Friday, December 21, 2012

The Cross in Mormon History

Inline image 1
Amelia Folsom Young (Briaham Young's
 polygamous wife). Photograph from Utah
State Historical Society Classified Photo
, no. 14195

Excerpts of  Reed, "Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo" (reviewed by Boyd J. Petersen) 

... As Robert Rees has argued, one of the "very large stumbling blocks" keeping other Christians from accepting Mormons as Christian is our rejection of the central symbol of Christianity: the cross. [1] The symbol is not found on Mormon places of worship, on LDS hymnals or scripture, or on jewelry worn by members of the Church. In fact it is often viewed with suspicion, as a sign of apostasy.

... [F]or the average Mormon, LDS antipathy to the cross may seem doctrinal, perhaps foundational, dating back to teachings from Joseph Smith. However, as Michael Reed aptly demonstrates ... this history is much more recent and quite complex. ...

One of the most interesting chapters of Reed's book focuses on the influences of folk magic and Masonry. Following the work of historians like D. Michael Quinn and Richard Bushman who document the impact of folk magic in early Mormonism, Reed notes the centrality of the cross in folk magic symbolism and identifies crosses on several magical parchments belonging to the Smith family. He goes on to show that the cross was also a part of Christianized Masonry, where the pentagram, for example, symbolizes the five wounds of Christ and the Masonic five points of fellowship. Likely influenced by Masonic symbolism, Reed argues, the decorative cruciform stonework surrounding the pentagram windows in the Nauvoo temple brings together the shape of the cross and the pentagram, directly alluding to Christ's crucifixion. He further notes the decorative cross emblazoned on Joseph Smith's walking cane. Reed shows that the cross is found in both magic and masonry, and that early Mormons were comfortable and conversant in both.

Reed next shows how pre-Columbian discoveries supported Mormon acceptance of the cross. Beginning with the LDS "Times and Seasons" publication of excerpts from John L. Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood's "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan" in 1841, Mormons have looked to Mesoamerican discoveries for proof of the Book of Mormon's authenticity. With the discovery of cross symbols in Mayan carvings, many Mormons saw it as proof that Christ had visited the New World, just as the Book of Mormon declared. As Reed puts it, "Mormons perceived Pre-Columbian crosses as evidence vindicating the Book of Mormon narrative that Christianity was practiced among native Americans in ancient times" (66).

One of the most wonderful aspects of Reed's book is its bountiful supply of illustrations, and chapter five, "Mormon Crosses before the Institutionalized Taboo," provides plentiful documentation that Mormons once embraced the cross as a symbol of faith. Reed provides photos of crosses in quilts, in the stained glass in LDS chapels, in funeral arrangements (at John Taylor's funeral, no less!), and in jewelry worn by prominent Mormons (one of Brigham Young's wives and two daughters). It was even emblazoned on the spine of an 1852 European edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The images throughout the book, especially in this chapter, were so good, so important to the thesis, I wished for better production values. I would love to have an over-size coffee table edition of this book. Any reader unconvinced by Reed's argument, would find it difficult to remain unconvinced when confronted with his visual evidence.

Clearly demonstrating that the official Church openly accepted the cross is Reed's discussion of a proposal in the early twentieth century to erect a cross on top of Ensign Peek as a tribute to the Mormon pioneers. The proposal was put forward by B. H. Roberts at a pioneer day commemoration in 1915, when he noted that the "ensign which shall yet float from yonder peak is the ensign of humanity; the ensign of Christ in which every nation shall have part" (87). A year later the Church petitioned the Salt Lake City council for permission to erect the monument. It was opposed initially by a non-Mormon state legislator who thought it was disingenuous for the LDS Church to portray itself as Christian. "It is evident that the oriental crescent of the Mohomedan is a better exhibit for the Pioneer as a monument," he argued.

... The taboo against the cross likely crept into Mormonism as later generations lost touch with the symbols of folk magic and masonry and as Mormons began to assimilate into larger American culture. Reed documents growing tension between Mormons and Catholics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a series of missteps and miscommunication: ...

This increasing tension, combined with some anti-Catholic prejudices of some Church leaders. combined to create an official antipathy toward the symbol of the cross. Mark E. Petersen saw it as nothing but a cruel form of torture, Joseph Fielding Smith saw it as "repugnant and contrary to the true worship of our Redeemer," and Bruce R. McConkie called it the "mark of the beast" (118-20). The taboo against the cross became solidified as President McKay warned of the "two great anti-Christs in the world: Communism and that [Catholic] Church" (115).

... Reed's book is a wonderful addition to Mormon history and a helpful guide in rethinking our contemporary aversion to the central symbol of Christianity.

[1] Lynn Arave, "Cross Called a 'Stumbling Block' for Mormonism," Deseret News 11 Aug. 2008. (available:

Title: Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo
Author: Michael G. Reed
Publisher: John Whitmer Books
Genre: History
Year Published: 2012
Binding: Softcover
Number of pages: 186
ISBN-10: 1934901350
ISBN-13: 978-1934901359
Price: $19.95

Reviewed by Boyd J. Petersen for the Association for Mormon Letters