Words as Icons

After commanding them to “have no other gods before me,” the Ten Commandments next admonished the children of Israel to make no “graven image.” The seriousness of that commandment has created an ambiguous relationship between Western religions and visual images in general. While some have viewed the commandment as a ban on worshipping representations of God, others have viewed it as a ban on creating any representation of deity, and still others have viewed it as a ban on visual images altogether. So Catholics, for example, see statues and icons of Christ as perfectly appropriate—as depictions of the incarnation of God they are a way of directing one’s thoughts to the divine. Jews and Muslims traditionally view the commandment more strictly, prohibiting the creation of images depicting God. Outbreaks of iconoclasm—the deliberate destruction of religious icons and other symbols—took place in the 8th and 9th century Byzantine Empire as well as among many of the radical Protestant Reformers who removed “popish” art and statuary thereby defacing many churches.

Mormons traditionally have had little problem with representative art. Few engravings are found in early Mormon periodicals, but this is likely because of the high cost of producing such artwork. An early pamphlet entitled “The Voice of Truth, Containing the Public Writings, Portrait, and Last Sermon of President Joseph Smith” produced by John Taylor in 1845 featured, as the title suggests, an engraving of Joseph Smith’s profile. The prophet stands at attention, clad in his general’s uniform with epaulets decorating his shoulders.

Ten years later, a book designed to meet the “desire of LDS to possess a collection of engravings of the most notable places on the Route between Liverpool and the Great Salt Lake” featured over forty illustrations depicting sites from New Orleans to St. Louis, Chimney Rock to Devil’s Gate, Nauvoo to Salt Lake. The book also contained engravings of many Church history sites like the Carthage jail and the haunting ruins of the Nauvoo temple, as well as Church and prominent members from Lucy Smith to Brigham Young. The book shows in stark relief the wide expanse of mid-nineteenth century America as well as the harsh conditions endured by Mormon pioneers. (These and many other interesting Mormon publications can be viewed in the digital collection of the BYU Library’s web page at http://lib.byu.edu/digital/)

Like many Protestants, Mormons have traditionally refrained from decorating our chapels with many images. A beautiful exception is the Salt Lake 2nd Ward meeting house (images are available here) where a beautiful stained-glass window depicts the first vision, portraying both Jesus Christ and God the Father appearing to Joseph Smith (a similar window is found in the Salt Lake Temple, but since it’s located in the Holy of Holies few get to see it). Likewise many early tabernacles and temples were adorned with stained glass windows.

So, despite the commandment against graven images, Mormons seem very comfortable creating images, even images of God. However, contemporary Mormons do seem to have a problem where other religions do not: we are no longer comfortable with religious symbols. Michael Reed has a book coming out this spring entitled Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo which discusses our culture’s evolving discomfort with the traditional symbol of Christianity. And if you look at the Salt Lake Temple or visit any Mormon graveyard you will see loads of early Mormon symbols: all-seeing eyes, sunstones, moonstones, the north star, two hands clasped in friendship, trumpets emerging from the heavens. We simply do not know what to do with these symbols anymore.

In 1975, then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley suggested that “the lives of our people must become the expression of our faith, the symbol of our worship.” And in 1994, President Hunter suggested that the temple is the “great symbol of our membership” in the Church and encouraged members to put up images of the temple in their homes. So today we see temple photos decorating many Latter-day Saint homes and we see the Church represented in the media by the works, good and bad, of our members. But what I think is fascinating is that we also see a new symbol decorating the walls of many LDS homes: the Proclamation on the Family. It’s not uncommon to see other Christian homes decorated with short Bible sayings, “I can do everything through Christ” or “the Lord is my Light.” But it seems rather curious that Mormons adorn their walls with the Proclamation.

Do you have the Proclamation on your wall? What does it symbolize for you? And how do you see this new form of symbol reflecting a different cultural milieu from that of early Mormon symbols?

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16 Responses to Words as Icons

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I have never put the Proclamation on the wall, nor did I put up a photo of the first presidency when that was the vogue symbol of faithfulness. I do have a drawing of Christ, but it is not one you likely know. No temples, save the door of the LA Temple in our wedding photo.

    It does strike me as odd that our most popular contemporary religious symbol is a literary one, rather than a visual, especially since we aren’t an overtly literary society. But, as I contemplate it, it strikes me even odder that we use actual doctrine (or the script of actual doctrine) as a symbol while early Saints used sunstones and the all-seeing eye as symbols to *express* their doctrine.

    What does “doctrine as symbol” represent? I’m think it represents obedience. Isn’t it true that the only reason any of us put a framed Proclamation on the Family on the wall is because we’ve been asked/told/commanded to? (Choose your verb.) So the Proclamation is a symbol of our obedience and not our doctrine, or faith, or belief. After all, a thing cannot be a symbol of itself. This suggests that obedience has become more important than doctrine, because symbols usually represent something higher than the actual thing (the symbol) itself. Early saints were certainly obedient. Consider the difficult things they had to do. But it seems they’d have to have some of the iconoclast in them as well, simply because, in becoming a faithful Mormon, they broke from centuries of tradition. If obedience to doctrine had been tantamount to them, they’d likely never have become Mormon. So many joined before Mormon doctrine was defined.

    Or maybe the Proclamation is hanging in so many LDS homes simply because whoever makes such decisions thought it imprudent to reprint our scriptures so it is included.

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    We don’t have the proclamation on our walls, either. We won’t, as long as I have anything to say about it, nor a picture of the first presidency, either.

    We have Christ, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence on our walls.

    Oh, and a pentagram replica from the Nauvoo temple.

    You know. An icon.

  3. Th. says:


    We have bookshelves. And lots of books on them. Each of which is a symbol to visitors.

  4. Boyd Petersen says:

    @Lisa: Interesting ideas! So how is our obedience or the obedience emphasized now different than for pioneers? I think you’ve got a point, just want to explore further.

    @Moriah: I’ve been wondering if the Proclamation serves a similar role as hanging the Constitution or Declaration on the wall. It seems like the patriotic and the religious may be coming together here in some ways. What do you think?

    @Th.: Bookshelves are always symbolic; they’re the first thing I look at when I enter someone’s home. You can tell a lot about people by their books or lack of books. Are they Gerald-Lund Mormons? Are they Mormon-Doctrine Mormons? Are they Skousenite Mormons or Nibleyite Mormons? Or, horror of horrors, are they pictures-of-the-family-and-kitschy-knickknacks-instead-of-books-in-the-bookshelves Mormons? And judgments made based on book collections are seldom wrong, in my experience! ;)

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Boyd, yes, but–and this is an important distinction to me–the proclamation would not exist without the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

      Further, the large, distinct handwriting of one man on the parchments IS the icon. It is a visual symbol, just like the pentagram hanging in my window, whereas the proclamation is a tiny little piece of paper with lots of tiny little letters that nobody stops to read.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      “You can tell a lot about people by their books or lack of books.”

      Or they just haven’t taken their books out of storage yet because they don’t have a nice place to store them. ;)

    • Th. says:


      And judgments made based on book collections are seldom wrong, in my experience!


      (Although they can be misleading. For instance, from my shelves you will get that I respect Stephen King but you might also mistakenly get that I have read a lot of him when the correct assumption would be that his hardbacks are always available for a quarter at library sales…..)

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    There was a time when I thought about putting a copy of the Proclamation on the outside of my cubicle as a TA at the University of California at Riverside — just as an expression of some of the things I believe. I lacked the courage. I’ve always wondered if that was cowardice — me not opening my mouth (figuratively speaking) when I should have — or prudence: not angering and/or earning enemies for myself and the Church unnecessarily.

    Boyd, you didn’t talk about the Angel Moroni, which *is* a designated LDS symbol (e.g., military headstones, I believe?). But none of us have angel Moroni’s in our living rooms.

    My mother collects and puts up pictures of all the temples she’s ever been to. I kid her that it’s kind of like wall trophies. She laughs and doesn’t deny it.

    We don’t have any religious pictures on our walls. I also have wondered at times if that’s a sign of my not being a very good Mormon, but it just doesn’t seem to fit us. No Constitution or anything either. In fact, we generally don’t go for art that says “We stand for __.” Our house is also quite messy, especially in the middle of the semester. I don’t know that anyone visiting us would see anything that would tell them we’re Mormons. But everyone seems to know nonetheless…

  6. Confession that we have family photos and (dragon) knick-knacks on the shelves in the living room (plus kids books at kid-level). My books are all in other rooms on other bookshelves, and include science fiction and fantasy books, mystery books, more children’s books, religious books, genealogy books, and books on writing, depending on the shelf (or the pile).

  7. Scott Hales says:

    I think this has been an interesting discussion–mostly because it is interesting to read about what everyone has on their walls. It’s funny, but since I don’t know any of you personally, and have not been in any of your homes, I know what I know about you by what you write on this blog. The words we use, how we string them together, say as much (or as little) about us as the pictures on our walls.

    Incidentally, the walls in my home aren’t really covered with much yet either. Even though we’ve lived in our home for a year, it still feels like we’re moving in. Of course, on the wall of my “study” is a framed album: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Also, on my bulletin board is a photograph of one of the original Nauvoo sunstones. I’m a fan of old Mormon iconography, and the sunstone is really as good as it gets.

    One thing that I always appreciate when I go to the Columbus Ohio temple is that they incorporated some of the unique woodwork from the Kirtland Temple into the woodwork around the doorway to the baptistery and ordinance rooms. I’d like to think that there’s still a desire to keep Mormon iconography and religious symbols going. Even if it is muted.

  8. Mike Reed says:

    Hello Boyd. Great comments, and thanks for the plug of my book!

    I hadn’t thought about that before; about the family proclamation being a symbol in itself. Very interesting thought. :) Reminds me of how taboo “graven images” are to many Muslims, but that they still artistically express themselves through beautiful calligraphy and geometric design.

    As you likely know… in the Nauvoo era, with the influence of freemasonry and all, symbolism was a big deal. But when the Saints went west, broke ties with freemasonry, and polygamy became the common practice… it was natural for the brethren to discourage decoration. It was too dang expensive to have your wives and children wearing jewelry, etc. The consumer revolution began in Utah (which put major strains on polygamy, and for other reasons too, plural marriage was finally dropped), another revival of artistic expression began. At the turn of the 20th century, not only did jewelry become much more popular… but wards also freely expressed themselves artistically with beautiful murals and stained glass in their chapels. This ended up fostering an environment of competition between wards, however. Members would travel outside their regular boundaries, just to attend the “beautiful” chapels. This problem (and others, no doubt) persuaded the brethren to eventually standardize architecture, and so we now have the cookie-cutter chapels today.

    I find it very interesting how artistic expression developed from generation to generation in Mormon culture.

    Thanks again for your blog post. Looking forward to seeing you at MHA!

  9. Jayme says:

    I finished reading the article before I knew you wrote it, but somehow I still knew it was you :) Did you post this because of our class discussion?

    Also, I feel like as Mormons we have replaced the cross with CTR rings, YW Medallions, and so forth, not because we aren’t Catholic, but because we want to stand out. I think Mormons really want to be a peculiar people and want people to question what we believe so that every member can be a missionary.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I think crosses and CTR rings are on a slightly different plane of symbol (we don’t intend—and as Boyd suggests, we are not generally comfortable with—the bauble as public a statement of doctrine, but rather a private/community reminder of practice), but I appreciate the idea that one isn’t fully dressed without the outward trinket.

      Still, I think the difference is a real one. Both the cross and the statement on the family remind us of duty (outward practice of our religion), but the cross is also a reminder of both the inward ordinance (faith, repentance, baptism) and the specific instrument of salvation—a function which Mormon trinkets explicitly do not perform.

      Yes, we like the trinkets that express our community and remind of membership in that community. But while a CTR ring (or YW medallion or Eagle Scout pin), posted Proclamations, or even pictures of the first presidency serve as reminders of that community and duty, they don’t go much further. A cross *also* does those things, in addition to serving as a far more intimate and meaningful symbol of the basis of the doctrine and the author of the covenant.

      Interestingly, Mormons who do display tend to show a picture of a living, vibrant Christ rather than a dying, suffering one—evident of our focus on the result rather than the fact of the crucifixion. For us, the temple pictures seem more akin to the cross; the symbol of the mysteries and inner practice of our religion.

      I know I am troubled with too many outward displays of piety (as I am with our more overt displays of patriotism). Where the symbol is a private reminder as opposed to a public statement, I think it’s easier to work with.

      Or so it seems to me.

  10. Moriah Jovan says:

    “Incidentally, the walls in my home aren’t really covered with much yet either. ”

    The thing for me is that I don’t like STUFF. Like, knickknacks and things. It has to be a very special memento for me to put it somewhere (like, a lump of coal I got from Geneva Steel or a chrome-plated rail clip I got from a company I worked for). The books aren’t up on my walls because I simply haven’t had the time or the money to build or buy shelves I would really like to put them on (because the shelves have to be as nice as the books).

    Anyway. About STUFF. I’m always very flippant about my AD(H)D, because I don’t consider it a disorder. It’s useful and I’ve learned how to make it work for me. That said, there are some things I just can’t stand and meaningless wall clutter is one of them. It makes me jumpy and irritable, especially when I think about having to keep all that stuff clean. The more streamlined the room, the less distracted I am and the better I’m able to function as a human being.

    My house is one of those where, on Law & Order, they go in and there are no pictures of family (or anything else) on the walls, which is, of course, a sign that a serial killer lives there. So I’d hate for people to judge me on the basis of what I have or don’t have on my walls when the truth is so much more banal: I don’t like knickknacks and I haven’t gotten around to decorating yet.

    And I’d hate for people to judge me on the basis of the titles in my bookshelf when they walk in my home because…there are no books on shelves. Right now. They’re all in tubs in my basement waiting for me to finish building bookshelves I like. They’re also scattered hither and yon amongst friends and neighbors, and I will likely never get them back. There are also over 1,000 books packed in amongst my hard drive, my eBookWise, my BlackBerry, my Sony, my Kindle, and my iPad–none of which are on display.

    When I go to someone’s house and look at the way they’ve decorated and their knickknacks and their bookshelves, to me it’s an interesting little peek into their lives, sure, but I certainly don’t assume it tells me everything I need to know about who they are and what they believe.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      We’re not big knickknackers in the traditional sense either—we don’t work to a design scheme of any sort, and buy very few things just because they look nice. In our case, pretty much every bauble has specific personal meaning—usually made by or gifted from a friend/family member, or is representative of one. It’s junk we’ve picked over time and keep because it reminds us of joyful experience, not a statement of taste or public facade.

      Sadly, we are a messy family. The two bookshelves visible from the front door are a small, functional shelf of children’s books and general references (almanacs, dictionaries, atlases), and a tall bookshelf with nice hardcover editions of both classic literature and signed first editions of popular sf titles.

      More telling are the litter of books and magazines on the floor, kitchen table, under the couch, and stacked beside the bookcase (and the fishtank, and the cedar chest, and the couch, and the workstation, outside the bedroom door, just inside the bedroom door, on my side of the bed [jumbled], on Marny’s side of the bed [neatly stacked], in the bathroom, etc.). Even our cars have books and book debris throughout.

      We are messy people who read a lot, and our home decor shouts that fact with shameless abandon. There’s not a single room in our house that doesn’t reinforce that identity. My office is particularly fun that way, with six tall bookshelves filled (and books stacked in front), a small bookshelf packed with computer books and digital media (CDs, DVDs, stacks of hard drives, and even an odd floppy or two). I also have multiple stacks of video tapes, DVDs, and blu-rays among the stacks of old computers, printers, boxes full of cables and peripheral devices, and one lonely filing cabinet.

      Sadly, we simply don’t decorate. Our only nod to home fashion was an attempt to put silk ivy around the edges of the room. We ended up stopping after one small nook, though it looks very nice. We have framed and unframed art waiting to be put up, but in 13 years we’ve never quite managed to get that done.

      And yes, we do have the proclamation in frame by the front door, and a wedding picture in front of the Jordan River temple in front of the Franklin Library classics on the tall bookshelf just into the living room. Whatever that means.

  11. Pingback: Bookcases as Symbols « Course Correction

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