Saturday, December 09, 2006

(t)Cross Talk

Over the years many have questioned the Christian nature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the many different beliefs it holds from more traditional sects of the religion. Those who are most against the concept of Mormons as Christians do so with the narrowest of theological terms. As Latter-day Saints argue, we have the name of Christ in our official designation, we worship him as Son of God and Savior, and etc. Probably the most recent attack has to do with symbols, particularly the lack of the Cross. It can be confusing to those who are used to the cross symbol as a "universal" sign of Christian Faith. Why don't we use Crosses? That is an easy one to answer today, but not an easy answer for the past.

I believe, from my research, that the absents of a Cross is an "accident" of history. Not that I don't think there were deliberate reasons - as the LDS Church has been using other symbols since almost the start. The Angel Moroni seemed to have replaced the Cross as a symbol because it represented many of the key teachings of the Church. It carries the Book of Mormon in one hand and a trumpet in another. This represents Restoration of the Gospel, calling of the Elect, Resurrection and Judgment, and etc. The Cross did not get added to the plethora of other symbols available for iconography. One blogger speculated on its lack of use:

I think that it never became part of our own tradition for purely historical reasons (our roots in thoroughly aniconic and anti-papist evangelical Protestantism) and that the reasons now given are mostly etiology

This is something I have been thinking for a long time. The reasons for a lack of a Cross was never explained until much later in the history of the Church when the question was forced upon Mormons from outside influences. Mainly I would like to know where I can find a history of the Cross (specifically as it relates to "aniconic" and "anti-papist evangelical Protestantism"). What I have found, or not found in this case, is a nearly silent record of the subject.

There is no talk of the physical use of a cross symbol in the early Church, at least what I have read so far. It seems no one particularly thought of mentioning the lack of use as important. There was no refuting, explaining, or even discussion of the issue. From the Mormon records the exclusion seems to have just happened. The LDS tradition of symbols has carried over to today from the Puritan disdain of outward symbols as idol worship. Chapels might have one large picture, if any at all, and no other art. Very few Temples have iconographic images on the outside, and contain simple and traditional religious paintings on the inside that are mostly decoration.

It isn't that Joseph Smith didn't understand the power of the Cross, both religiously and as a sign of the Atonement. He might not have had it incorporated into the Church, but he did mention it at least once as part of the architecture of Heaven:

While we ask peace and protection for the Saints, wherever they may be, we also solicit the charity and benevolence of all the worthy of the earth, to purchase the righteous a holy home, a place of rest, and a land of peace; believing that no man who knows he has a soul will keep back his mite, but cast it in for the benefit of Zion; thus, when time is no longer, he, with all the ransomed of the Lord, may stand in the fullness of joy, and view the grand pillar of heaven, which was built by the faith and charity of the Saints, beginning at Adam, with his motto in the base, "Repent and live," surrounded with a beautiful circle sign, supported by a cross about midway up its lofty column, staring the world in letters of blood, "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand;" and finished with a plain top towering up in the midst of the celestial world-around which is written by the finger of Jehovah, "Eternal Life is the greatest gift of God."

-History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Edited by B. H. Roberts. 2d ed., rev. Vol. 2, Ch. 8, pg. 133. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-51.

Other instances of the mention of the Cross were more about observing traditions of others. There wasn't a condemnation as such as much as curiosity. In a visit to Greece as part of his trip to Palistine, Lorenzo Snow mentioned:

It is customary to make the sign of the cross in the following manner: Uniting the tips of the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, and touching alternately the forehead, navel, right breast and left breast, three times in rapid succession, whenever passing a church, seeing the cross, or hearing the name of the Savior spoken. They have a singular form for burying the dead. I witnessed the ceremony of burying two persons, who apparently had occupied respectable positions in society. The processions were preceded by boys ii, white robes, carrying a crucifix and other ecclesiastic insignia of considerable splendor, followed by priests, chanting in a low, monotonous, melancholy tone, while all hats were off and every hand was making the sign of the cross, as the solemn train was passing along the crowded thoroughfare; the corpse, with ghastly features exposed to full view in an open coffin, covered with white cloth, variously decorated; the lid of the coffin, painted with a large cross, was carried along in the procession, in an upright position. The corpse was dressed in the clothing customarily worn while living; the head partially elevated, and the hands folded in front of a picture of the Virgin, placed an his breast.

-Athens Greece description. Smith, Eliza R. Snow. Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News Company, 570.

Probably the first time the question of a lack of Cross use was widely recognized was from Joseph Fielding Smith. Again, there isn't a blanket condemnation of the Cross iconography. There is a forceful rejection of its use for LDS members:

Answer: While we have never questioned the sincerity of Catholics and Protestants for wearing the cross, or felt that they were doing something which was wrong, it is a custom that has never appealed to members of the Church. The motive for such a custom by those who are of other churches, we must conclude, is a most sincere and sacred gesture. To them the cross does not represent an emblem of torture but evidently carried the impression of sacrifice and suffering endured by the Son of God. However, to bow down before a cross or to look upon it as an emblem to be revered because of the fact that our Savior died upon a cross is repugnant to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . .

. . . To many, like the writer, such a custom is repugnant and contrary to the true worship of our Redeemer. Why should we bow down before a cross or use it as a symbol? Because our Savior died on the cross, the wearing of crosses is to most Latter-day Saints in very poor taste and inconsistent to our worship. Of all the ways ever invented for taking life and the execution of individuals, among the most cruel is likely the cross. This was a favorite method among the Romans who excelled in torture. 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 indeed if religious people of this day would have graced such a weapon by wearing it and adoring it because it was by such a means that our Lord was put to death.

-Smith, Joseph Fielding. Answers to Gospel Questions. vol. 4. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957-1966.

The current LDS Pressident, Gordon B. Hinkley, has been the most vocal in his explanation of why the Cross iconography is not used. He gave a talk on the subject when he was an Elder and then repeated the message in the Ensign when he was Prophet of the Church. The message is clear; The Cross shouldn't be an outside symbol, but an inward one:

I 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.”

He then asked: “If you do not use the cross, what is the symbol of your religion?”

I replied that the lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.

-Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Symbol of Christ,” Ensign, May 1975, 92 and “The Symbol of Our Faith,” Ensign, Apr. 2005, 3

Elder Marvin J. Ashton expressed exactly how Mormons are to use the symbol of the Cross as part of their lives. He stated:

Over the centuries, in the minds of millions of people, the cross has been recognized as a symbol of Christianity. But rather than displaying the cross, we prefer to try carrying our crosses.

The Lord’s message to us is “Take up your cross.” Take yourself the way you are, and lift yourself in the direction of the better. Regardless of where you have been, what you have done, or what you haven’t done, trust God. Believe in him. Worship him as you carry your cross with dignity and determination.

As we read in Matthew, we save our lives by losing them for the Lord’s sake. As we lose ourselves, we will find God. That is his promise, and I declare that it is true.

But what kind of cross do we each bear? What is its shape, weight, size, or dimension? The crosses we may carry are many: the cross of loneliness, the cross of physical limitations—loss of a leg, an arm, hearing, seeing, or mobility. These are obvious crosses. We see people with these crosses, and we admire their strength in carrying them with dignity. Poor health can be a cross, as can transgression, success, temptation, beauty, fame, or wealth. Financial burdens can be a cross. So can criticism or peer rejection.

-Marvin J. Ashton, “Carry Your Cross,” Ensign, Feb. 1988, 69.

Finally, if Mormons don't use the Cross as the physical symbol of Jesus and the Atonment, what do they use? Of course, baptism is the earliest symbol of the death and resurrection as it represents a new birth as members of the Church. Besides that, the most visible symbol is the Sacrement (or Communion) taken each week during Sunday services. In fact, it is the one outward symbol of Christ that there is no question Jesus initiated. Elder David B. Haight said:

Usually once a week, for a little more than an hour, we have the opportunity to attend sacrament meeting and reflect on the life of our Savior; to recall with deep gratitude and reverence His life of purity, kindness, and love; to reflect upon the great atoning sacrifice; and to partake of the broken bread, symbolic of His torn flesh, and drink of the cup, symbolic of His blood that was shed on the cross.

The Savior taught the Nephites that “I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.

“And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; … that I might draw all men unto me.” (3 Ne. 27:13–14.)

As we partake of the sacrament and reflect upon His sacrifice for each of us, we make a solemn commitment to keep the commandments which He has given us, that by so doing we might always have His spirit to be with us. . .

- David B. Haight, “The Sacrament,” Ensign, May 1983, 12.

It isn't that Mormons are fearful of the Cross or should be against anyone who uses it for religious devotion. Obviously, some LDS leaders have expressed serious reservations as to its iconographic meaning. What has happened is that the leadership of the Church have tried to internalize the Cross as a personal approach to the struggles of life. Historically there isn't a view of the physical Cross either positive or negative, so much as simply a lack of attention to that particular "logo" with so many other choices. That means that, not taking into account cultural norms, a Cross isn't against LDS belief or possible expression. Still, there are serious statements of concern over what it represents or how other symbols might be better reminders of faith. As with other things, even CTR rings, we must be careful drawing the line between symbol and idol.


Anonymous said...

Jettboy, I think you distilled it down just right when you said that we "internalize the Cross." That's it exactly.

It is strange that our usage of iconography can discredit our faith in the eyes of others, when in the purest sense there is no 'worship' of the cross, only worship of the Father.

Anonymous said...

I am grateful this Christmas season that we can join with other Christians in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

Isn't it odd that we are accused of worshipping a "different Jesus" when in fact it is the same baby Jesus we all look to as our Savior and Redeemer during this time of year?

Maybe one day we will get past the iconography and realize that our lives of service and obedience to God's commandments ARE the best symbol and representation of the Savior we can have and display in our lives.

I know this doesn't add any insight to your post, but these are the thoughts it invoked.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting piece. I love the quotes. I wonder, though, if there is more to not having the cross than just history. Otherwise, we could have adopted it at any point along the way. The fact that there are deliberate comments to the fact that we don't have the cross in our symbolism tells me there might be more than just history at play here.

Jettboy said...

Michelle, that is actually a question that I posed here, or rather in response to another blog. I stated:

"Mainly I would like to know where I can find a history of the Cross (specifically as it relates to "aniconic" and "anti-papist evangelical Protestantism"). What I have found, or not found in this case, is a nearly silent record of the subject."

It is definately an open question to be sure. However, the records are next to silent on the issue until the "Christian" label of Mormons was tied to the Cross symbol. When that happened I can only guess (and that is all it is at this point) as defensive and easy to understand comments. It is clear that the most recent leaders of the Church have decided not to enter it into the official symbolism lexicon. Many members (and not all) have agreed with the reasons. I actually agree with the reasons, although would like the "I don't know the history behind it" added on to that.

That is until there is more history known on the subject to place a reason. As I have said, so far LDS records are silent on the issue, and there is nothing left other than extreme guess work. Perhaps someone more qualified than I (an actual historian) can shed better light.