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?