“Cross at the Cross” is the title of one of the presentations I attended at this year’s Sunstone Symposium. (For background, see my previous post.) Michael Reed evaluated why Latter-day Saints do not display the cross in their architecture or personal adornment.
This topic interested me because few years ago, my wife and I hosted a week-long children’s Bible club at our home. We invited neighborhood kids, and children attended from various religious backgrounds. The craft project one evening was to make a necklace featuring the cross. One LDS family asked us to exempt their child from that activity. They were clearly uncomfortable about the cross, and didn’t want their children to interact with it. I wanted to understand their position.
Reed pointed out that before 1850, Protestants largely eschewed displaying the cross, because it was seen as a strictly Roman Catholic symbol. A cross on a church – not just a crucifix, but an empty cross – would have led to the assumption that the church was Catholic. This changed in the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th, as the anti-Catholic sentiment in America declined somewhat.
In the LDS community, the cross was commonly used as jewelry, in floral arrangements, and so forth, through the latter half of the 1800s. In 1916, the LDS Church proposed erecting a cross on Ensign Peak, near Salt Lake City, in memorial of the LDS pioneers. The LDS community was mixed in its response. Some still viewed the cross as emblematic of Catholicism, and others complained that the cross was contrary to the message brought by the pioneers. Others supported use of the cross as symbol of Jesus and salvation. In the end, the cross was not erected. But the controversy shows that aversion to the cross was not universal among Latter-day Saints in the early 20th century.
The taboo against displaying the cross was institutionalized in the 1950s under President David O. McKay. In 1957, McKay directed that LDS girls should not wear the cross as jewelry, arguing that it was a Catholic symbol. It was suggested in the symposium that cross aversion may be one reason why Mormonism has put so much emphasis on the Garden of Gethsemane as the locus for the Atonement, instead of or alongside the cross. Or conversely, it may be that the focus on the Garden has contributed to the de-emphasis of the cross.
While the cross can no longer be seen as a purely Catholic image, the cross taboo continues. The current LDS argument against displaying the cross is that Latter-day Saints want to emphasize that Jesus is alive, not dead. However, Protestants and Catholics who display the cross would certainly not dispute the resurrection of Christ. Ironically, Protestants make the same argument about why they display the empty cross instead of the crucifix.
Is displaying the cross an impediment to reaching Latter-day Saints? My guess is that aversion to the cross varies considerably between individuals. Some would be uncomfortable seeing the cross displayed in front of a church. Others would probably think little of it. The cross may generate negative emotions or misconceptions. But in the context of a relationship where the matter can be discussed, it isn’t likely to be much of an issue.