A Tale of Two Statues

There are several statues that exist at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, but two stand out as the most well-known and prominent.  The first is the Angel Moroni, standing at the highest spire of the Salt Lake Temple.  Created by Cyrus E. Dallin, the statue of the angel represents the Book of Mormon prophet who finished the record and later delivered it to Joseph Smith.  Regarded as a fulfillment of the apocalyptic prophecy of an “angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth,”[1] replicas or variations of the statue have been placed on most Latter-day Saint temples as a symbol of the Restoration of the gospel.[2]  The second is the Christus statue held in the northwest visitor’s center, overlooking a green area and the historic Tabernacle.  A copy of the original sculpture held at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, Denmark, created by Danish sculpture Bertel Thorvaldsen, the Christus statue replica has been located at Temple Square since 1966.  Other replicas have since been used by the Church at the World’s Fair and at visitors’ centers near 16 temples as well as two other locations as a symbol of our commitment to Jesus Christ.  Together, these two powerful statues represent different aspects of our history and belief—the one focusing on the legacy of Joseph Smith, the second on the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth.

While the two legacies are not necessarily at odds with each other, balancing these two parts of our narrative can be difficult to do.  In our efforts to stress differences with other Christian groups, it is easy to get caught up in discussing that which is unique about the Church—the Book of Mormon, a belief in a general apostasy, specific doctrines taught by Joseph Smith, living prophets who speak for God, etc.  We also have a wealth of records and interesting (albeit controversial) history to discuss that revolves around the narrative of the Restoration.  While we have generally attempted to avoid setting a symbol for the Church, the Angel Moroni has acted as our de facto symbol.  In addition to its use on temples, it has been used on seminary and institute graduation certificates, the cover image on copies of the Book of Mormon, Church pamphlets, the official emblem for Latter-day Saint veterans on gravestones,[3] and the symbol of the Gospel Library App (among other uses).  In many ways, the use of the Angel Moroni as our symbol represented our distinctive Mormon-ness.

Last week, however, President Russell M. Nelson revealed a new symbol to use in branding for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—one focused on the Christus statue, accompanied with the Church’s name and symbols of a corner stone and the empty tomb.  When used with media presentations, it seems to be accompanied with a brief motif from “Come, Come, Ye Saints” as an audible icon of the Church.  The change in symbol sparked a number of jokes about the Salt Lake City Temple’s statue of the Angel Moroni losing its job because it dropped its trumpet in a recent earthquake, but it represents an important shift in branding and iconography for the Church.  Following on the heels of a major push to call the Church as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by its proper name rather than using Mormon or LDS to signify the Church, the change in symbol represents an ongoing effort to put the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth front and center in our mentality as a culture and our image in the public square.

Regardless of the change, there is still a tightrope to be walked between the two legacies and narratives, which was reflected in the new bicentennial proclamation about the Restoration.  The document celebrated the legacy of Joseph Smith but did so in ways that place that legacy within the context of the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth.  It begins by affirming God’s love, as demonstrated by the life and sacrifice of His son, Jesus the Christ.  It then shifts to describing the First Vision and other steps in the process of restoring the Church through the visitation of angels to Joseph Smith “under the direction of the Father and the Son.”  The Book of Mormon sits at the center of the proclamation, with the focus being on the “account of the personal ministry of Jesus Christ among people in the Western Hemisphere soon after His Resurrection,” and the doctrine of Christ.  The document then bridges the temporal gap between the two legacies of Joseph Smith and Jesus of Nazareth by proclaiming that the Church “is Christ’s New Testament Church restored” and that it is “anchored in the perfect life of its chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ.”  In reviewing two hundred years since the First Vision, the document emphasized that the Restoration “was initiated by God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ” and that the purpose of the Restoration is “to prepare the world for the promised Second Coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”[4]  While not advancing anything new, the new proclamation is significant in its efforts to walks the tightrope of representing our unique history as a religious community while thoroughly rooting that history in the ministry of the Christ Jesus.

That same tightrope walk was shown by the focus of talks given at the bicentennial general conference.  Most talks focused on some aspect of Joseph Smith’s life and ministry—the First Vision, the translation of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of priesthood authority and keys, etc.  Amid the multitude of talks celebrating the legacy of Joseph Smith, however, there were also talks that focused on the doctrine of Christ or personal revelation to connect us to God, among other topics.  The hosanna shout was discussed both in terms of celebrating the Restoration and in terms of celebrating Palm Sunday.  While there were efforts to root the celebration of Joseph Smith’s legacy in the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ, the overall impression of the conference topics was (at least for me) more a celebration of Joseph Smith’s legacy in our Church.

I suspect that we will continue to struggle to find ways to adequately strike a good balance between the two legacies represented by the Angel Moroni statue and the Christus statue.  I appreciate the structure and focus of the new proclamation in its efforts to root the Restoration in Jesus’s legacy and the use of a symbol for the Church that is more Christ-centric than has generally been used in the past.  There is a part of me that still cherishes my Mormonism and the use of Angel Moroni as the symbolic herald of the Restoration, but as a Christian, I find the trajectory of focusing more fully on Jesus the Christ as the foundation and head of the Church to be satisfying.

 

Now that we’ve had a couple days to digest and ponder on General Conference, I am interested to hear what everyone thought about the event.  Some specific questions I have are:

  • What were your impressions about the general conference as a whole? What did you find to be particularly memorable?
  • What are your thoughts about the new proclamation? Do you think it will hold a similar status to The Family: A Proclamation to the World in the future?  Why or why not?
  • How do you feel about the new symbol for the Church?

 

Footnotes:

[1] Revelation 14:6, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

[2] The only exact replicas of the Dallin sculpture were created for use with the Washing D.C. Ward chapel (now held in the Church History Museum), the Atlanta, Georgia Temple, and the Idaho Falls, Idaho Temple.  Other temple statues were sculpted by Millard F. Malin, Avard Fairbanks, and (most frequently) by Karl A. Quilter.  There are some variations in physique (Roman vs. Mayan appearance, carrying a book or not, tightness of left hand, level of muscularity, etc.), but the symbolism remains the same.

[3]  Used by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

[4] “The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a Bicentennial Proclamation to the World,” April 2020. https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/multimedia/file/restoration-proclamation-2020-april.pdf.

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