Sunstone speaker attempts to explain LDS 'aversion' to cross

Published: Thursday, Sept. 10 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

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 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.

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