Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why Mormons Don't Use the Symbol of the Cross

      People often wonder why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not use the cross as its symbol. Some assume that Mormons do not display the cross because they do not believe that Christ was crucified for our sins. I've heard from another who thought that we eschewed all religious symbolism. Hopefully the other posts on this blog adequately answer those misconceptions.

      Nevertheless, it is easy to see why some would be confused. The cross is used as the symbol of nearly every Christian denomination, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike.
      There are several reasons why Mormons do not use the symbol of the cross. First, we see Christ’s Atonement as broader than the crucifixion. Mormon doctrine places greater emphasis on Christ’s passion in Gethsemane than most Christian denominations (Mark 14:32-36; Luke 22:39-44; Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-24). In Gethsemane, Christ suffered for the sins of all mankind. On the cross on Golgotha, he suffered crucifixion and death. From the sepulcher he was resurrected on the third day.
      Thus, the cross represents only part of Christ’s Atonement. It represents that he died for us, without which death there could be no resurrection. Yet Christ suffered something far greater for us than mere death. The Roman torture known as crucifixion was horrifically painful, but it was not sufficient to pay the price of all the sins of the world. That suffering, unfathomable to mortal minds, occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane and was concluded with Christ's death on the cross.
      In his book What Happened to the Cross?, Robert Millet writes, “We should note that historically, in the first few Christian centuries, the cross was not considered a virtuous or admirable symbol, but rather a terrifying reminder of what Jesus and thousands of others had ignominiously suffered. In fact, some scholars report that the cross did not appear in churches as a symbol of veneration until A.D. 431. Crosses on steeples did not appear until 586, and it was not until the sixth century that crucifixes were sanctioned by the Roman church.”
      Not surprisingly, it was probably the late Gordon B. Hinckley, fifteenth president of our church, who explained it best. When a Protestant minister asked him about the absence of the cross in Mormon buildings, Pr. Hinckley recalled, “I responded, ‘I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian colleagues 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 most meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.
      “I hope he did not feel that I was smug or self-righteous in my response. Our position at first glance may seem a contradiction of our profession that Jesus Christ is the key figure of our faith. The official name of the Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We worship Him as Lord and Savior. The Bible is our scripture. We believe that the prophets of the Old Testament who foretold the coming of the Messiah spoke under divine inspiration. We glory in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John setting forth the events of the birth, ministry, death, and Resurrection of the Son of God, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh.”

In summary
Question: If Mormons are Christians, why don’t they use the cross as their symbol as other Christian denominations do?
Response: Because the Gospel is a message of hope, Mormons choose to focus on the living, resurrected Christ, rather than the instrument of his death. They know that Christ’s death was a crucial part of the Atonement, but do not want to focus on the cross at the expense of what occurred in Gethsemane and at the tomb.

Robert L. Millet, What Happened to the Cross? (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 102.
Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Symbol of Our Faith,” Ensign, April 2005, 2.
Intellectual Reserve, “Cross,” True to the Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004): 45.


Seth R. said...

Also worth noting that, at the time Joseph Smith founded Mormonism, not a lot of his neighboring Protestant religions used the symbol of the cross either.

Back in the mid-1800s, the cross was often considered to be papist (Catholic) and was therefore not used by religions like the Baptists and such. Joseph Smith was simply following suit by not adopting the cross.

The adoption of the cross as a symbol by Protestants is actually quite recent. That Mormons have not, for whatever reason, chosen to use the symbol as well should not be an issue for anyone.

It's just a historical quirk.

Travis Brinton said...

Thanks; I didn't know that. If you know of any sources that say as much, maybe I could include that bit of information in the post.

Sarah said...

I also appreciate that the Prophet's comments weren't openly hostile to the cross. We're not trying to be judgmental by not having the cross -- we're choosing to focus on other stuff instead. My grandmother was Catholic (and my grandfather, her husband, was Jewish), and so I have crosses (and menorahs and so forth) in my apartment. Too often I think individuals in the Church speak about the cross as though it's shameful or evil in some way, which I think is unfortunate.


What Happened To The Cross by Robert Millet is a great book.

Anonymous said...

According to Susan E. Black, professor at Brigham Young University, foremost authority on the life of Joseph Smith in the world, the cross was used in the LDS church, similar to other churches. She responded to that very question at the end of a lecture, but before class ended by saying that the LDS church historically did use the cross as a symbol of their Christianity, though she did not state to what degree that use was. However, she further stated that around the turn of the century, the Church asked members to stop using the cross, citing an improper focus on the symbol instead of the meaning (being Christ).

Since this information came from a lecture of which I have no recording, it is a matter that should be researched more deeply; my memory may not have recorded the exact things that Dr. Black said regarding the issue. Certainly, there must be a written record of some such policy change, though I have not researched it further.

Anonymous said...

Where does the theory that Christ paid for humanity's sins in the garden come from? Do any of the gospels say that it happened there? I don't think the cross has ever been shunned by Protestants for being Catholic. The Anglican church has used the cross continuously since their break with Rome. The only real change with regards to Protestant use the the cross is the tendency to, more often than not, prefer the use of a plain one instead of a crucifix. The cross altogether was shunned or not used by many of the nonclerical Christian sects and still is to this day. Just because the Roman's crucified many people does not make the Christ's death on the cross insufficient. The difference was that man crucified their GOD! He could have STOPPED it or even destroyed us all. But He didn't. That is what makes His death on the cross sufficient.

Travis Brinton said...

In the four Gospels, the most vivid and moving descriptions of Christ's passion refer to his prayer in Gethsemane.

From Luke 22:41-44: "And he ... kneeled down, and prayed, saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground."

From Mark 14:32-36: "And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane: and he saith to his disciples, Sit ye here, while I shall pray. And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy; And saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch. And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt."

The account in Matthew is very similar to that in Mark. The book of John does not mention Gethsemane but records the intercessory prayer that Jesus offered in the garden for his disciples (and by extension, for all who believe in him)(John 17:20).

Jesus' suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane was so great that he asked to be spared the ordeal if it were possible, an angel was sent to strengthen him, and his sweat was "as it were great drops of blood." At that time, more than at any other, he wanted his apostles to stay with him, especially Peter, James, and John, the three who had been with him on the Mount of Transfiguration. But they could not stay awake. No doubt they did not comprehend what he was going through as they slept.

Thereafter, Jesus Christ suffered brutal forms of torture at the hands of the Romans. But nowhere does it indicate that he suffered the kind of agony described in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Roman torture methods paled in comparison with the pain and the sins of the entire world.
Biblical indications aside, the reason we believe that it was in the Garden of Gethsemane that Christ suffered for our sins because that is what our prophets have taught us. But I should note that they have also said that when the Father withdrew his presence as Christ hung on the cross ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?")(Mark 15:34), the suffering from the night in Gethsemane returned, and this time Jesus suffered with no angel to strengthen him nor even the companionship of the Father, who had always been with him. Jesus, and Jesus alone, then suffered the full weight of the sins of every human being to ever walk the earth. As soon as it was finished, he died, and on the third day (the second, as we would count it) was resurrected, thus conquering both sin and death.

(For a compilation of teachings of LDS apostles and prophets on the Atonement, see "From the Garden to the Empty Tomb," Ensign, April 2006: . )

Anonymous said...

It is said that Mormons do not have a robust theology of grace. Is so why not?

Travis Brinton said...

Excellent question. I understand grace to mean: "God's mercy, offering us the chance of salvation, extended to his children despite the fact that as sinners we do not deserve it."

It is true that the term "grace" is not used as frequently in Mormonism as in most Christian denominations, despite the fact that it's all over the Book of Mormon as well as the New Testament. I think it's mainly a matter of terminology. The essential concept is the same, and is central to our understanding of Christ's Atonement.

Perhaps there is more emphasis on grace in those traditions of Christianity that believe that there are no conditions on salvation other than acceptance of Christ as one's savior. This requires an explanation of why a depraved, despicable sinner should get to go to heaven simply because of faith, while a virtuous and otherwise Christlike person who does not believe in Jesus would be condemned. True, we're all sinners, but there's enough difference between the best and worst of mankind that such a criteria, divorced from any basis in merit, seems to defy justice. Theories of grace attempt to answer this problem.

Mormonism has less of a need to develop complicated theologies beyond the simple definition above, because we believe salvation is contingent on more than faith alone. We believe that God's grace does not mean we are not accountable for our actions. We must also repent in order to be forgiven, and because we will sin again, we must continually strive to repent. This does NOT mean that we "earn our way to heaven"; repenting is not even possible without Christ's redeeming Atonement, and inevitably, there are sins we will fail to repent of entirely. Rather, it means that tapping into that power requires some effort beyond simply:
1. Exercise faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9-10)
Additionally, we must:
2. Repent of our sins (Luke 13:3)
3. Be baptized (John 3:3-5)
4. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-6)
5. Endure in faith to the end (Matt. 24:13)
Notice that New Testament scriptures establish the necessity of all of these for salvation--and many more passages could be given. In Mormonism, we refer to these as the "first principles and ordinances of the Gospel."

I hope that answers the question: We believe that Jesus Christ's Atonement is the ultimate manifestation of God's grace, which allows anyone who exercises faith in Christ to be saved--"exercise faith" meaning acting on that faith by repenting, being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and continuing in faith to the end.

I'll end with a few passages from the Book of Mormon:
"Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth." (2 Nephi 2:6)
"Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved." (2 Nephi 10:24)
"For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." (2 Nephi 25:23)
"And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them." (Ether 12:27)

Travis Brinton said...

I deleted an anonymous comment that stated that Mormonism's emphasis on Christ's passion in Gethsemane proves that we don't read the Bible. The anonymous commentator's failure to ask any sincere question proves that s/he doesn't read my comments policy.

Additionally, assertions about the Bible are more credible if they cite Biblical support, as my article and follow-up comments have.

Henry Bemis said...

I believe Jehovah's Witnesses have a very similar doctrine on wearing the cross as do Muslims. It is said that whenever Mohamed saw a Cross he would go into a rage and destroy it.

I think the LDS church would find more open doors in society if they were more open to the fact that millions of Believers wear the Cross Daily.

I think the Cross is a powerful symbol that causes powerful reactions from all peoples from all different Faiths. Perhaps we should not be so judgemental towards the anti-Cross crowd. Mormons may very well feel the same emotion looking at the statue of the Angel Moroni as we do the Cross.

As for myself they can have my Cross when they jerk it off my cold dead corpse.

Thanks for hearing my point of view. Peace to you all.

Travis Brinton said...

Henry, you seem to be under the impression that Mormons are part of an "anti-cross crowd." We feel no hostility toward others' religious symbols, and certainly not toward the cross, which we recognize is a symbol of Christianity in general, of which we are a part.

Steve Warren said...

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley's comment, “for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the living Christ,” has four glaring problems.
1. It leaves the clear impression that being reminded of the dying Christ is a negative thing. The gospel teaches the exact opposite. Each week Mormons are reminded in the sacrament of Christ’s body that was crucified and his blood that was shed. Without the dying Christ, the living Christ would have no power to save, nor would the Atonement amount to much because we'd be stuck in the grave forever. The early apostles preached Christ crucified and the cross.
2. For some reason, Elder Hinckley asserted that “for us” the cross represents only dying. However, Christians view it is a symbol of atonement and victory over death (resurrection).
3. Although he asserts that the cross is not “the” symbol of our faith, Elder Hinckley fails to offer any reason why the cross can’t be “a” symbol of our faith. We certainly have plenty of other symbols.
4. It ignores the real reason why we don’t use the cross; namely, because the cross is closely identified with mainstream Christianity whereas we, the restored church, differ in key respects. Many of us fear that wearing cross jewelry, for example, will suggest we are Protestant or Catholic or that we have the same beliefs.