Mormons and the Cross

Use of the cross among Latter-day Saints is rare, both in personal jewelry and in the decoration of church buildings. Why don’t Mormons use the symbol of the cross today? Paul says that that those who think preaching the cross is foolishness are those that perish (1 Corinthians 1:18). How can Mormons believe in Christ without believing in the cross?

A Declaration of the Living Christ

It is true that the LDS Church does not use the symbol of the cross any longer (see the appendix for commentary on this).  Responding to a question about the lack of crosses in a temple, Gordon B. Hinckley said,

For us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the Living Christ… The lives of our people must become the most meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship” (The Symbol of Our Faith).

In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, it says,

[Members of the LDS Church], like the earliest Christians, are reluctant to display the cross because they view the “good news” of the gospel as Christ’s resurrection more than his crucifixion… No one symbol is sufficient to convey all [that took place in the Savior’s life]. Moreover, the cross, with its focus on the death of Christ, does not symbolize the message of a living, risen, exalted Lord who changes the lives of his followers.

But does this lack of crosses make Latter-day Saints unchristian? Of course not. We believe it is important to remember the sacrifice of the Redeemer, for many reasons (for example, see Licked by the Fog). President Hinckley continues,

No member of this Church must ever forget the terrible price paid by our Redeemer, who gave His life that all men might live—the agony of Gethsemane, the bitter mockery of His trial, the vicious crown of thorns tearing at His flesh, the blood cry of the mob before Pilate, the lonely burden of His heavy walk along the way to Calvary, the terrifying pain as great nails pierced His hands and feet, the fevered torture of His body as He hung that tragic day, the Son of God crying out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)... We cannot forget that. We must never forget it, for here our Savior, our Redeemer, the Son of God, gave Himself, a vicarious sacrifice for each of us” (The Symbol of Our Faith).

Remembering the Atonement

How is the Atonement and sacrifice of Christ remembered in the worship of Latter-day Saints if they do not use the cross? The Atonement is symbolized and memorialized in baptism (Romans 6:3-6), in the weekly ordinance of the Sacrament (Doctrine and Covenants 20:77, 79), in temple ordinances, and in hymns and testimonies.

What’s more, these ordinances and teachings help members to remember the purpose for which the Atonement was accomplished. The purpose, Lehi tells us, is to

“To answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit… Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise” (2 Nephi 2:7-8).

The symbolism in these teachings and ordinances could be compared to the symbolism in various crosses found in different sects of Christianity: in Catholicism the crucifix (the cross with the dead Christ hanging on it) symbolizes the crucifixion of Christ and invites meditation on the Atonement; the plain cross used by Protestants symbolizes not only the crucifixion but also the resurrection of Christ, for the cross is empty; in the Eastern Orthodox crucifix, Christ hangs on the cross, but as the living Lord, his head not bowed in death but raised in triumph, thus the crucifixion, the Atonement, the resurrection, and the Lordship of Christ are all graphically presented (Encyclopedia of Mormonism). Each of these symbols has a particular purpose, a meaning which it emphasizes, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chooses the above mentioned ordinances and teachings for the meanings they emphasize.

The “Gospel”

The Atonement and suffering on the cross is a vital part of what Latter-day Saints consider “the gospel”. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith outlines what Latter-day Saints consider the gospel:

“And this is the gospel, the glad tidings, which the voice out of the heavens bore record unto us— That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleans it from all unrighteousness; That through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:40-42; see also 3 Nephi 27:13-21 for greater detail).

This is the same message Paul preached.  He said that he was not sent to baptize, but to “preach the gospel,” including the cross, “sav[ing] them that believe” (1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 21).

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7 thoughts on “Mormons and the Cross”

  1. It would be best not to repeat President Hinckley’s view that we do not use the cross because it reminds us of “the dying Christ.” It is a positive thing, not negative, to be reminded of the dying Christ. Without the dying Christ, there is neither salvation nor exaltation. Elder Holland had it right when he said, “It is the wounded Christ who is the captain of our soul—he who yet bears the scars of sacrifice, the lesions of love and humility and forgiveness.” I also like the counsel of Mormon to Moroni to keep “the death and sufferings” of Christ in his mind “forever” (Moroni 9:25). (The phrase “death and sufferings” of Christ is repeated at least five other times in the Book of Mormon.) It is positive, not negative, to partake of the bread and water of the sacrament, which remind us of Christ’s crucified body and blood.

    1. I’m pretty iffy on the “it would be best not to repeat President Hinckley’s view”. It’s usually a bad place to start for a Latter-day Saint, backing off from the stance of a modern prophet.

      Besides, it is not like Latter-day Saints avoid talk of the Savior’s death. As you mentioned, the sacramental ordinance (which takes place every week) commemorates the Savior’s death and invites reflection on that sacrifice. Baptism, arguable taken more seriously in Latter-day Saint congregations than in many mainstream Christian churches, is symbolic of the death and resurrection of the Savior. And as you highlighted with Elder Holland’s comment and the passage from The Book of Mormon, the Savior’s death and suffering is taught in our scriptures and from our pulpits.

      Considering this, what might be the meaning behind President Hinckley’s position? There must be something to it, as he is certainly not ignorant of the things mentioned above. Plus, he was a prophet, called as God’s mouthpiece on earth (that’s probably the bigger deal). I have my own thoughts, but I invite comments that consider President Hinckley’s statement in context.

      1. Certainly, we should pay close heed to the words of those who the Lord has authorized to lead his church. However, the only counsel we should automatically follow or agree with is that which is inspired. In the case of saying we don’t use the cross as the symbol of our faith because, for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, President Hinckley’s words were a mistake.

        Yes, we worship the risen Christ. But “the symbol of the dying Christ’ comment has three serious flaws. First, as I said in my earlier post, it leads us to believe that being reminded of the dying Christ is a negative thing for a Christian. Second, it limits the cross to dying while ignoring the fact that the cross is a powerful symbol of the Resurrection because, by dying, Christ achieved victory over death. Third, it misstates the real reason we don’t use the cross, which, in my view, is that the cross has become a symbol for the traditions and beliefs of mainstream Christianity, many of which we in the restored church do not share. In addition, for some the cross is a reminder of the historic mistakes and misdeeds of Christians.

        As Elder McConkie stated, presidents of the church err, even in doctrinal matters.

      2. I can definitely get on board with that, but then how does one make the distinction between the prophet-speak and non-prophet-speak? This, for example, was in a copy of the Ensign (I’m not sure off the top of my head whether it was from a separate address or not).

        My concern is that it would be an easy thing, were we not careful, to consider the words of prophets with which we do not agree to be the uninspired type.

      3. Re: How does one make the distinction between the prophet-speak and non-prophet speak?

        Excellent question. This can be tricky. In fact, with younger members of the Church, the best course might simply be to always follow the prophet just as younger children should follow their parents. Eventually, however, when we’re more informed and experienced in spiritual matters, I believe we have to decide for ourselves if something is inspired. (As Elder Bednar said, the Holy Ghost is “the only true teacher.”)

        You may be interested in a rather significant change between the 1979 Gospel Principles manual and the 2009 manual. Concerning the prophet, the 1979 manual stated: “We should follow his teachings completely. We should not choose to follow part of his counsel and discard that which is unpleasant or difficult.” The 2009 manual added the word “inspired” twice, so that it now reads “inspired teachings” and “inspired counsel.” To those changes, I say Amen.

        By the way, following the prophet should not be automatic even if the prophet sincerely believes his words are inspired. For example, Brigham Young said “which God revealed to me” when speaking of his Adam-God theory. Of course, we are accountable for the consequences if the prophet is right and our decision not to follow is wrong.

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