Mormon Symbols

Last month I posted on symbols here. Since then there have been a number of excellent posts on this topic (feel free to add links to your old posts in the comments). One of the questions that I was dealing with is how symbols become symbols and how they acquire meaning. There were some really great comments that you should check out. In this post, I want to deal with the translation of Mormon symbols through time and across space. This image is of the 19th century Endowment House in Spring City, Ut. The building is now an artist studio, but it was the place where endowments and plural marriages were performed. For many Latter-day Saints, these symbols are clearly recognizable, but somehow different. They are displayed above the front door of this building.

What does this image tell us about public display, translation, and multiple meanings? We have a few options:
1) Do these symbols have a different meaning today than they had then? Have we spiritualized away real concrete values that our 19th century rituals upheld? Are our experiences and interpretations of symbols always historically situated and here we get a glimpse of how they were interpreted differently?
2) Or, do these symbols have an exoteric meaning for outsiders and an esoteric meaning for the initiated? Is this public display of these symbols meant as disinformation?
3) Or, are these symbols truly multivalent? Are we free to interpret them in a variety of internally consistent ways?

The larger question, and the one which follows up on my previous post, is how did the interpretation that we have today, of both the private display and oath-bound sacral secretiveness about these symbols come to be? How does any one interpretation of a symbol become the dominant one? Or, is this images’ interpretation of these symbols still valid today? If not, why not?

6 Replies to “Mormon Symbols”

  1. First, I am very skeptical that any Endowments were performed there. Sealings, sure, but those were performed regularly outside of the Temple (and Temple pro tem) until the 20th century. For some background on the building, see Allen D. Roberts (1978) The “Other” Endowment House. Sunstone vol. 3 no. 5 pg. 9.Interestingly, the compass and square were removed from this home by the request of an Apostle. Looks like the new owners have restored it.I think the transition is one from a community of Masons to a community that proscribed oath bound societies for a time. The symbols moved from being publicaly communal to privately so. The last mason prophet was President Snow.Kris wrote a great post at BCC on grave symbology (though the images no longer show).Another pertinent article is: Allen D. Roberts (1985) Where Are The All-Seeing Eyes? Sunstone vol. 10 no. 5 pg. 36.

  2. Great topic. I posted on Christian symbols and Mormon symbols last month.I won’t comment on the particular symbols on display in the photo. General symbols can be acquire a variety of different meanings. Look how early Christians transformed the meaning of the Cross from shame and pain to hope and salvation. So I think symbols are in some sense always there, just waiting for a community to invest meaning and appropriate them.

  3. Amen Dave. Symbols do not have “locked” meaning. They tend to transform as society transforms. The cross example you point out is noteworthy.In Mormonism, there doesn’t seem to be one simple “external” symbol that encapsulates the entire faith. We see the SLC temple on a lot of stuff, but honestly, can someone scratch one onto a piece of paper as poignantly as one can scratch a cross onto a piece of paper, or a gravestone for that matter? The Mormon distaste for the cross I believe has generated a vacuum for a single (and simple) symbol that encompasses the entire religion.

  4. I’ve seen both a silhouette of the angel Moroni and of the spires of the SLC temple used a symbol of the church by LDS Public Communications. In one case this was in advertising for an interfaith event, the LDS symbol being juxtaposed with a cross, crescent, and star of David. To differentiate ourselves from other Christians in such a way is repellent to me. Things like this contributed to my decision years ago to begin wearing a cross on a chain around my neck. It certainly has religious meaning for me, but also social meaning, a symbol of my solidarity with other Christian believers. I find the typical (morbid) LDS reasons for rejecting the symbol of the cross to be incomprehensible, or perhaps vaguely medieval. I think that it never became part of our own tradition for purely historical reasons (our roots in thoroughly aniconic and anti-papist evangelical Protestantism) and that the reasons now given are mostly etiology.Anyway, the religious symbolism in this picture would be largely lost on most LDS. The Beehive appears on the Utah state seal and has lost, I think, it’s religious content for most LDS. The square and compass, and corresponding (Masonic) motto, should of course have meaning, but I’m not sure they’d even register with most endowed members. I wonder if that apostle wanted them removed because they were seen as sacred or out of embarrassment for their explicit connection with Masonry?

  5. “I think that it never became part of our own tradition for purely historical reasons (our roots in thoroughly aniconic and anti-papist evangelical Protestantism) and that the reasons now given are mostly etiology.”This is something I have been thinking for a long time. The reasons for a lack of a cross was never explained until much later in the history of the Church when the question was forced upon Mormons from outside influences. Mainly I would like to know where I can find a history of the Cross (specifically as it relates to “aniconic” and “anti-papist evangelical Protestantism”).

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