Today, Christians around the world solemnly remember the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the willing sacrifice of His life for ours. We know that Christ’s suffering on the cross is an essential component of His Atonement and President Gordon B. Hinckley taught “We cannot forget [the cross]. We must never forget it, for here our Savior, our Redeemer, the Son of God, gave himself a vicarious sacrifice for each of us.”
And yet, though Latter-day Saints have deep doctrinal beliefs about what took place on Golgotha’s hill, we have a complex history with the cross as a symbol. On this Good Friday, take a closer look at the history of the cross in Latter-day Saint symbolism.
Early Christan Symbols
For the earliest Christians, the cross represented gruesome torture and exquisite death. While we are far removed from the depravity of crucifixion today, death by crucifixion was common for slaves and the lower classes. Thus, the cross was not a popular Christian symbol in the first few centuries following Christ’s death. This isn’t to say the cross wasn’t associated with early Christians or used in iconography; it simply wasn’t venerated on the same scale in later years and was included in a wide array of symbols, including the ichthus, the dove, and the good shepherd.
In his book, The Cross Before Constantine, Bruce W. Longenecker helps us understand the meteoric rise of the cross as a symbol after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized the faith.
“It is not my view that the cross was predominant among the early Christian symbols,” Longenecker writes. “Other symbols were also employed by pre-Constantinian Christians as symbols of faith, and some of them seem to have had a wider currency (e.g., Jesus the Good Shepherd).
“Moreover, the cross clearly does not have the same kind of prominence prior to Constantine that it came to have after Constantine. At that point, the cross increasingly became incorporated into Christian worship, outstripping other symbols as the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith in the centuries that followed. During the fourth through the seventh centuries, the cross continued to rise to prominence as the centerpiece of Christian religious art, adorning walls, and architecture at key positions in post-Constantinian places of Christian worship.”
In the years leading to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the cross was displayed in multiple ways—on buildings, on personal tokens and artifacts, and in religious ceremonies. As the years passed, it became more and more common to depict the actual crucifixion with the oft-gruesome body of Christ displayed hanging upon it. This helped spur a change in meaning for the cross. Instead of a symbol of victory, with empty crosses displayed as scepters and decorated with gems and gold, it became a connection to Christ’s intimate knowledge of our own suffering.
However, as the Reformers began to push against the doctrines and policies of the Catholic Church, the use of the cross began to be hotly contested. Protestants often saw the cross as an idol and many churches removed or simplified the cross. This clash between Catholicism and other reformed churches would continue in modern times and directly impact Latter-day Saint symbolism.
In Joseph Smith’s time, reformed sects dominated the religious landscape and early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were likely to have been part of churches that remained separated from the heavy iconography of the cross.
John Hilton III writes in Considering the Cross, “In America, during the 1820s, the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and many other Protestant churches did not typically display the image of the cross on or in their buildings. That was a Catholic practice, and at that time Catholics comprised a very small minority of Christians in America.”
Hilton went on to quote historian Richard Bushman when he said that Joseph Smith did not consciously reject the cross since the choice would have “required no decision on Joseph’s part. No one around him used the cross.”
Crosses for Early Latter-day Saints
Though crosses may not have been commonplace in the religious iconography of the day, the doctrine behind the cross was taught frequently in early Latter-day Saint meetings and the cross as a symbol wasn’t taboo or stigmatized. Crosses were displayed at funerals, worn by prominent Latter-day Saint members (especially women), and printed on an 1852 European edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. Charles W. Nibley, the Presiding Bishop for the Church at the time, even wrote a letter in 1916 requesting a cross be erected on Ensign Peak as a memorial to the pioneers. The idea was supported by President Joseph F. Smith and a local newspaper stated, “The monument is intended as an insignia of Christian belief on the part of the Church which has been accused of not believing in Christianity.”
Though the proposal would eventually be rejected, it stands as an example of the neutral, if not positive attitudes, the leadership of the Church had in regard to the cross.
The Great Transition and Continued Tensions
So, what changed? How did Latter-day Saints come to be so firmly against the cross as a symbol?
First, the growth of the Catholic Church greatly expanded between the 1840s and 1860s in Eastern America as immigrants flocked to the country. This includes the arrival of over half a million Irish Catholics due to the 1845 Potato Blight. Attitudes changed and many churches which fought against the symbolism of the cross began to embrace it. However, this was the same time period in which the Church migrated to escape religious persecution. The Saints became largely isolated in the Intermountain West and kept from this revival of cross iconography.
Second, Latter-day Saint leaders continued to experience tension with the Catholic Church, stemming from prejudice that existed amongst multiple sects in Joseph Smith’s time. The Catholic Church had become linked in the minds of some Latter-day Saints with the “great and abominable church of all the earth” as referenced in 1 Nephi 14, though this was never publicly expressed by leaders. Privately, disdain brewed and eventually led to the rejection of the cross as an accepted personal symbol for members. This firm line in the sand took hold during the presidency of David O. McKay, the ninth president of the Church.
President McKay had a spirit of warmth for individual Catholics, but animosity to the institution of the Catholic Church. He served as the president of the European mission in the 1920s and recorded in his journal that during a late-night celebration at a Catholic church, people were “drinking and carousing until 6:30 this morning. O what a Godless farce that organization is.” The Church also had a difficult time with proselytizing efforts in the deeply Catholic countries over which President McKay presided.
Despite his personal feelings, relations between Latter-day Saints and Catholics remained cordial in Utah until 1948. During that year, the Church began a series of radio addresses on Sunday nights where President J. Reuben Clark Jr. of the First Presidency would affirm core tenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The radio station also made airtime available on Sunday nights for the Catholic Bishop Duane Hunt to do the same. After Bishop Hunt’s first address, Church leaders reacted negatively, taking his words as an assault on Church theology and President Clark felt there was an active agenda to lead Latter-day Saints from the Church by local Catholic leaders.
A month later, a pamphlet written by Bishop Hunt’s assistant and designed to raise money for underfunded Utah parishes was published. No mention of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was made, but when Presiden McKay saw the title, “A Foreign Mission Close to Home!” he assumed the pamphlet was about proselytizing to Latter-day Saints and began to speak against it. Bishop Hunt was deeply hurt and wrote to a colleague, “I have done everything possible to contribute to harmony…Some day I will discuss the whole subject with you, but not at present. I am too angry. I must wait until I have cooled off.”
With the pamphlet, the crisis between the Catholic Church and Latter-day Saint leaders boiled over. Local leaders throughout Utah were invited to meetings about how the Catholic Church was waging a war against Latter-day Saints and damaging sentiments were broadly shared. Eventually, meetings between Bishop Hunt and President McKay were held, tensions were eased, and the benevolent relationship between the two faiths resumed. When Bishop Hunt died in 1960, President McKay attended his funeral.
Still, President McKay’s personal feelings remained conflicted. In 1953, as he and a host passed by a Catholic Church in California, President McKay said, “There are two great anti-Christs in the world: Communism and that church.”
Discouraging Crosses Is Codified
One of the first public teachings against wearing or displaying crosses in the private lives of members occurred just a few short years after this conflict erupted. As author Michael G. Reed relates in his book, Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo, President McKay spoke publicly about wearing crosses in 1957 after a jewelry store advertised cross necklaces for girls. Joseph L. Wirthlin, the Presiding Bishop, saw the advertisement, contacted President McKay, and asked if it was appropriate.
President McKay responded and said crosses were “purely Catholic and Latter-day Saint girls should not purchase and wear them…Our worship should be in our hearts.” While Latter-day Saints had never used the cross as an official symbol, this statement helped codify the idea that members should not embrace the cross as a private symbol of their faith.
In 1975, President Gordon B. Hinckley talked in General Conference about the symbols of Christ and what symbols best represented the Church. President Hinckley shared the following response he gave to a Protestant minister who toured a temple and wondered why no crosses were displayed:
“I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian brethren 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 went on to say, “And so, because our Savior lives, we do not use the symbol of his death as the symbol of our faith. But what shall we use? No sign, no work of art, no representation of form is adequate to express the glory and the wonder of the Living Christ. He told us what that symbol should be when he said, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments.’”
In October 2022, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reiterated some of these ideas in his talk, “Lifted Up upon the Cross.”
“One reason we do not emphasize the cross as a symbol stems from our biblical roots,” he said. “Because crucifixion was one of the Roman Empire’s most agonizing forms of execution, many early followers of Jesus chose not to highlight that brutal instrument of suffering. The meaning of Christ’s death was certainly central to their faith, but for some 300 years they typically sought to convey their gospel identity through other means.”
“By the fourth and fifth centuries, a cross was being introduced as a symbol of generalized Christianity, but ours is not a ‘generalized Christianity.’ Being neither Catholic nor Protestant, we are, rather, a restored church, the restored New Testament Church. Thus, our origins and our authority go back before the time of councils, creeds, and iconography. In this sense, the absence of a symbol that was late coming into common use is yet another evidence that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of true Christian beginnings.
Another reason for not using iconized crosses is our emphasis on the complete miracle of Christ’s mission—His glorious Resurrection as well as His sacrificial suffering and death.”
The Cross As a Symbol Today
Because the Church does not employ the cross as an official symbol, many question if the Church is indeed Christian. Though the Church continues to embrace the living Christ and living discipleship as the ultimate symbol, recent changes have helped reflect our dedication to Christ.
It’s important to note that there is no statement in the Church’s official handbook about wearing or displaying crosses in the private lives of members. However, the Church has a Gospel Topics essay on the cross, which states, “As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we also remember with reverence the suffering of the Savior. But because the Savior lives, we do not use the symbol of His death as the symbol of our faith.”
John Hilton III ultimately summarized how we can consider the cross today when he wrote, “Throughout the history of Christianity, faithful believers have had differing perspectives on how the cross should be used to represent Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Varying meanings of the image of the cross have been found among many denominations and geographic regions and even within the history of the restored Church. Today, some may choose to wear or display images of the cross or Crucifixion to remind themselves or teach their children of Christ’s love, shown through his atoning sacrifice. Others prefer to avoid images related to Christ’s death and instead focus on other symbols that remind them of the Savior’s Atonement. Either way, instead of judging the actions of others, we can all treasure the doctrine that Jesus Christ was ‘crucified for the sins of the world.’”