Visitors to a Mormon chapel often notice that the image of the cross is noticeably absent from our buildings. Our chapels and temples do not have crosses on display, nor do our hymnals or other written material bear images of the cross. Members of the LDS Church only rarely wear jewelry incorporating the cross. This is a little disconcerting for many Christians who have come to embrace the cross as a fundamental symbol of their faith.
Do Mormons have some kind of problem with the cross?
The answer is complicated. Candidly, there is a fair amount of confusion on this issue among Mormons themselves. Some might react to seeing a cross around your neck with a shrug or less, while I’ve talked to some people who equate it with bringing a Bud Light to Sacrament meeting. I think that the varied reactions are the result of failing to make two important distinctions: First, between “official” use versus personal use of the cross; second, between the doctrine of the Church versus the culture of the Church.
“Official” Use of the Cross
As a matter of official policy, the Church does not put the image of the cross on or in its chapels or temples. The reason, explained by the late Gordon B. Hinckley, former President of the Church, is this: “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.” (First Presidency Message: The Symbol of our Faith, Ensign, Apr. 2005). (The entire article is worth a read, especially if you are still struggling with the whole “Are Mormons Christian?” thing. You can find it at http://www.lds.org/ensign/2005/04/the-symbol-of-our-faith?lang=eng).
However, if you look closely at President Hinckley’s statement, and at the article as a whole, this is more of a matter of focus than doctrine, meaning that we do not reject the cross as a symbol of Christianity, but we prefer to focus on the Living Christ. Our message to the world is that He lives, He cares about us, and He still speaks to world through living prophets.
Part of the Church’s official position on the use of the cross undoubtedly grows out of the culture of the Church. I am aware of no scriptural prohibition against using the cross as a symbol. However, early Mormons were mostly from New England, where the cultural influence of the Puritans still was strong. The Puritans were iconoclasts, meaning that they opposed the use of physical images in their worship services. This tradition certainly was engrained in many of the early Mormon leaders, and that may be one of the reasons that the cross is not officially used.
The Puritan concern related to the veneration of people or objects, and I think there remains a great deal of validity to that concern. I have spent enough time in other Christian churches to know that in most the cross is a symbol used to supplement the worship experience. In others, however, a representation of the cross becomes the center of, or even the object of, worship. That is something that Mormons would object to. We believe that our devotion should be focused on God the Father and Jesus Christ rather than any image, book, prophet or saint. That’s just how we roll.
That said, imagery and symbolism still play a central role in the official acts of the Church. The sacramental bread and water themselves are images of the atonement of Christ. Most of our temples bear a statue of the Angel Moroni (a prophet from the Book of Mormon) blowing a trumpet, a symbol of the restoration of the fullness of Christ’s gospel. Other imagery adorns our temple architecture. Symbolism and imagery clearly are important to the Church on an “official” level; however, the Church downplays the image of the cross because of our preference to focus on Christ as a living being, still relevant to our lives.
Individual Mormons: The Cross and Other Symbols
Official policy regarding the adornment of temples and chapels, however, doesn’t mean that anybody is telling individual Latter-day Saints how to decorate their homes (or what to hang from their rear-view mirrors).
Even though my family converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was a child, the imagery of the cross has a great deal of meaning to me. My parents had a crucifix hanging over their bedroom door that was my first awareness of Christ. I’ve bought my wife jewelry that incorporates the cross, because I know how important that image remains to her as a former Catholic (not to mention the fun it gives me of watching it make uptight Mormons squirm–you take your entertainment where you find it).
I don’t expect that any Church leader would give me grief over my wife’s pendant. It would be a pretty goofy complaint if they did. I have read at least one survey that indicated that the average LDS home actually has more religious images on display than the typical Catholic home. Granted, these images might play a different role for Mormons, serving more as triggers for remembrance rather than as items of reverence, but Mormons have all kinds of images they use.
An inventory of “iconography” in my own home is illustrative. The whole family has their own CTR (“Choose the Right”) rings. We have a large picture of the Los Angeles temple, where my wife and I were married. There are numerous paintings of Christ. A painting of the Dallas temple by one of my daughters. A representation (slightly cheesy, I confess) of the Last Supper. A lovely porcelain figure of Christ. There are all kinds of things around the house that remind us and others of Christ. Heck, if the FBI tosses the place, they will even find a couple of rosaries (my wife’s and my father’s).
Most Mormon homes are similar. Some folks have less stuff; some have more. Sometimes you will run into a cross. More often you don’t.
The point is, most Christians use some sort of images and symbols to remind them of their faith and publicly identify themselves as believers. Whether it is a CTR ring or a WWJD bracelet, the underlying message is the same. On the whole, Mormons don’t typically use the cross, but we do not believe our commitment to Christ to be any weaker because of it.