The cross is widely understood as a Christian symbol reminding believers of their faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning death. Though the current way the cross is now used in the United States is not how it has always been. Most early Americans were not fans of the Catholic church, which as protestants represented religious tyranny of the mind and life itself. Therefore early Americans did not adorn their churches with crosses. It wasn’t until Catholic animus eased that the cross became a more universal Christian symbol in America. The relationship Mormonism has with the cross is more complex, and is told clearly and concisely in Michael Reed’s book Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo.
Early Mormon Sentiments
Unlike protestants of the time 19th century, Mormons did not have the same aversion to the cross. Reed argues that the lack of contempt for the cross among early Mormons resulted from Mormonism’s early relationships with: (1) folk-magic practices, within which the cross is found in magical parchments accompanied by other magical symbols; (2) freemasonry, which embraced a variety of cross-symbols; as well as (3) pre-Columbian crosses found in Mesoamerica, which was interpreted by early Mormons as evidence supporting the historicity of the Book of Mormon which claims that early Native Americans were at one point Christians.
Evidence of positive feelings towards the cross in early Mormonism is found in photographs of prominent and lay-Mormons wearing the cross as jewelry, Mormon architecture incorporating the cross in stonework and glass-work, crosses in quilts and floral arrangements, and even grave markers.
The shift away from embracing the cross was slow and started in the 1870’s with some voices expressing repugnance towards the cross. One example is Edward Tullidge in 1877 saying “It is a symbol of heathenism, whence Rome received her signs and her worship.” Though despite growing distaste for the cross many Mormons retained a deep appeal for the cross with B.H. Roberts (Mormon intellectual and general authority) proposing in 1915 that a large cross to be erected on Ensign Peak as a tribute to early pioneers (additionally, Roberts’ headstone placed in 1933 features a cross). A year later C.W. Nibley (Presiding Bishop of the church) formally petitioned for such a monument to be installed. The petition was fought by non-LDS residents and LDS members alike and the cross monument on Ensign Peak never materialized. (A temporary cross monument was erected near emigration canyon with the words “This is the Place” and “Brigham Young” inscribed on it.)
A group of influential LDS leaders spread negative interpretations of the cross throughout the early and mid 20th century, those voices included J. Reuben Clark, Mark E. Peterson and Joseph Fielding Smith. Despite these influences, when future Church president Spencer W. Kimball was called to be an apostle in 1943 he felt deep inadequacy and went to the nearby hills for solitude and contemplation. His inspiration to move forward in his weighty calling was found in seeing a “huge cross with its arms silhouetted against the blue sky beyond.” He revisited this special place two years later to find the simple wooden cross broken. He took the time and effort to carry a replacement part to the site and repair the cross that inspired his spiritual dedication.
The taboo against the cross became formalized During the presidency of David O. Mckay, who held no tender place in his heart for the Catholic church until the final years of his life. Bishop Joseph L. Wirthlin inquired on the church’s position with respect to crosses worn as jewelry, as some young women in his congregation expressed desire to wear them. McKay’s response was that it was a strictly Catholic symbol and should not be worn by Mormons.
From that point forward common arguments against the cross were perpetuated and largely accepted that the cross focused too much on the death of Jesus and Mormons would rather focus on his life. Upon reflection this argument seems strange to me since Mormons clearly believe in the atoning power of Jesus’ suffering, and even expand the suffering narrative to the Garden of Gethsemane (which mainstream Christians do not). The argument is not theologically consistent with other Mormon beliefs on Jesus’ role, nor does it correspond with early Christian views of the cross as Reed clarifies in the appendix.
In broad strokes the common narrative put forth by historians, that the Mormon aversion to the cross was an expression of anti-Catholic sentiments, is correct but the timeline is wrong (which Reed corrects). Early Mormons embraced the cross while their protestant contemporaries did not, and 20th century Mormons eventually turned away from the cross while modern protestants have embraced it. The final chapters of the book describe other Mormon group’s relationship to the cross, such as the Community of Christ (RLDS). The story is similar and pretty well parallels the LDS church’s experience but diverges at the mid-20th century mark where the Community of Christ moves to embrace the cross as an important religious symbol, even incorporating it in the construction of their temple in Independence. The LDS animus towards the Catholic church has waned dramatically from the days of McConkie openly describing cross as the “mark of the beast,” with the Catholic church being the great and abominable church, but I imagine that the inclusion of the cross will not become commonplace in LDS culture for a long time to come if ever. This attitude towards the cross is likely to remain in order to retain the LDS Church’s unique place among American and world religions.