Sunstone speaker attempts to explain LDS 'aversion' to cross

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

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

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