental representation of how Christ was crucified. I realized that although I had heard about this atoning event my entire life, I had never read a book or taken a class that provided in-depth detail about what happened to Christ on Calvary.

I know I’m not the only one who has been influenced more by artwork than historical reality. Several people have asked me, “Why were the thieves tied to the cross and only Christ was nailed?” Of course, this question is based on the famous Harry Anderson painting, frequently used by Latter-day Saints, and not anything stated in the scriptures. So that’s a long way of saying that one thing I’ve learned is more detail about the process of Roman crucifixion and how understanding these details can help us better understand Jesus Christ. I’ve also seen deeper connections in gospel ordinances, including baptism, the sacrament and temple ordinances. I’ve learned more about minor characters such as Barabbas, Simon, Mary Magdalene and others — as well as how their stories can connect me with Jesus Christ. Perhaps most importantly, as I’ve carefully studied the final day of Christ’s life I’ve felt in a deeper way the reality of what he did for me.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord lists several spiritual gifts. The very first gift listed is to know through the Holy Ghost “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world” (D&C 46:13). This is a topic that is important for all of us to carefully study.