An Icon of Mormon Christianity

The north visitor’s center at Salt Lake City’s Temple Squarehouses an eleven-foot statue of the resurrected Jesus. Known as Christus, the statue is a replica of an 1821 sculptor by Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen. Now beloved by many Mormons, replicas of Christus adorn a large number of Latter-day Saint visitor centers around the world.

In a recent Newsweek / Daily Beast interview, my friend Ed Blum termed the Mormon Christus an “icon of white supremacy.”

I’ve been reading Ed and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ, a major examination of race and religion inAmerica due out fromNorth Carolina this October. I’m a great admirer. The book is analytically sharp, eminently readable, and provocative (in the sense that we should spend time thinking about how we think about and depict Jesus). I also admire the way that Ed and Paul rather seamlessly integrate so many strands of American Christianity into their narrative.

In his Newsweek interview, Ed contrasts silence about Mormon depictions of a white Jesus with past (and current) outrage over Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric about a black Jesus. “Why did Wright’s jeremiads and visions of a black Jesus so terrify Americans in 2008, and why does the powerful white, blue-eyed imagery of the Jesus of Romney’s Mormon faith arouse no interest?” asks Blum. “Neither one is accurate, but only one has generated outrage or gotten much media attention.” Blum’s is a very fair question.

The Christus statue arrived onTemple Squareat a racially tense moment in Mormon history. As I’ve recently learned from Max Mueller, in the mid-1960s civil rights protesters targeted the church and Temple Square because of the church’s denial of full membership to African Americans (i.e., for men, access to the priesthood; for men and women, participation in the church’s most sacred rituals) and because of the prevalence of “black codes” and other forms of discrimination in Utah.

In the midst of this tension, the very white and very large statue of Jesus appeared on Temple Square. From the interview: “The statue was and remains an icon of white supremacy,” says Blum. From the book: “Blacks were technically welcome, but first they had to pass by the powerful white Christus.” (254)

Blum also mentions John Scott’s 1969 Jesus Christ Visits the Americas (accessible here, along with other images of Jesus) which shows a very white Jesus, this time appearing in the New World to rather white-looking Native Americans.

What did it mean for the LDS Churchto depict Jesus as white in the mid-to-late 1960s? Was it a reassertion of Jesus’s whiteness, now being called into question by African Americans and others tired of a Jesus being made to look like their oppressors?

Perhaps, at least on an unconscious level. At the very least, I think Ed is correct that these instances of a “white Christ” should receive as much attention as contemporaneous (and allegedly more controversial) depictions of a “black Christ.”

Still, I primarily see Christus as an assertion of Mormon Christianness, not as an “icon of white supremacy.”  My knowledge of Mormonism diminishes greatly after August 1877; still, I understand Christus (and especially its placement in visitor centers) as akin to adding “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as the Book of Mormon’s subtitle and enlarging “Jesus Christ” in the church’s logo. They are attempts to emphasize to skeptical non-Mormons (and especially to American Protestants) that the LDS Church is Christian.

Chris Jones tells me that Latter-day Saints have become more comfortable with non-white representations of Jesus in recent years. One can find an occasional black Jesus or Latino Jesus in Mormon artwork today, though the white Jesus predominates in a rather overwhelming manner.

Blum suggests that if asked about Jesus’s skin color, Barack Obama would have no trouble with the question while Mitt Romney would stumble over it. From the interview: “The problem with this question would be intense for Romney because God has a body in Mormon theology, just as humans do,” Blum says. “God and his son Jesus are described as white by the Mormon prophets and in the paintings.”

Maybe. Romney is not exactly a dimwit, and I don’t think he would stumble over the question because of Mormon theology or artwork. Instead, I think he might trip over the question because it inches closer to the topic of the priesthood ban, which Romney has discussed with great hesitation and testiness in the past.

[I loved the fact that Ed linked to an image of a 2008 pin with the Christus Jesus apparently blessing Romney's candidacy. If Christus looks nothing like what Jesus probably looked like, the Romney here doesn't look too much like Mitt either (race is correct, of course).]

I have more to say on Mormonism and race, but will save it for another day.

  • Nayajja

    “What did it mean for the LDS Church to depict Jesus as white in the mid-to-late 1960s? Was it a reassertion of Jesus’s whiteness, now being called into question by African Americans and others tired of a Jesus being made to look like their oppressors? Perhaps, at least on an unconscious level. ”

    I am amused that you and Blum have concluded that a white, marble statue meant that “on an unconscious level” (meaning nobody knew it) Mormons over 50 years ago were “reasserting” that Jesus was white. Should they have spray-painted the marble to a different color? And, by the way, I am white and never oppressed a black. Why are you calling me an oppressor? Maybe I am an oppressor on an unconscious level??

  • JT

    I have to say that the Blum article was about the most ridiculous thing I had ever read, especially in its linking of the Christus to race. Mormonism has an interesting history with race that is worth studying (including its current staunch anti-racism stance), but the Christus is not part of it.

    Further, with regard to depictions of a white Jesus, I was confused as to why Mormons were singled out in Blum’s article. Mormons were hardly the first to depict Jesus as white (depictions of Jesus as white have been the dominant depiction for over a 1500 years, including the first known depictions), and they are hardly the only religious group in the 20th century to depict Jesus this way. Go to any Catholic Cathedral or Protestant church and compare their art to Mormon art.

    It is hard to know exactly what someone looked like 2,000 years ago, but most scholars would say, if he resembled many others of his day and region, he would be about a foot shorter than current height averages and probably did not have straight, gleaming white teeth. Other than that, he was most likely Semitic in appearance.

    Also, what Blum failed to mention is that the two most common depictions of Jesus found in Mormon buildings and books – Heinrich Hoffman’s 19th century painting and Del Parson’s more recent painting – do not show Jesus with lily white skin, blond hair, or blue eyes. The paintings, along with several other historical depictions of Jesus, can be seen here: http://www.religionfacts.com/jesus/image_gallery.htm.

    • johnturner

      I think Mormons were singled out because the background issue was treatment of Obama’s religion versus Romney’s religion. In my opinion, Mormonism has received its fair share of scrutiny (at least!).

  • JT

    BTW, I’m looking forward to reading your book on Brigham Young. I enjoyed Leonard Arrington’s earlier biography and am interested in reading your perspective.

  • Jettboy

    You know nothing of what you speak and comparing preaching with art work, that Mormons are far from alone in the depictions, is not defensible. Its trash research. Mormon art is working off of the greater culture it intersects with and not on teachings about the “race” of Jesus. Give me sermons and teaching a bout what Jesus looked like in comparison to Jeremiah Wright and then we can talk without bloviated accusations.

  • Brian

    Another day, another dig at Romney and Mormonism. Sigh.

    • johnturner

      I do agree that there was a strong political element in Ed’s post (and perhaps in the reporter’s intentions). The conclusion was that Barack Obama has a much better understanding of a trans-racial Christ than does Mitt Romney. I doubt very much that Romney believes (intellectually) that Jesus’s skin color was lilly-white, even if he has been influenced by artwork depicting Jesus as white. At the same time, my sense is that Romney has found it very difficult to talk about issues like the priesthood ban.

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  • Hillary

    A couple of thoughts…

    First, the “campaign pin” was made specifically as a collector’s (as opposed to promo) item by an Brian Campbell, an artist completely unaffiliated with the Romney campaign. Many of the pins Campbell produced were critical of Bush and other Republicans while complimentary to Obama, so it’s safe to say the pin itself is probably sarcastic. In other words, as evidence of the Mormon/Romney racial hubris you’ve offered… a work of art that is critical of Romney. The logic is as circular as the pin itself.

    Second, the statute is a replica, meaning it’s made of white marble just like the original in Copenhagen. The original was made in the Neoclassic tradition, meaning Thorvaldsen used white marble in imitation of the Romans, who were generally olive-skinned with relatively dark hair and eyes. Calling this indirect product of the Romans, ancestors of the Hispanics, an “icon of white supremacy” is an interesting exercise in logic taffy-pulling. Unless, of course, the ancient Romans were white supremacists.

    I, for one, consider this subject (how various Christian representations of Jesus reflect a culture) worthwhile enough to discuss, but the silliness in this article is off-putting. I’ll go look for an actual conservation on the topic elsewhere.

    • johnturner

      Hillary,

      I didn’t know the background of the pin. I just thought was an interesting image. I hadn’t thought that it was sarcastic. I did know it wasn’t an official Romney campaign pin, so I should have phrased that differently. Thanks for the correction.

  • Brither French

    The vast majority of all anti-Mormon statements can be traced back to the early and mid 1800’s where they were fabricated by hateful murderers, and those who love to make a lie. Thus, they persecuted the Mormons even unto death with their carefully crafted words.

    Mormons have never have been and never will be racists, and don’t believe anyone who tells you differently. Here’s why:

    1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never forbidden blacks from joining the Church or forced them in separate congregations.

    2. In 1833 Joseph Smith received a revelation from Jesus Christ that states “Therefore it is not right that one man should be in bondage to another.” See Doctrine and Covenants Section 101:79

    3. In 1838 the Mormons were expelled from the slave state of Missouri under threat of extermination (Executive Order 44 issued by Gov. Boggs). You might ask why did Boggs issue this order? Well in this case one of the main reasons was that the anti-Mormons were complaining that the Mormons had invited “free negroes and mulattos” to join them in Missouri. That complaint sounds like the KKK doesn’t it?

    4. Then, in 1844 Joseph Smith ran for President with a plan to free all slaves by 1850. His plan was for the federal government to purchase them, and set them free. He was murdered 4 months later.

    5. Like so many Mormons, I also had three ancestors who died as a result of that persecution, and other family members who almost lost their lives as well. So you see, Mormons have always been the black man’s friend.

    6. To all of these things I would add that during my 45 years as an adult in the Church (1967 to present) I have never seen anything but brotherly love extended to our African American members and black visitors in any of the various wards (congregations) I have ever attended.

    7. Furthermore, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that every man, woman, and child on this earth is literally a child of God. That means we are all brothers and sisters, and any black person who has ever met with our missionaries or attended our church services can testify to you that they were treated with brotherly Love and kindness. So, needless to say I get a little upset when people falsely state that we are racists.

    8. Now, our detractors will tell you that the Church did not ordain those of black African decent to the ministry from 1830 when the church was organized until 1978. That is correct, although there were one or two exceptions. It was in June of 1978 when the Lord gave the revelation to the Prophet Spencer W. Kimball that all worthy men should now be ordained to the Priesthood. So, the question arises, why did the Lord wait from 1830 when the Church was established until 1978 to give that revelation?

    9. First, it is my “personal opinion” that if blacks been called and ordained to the Priesthood, and later became leaders within the Church then every Mormon both black and white would have been lynched or shot instead of being forced to leave the state of Missouri under threat of extermination.

    10. The persecution of our Church and its members took on a new form when we moved beyond the reach of the rapists and hate filled murderers of the 1800′s. Since that time, we have been persecuted by anti-Mormon publications which are built upon misinformation, out of context quotes and private interpretations of our doctrines by atheists, non-members, excommunicated members and inactive members who have left the Church after being sucked into the circle of hate. And, with the advent of computers etc. such things are circulated at lightning speed.

    Just read the postings in this thread and you will get an idea of what I am talking about. Notice how we Mormons are only posting to defend our faith as I am doing. Then, confirm what I am saying by counting how many Mormon posts are attacking somebody else’s religion. That’s when you will start to really understand what’s going on here.

    7. (a continuation of #7 above).
    We have sent our missionaries throughout the United States and around the globe from the very beginning. So, can you imagine the persecution, beatings and lynching’s that the KKK would have carried out against us in the Slave states if they had seen black Bishops leading mixed Mormon congregations prior to the Civil Rights movement? I think you get the picture, and it has nothing to do with Mormons being racists. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

    11. Last of all, the detractors of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will point to views and opinions which were expressed prior to the 1978 revelation by leaders of our Church as to why the Lord did not want the church to ordain those of black African descent. The truth is they didn’t really know because the Lord had never explained why they were not to do so.

    The Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, was present in June of 1978 when the Lord gave the revelation telling the Church to now ordain all worthy men to the Priesthood. The revelation was received by the Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, and witnessed to all twelve of the apostles by the Holy Ghost. Elder McConkie later wrote the following.

    “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelli-gence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any parti¬cles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the gentiles.”

    In other words, the gospel was at one time only preached to the Jews. Then, after the crucifixion of Christ, Peter received the revelation that it was to be preached to the gentiles. So it is now as to who is to be ordained to the Priesthood. The Lord has spoken, and we have been ordaining all worthy men to the Priesthood since 1978.

  • http://patheos.com S G Buck

    John Turner is no historian. He makes a series of imagined connection that are downright silly. The statue of the Christus is not meant to represent Christ as he lived on earth. LDS know Christ probably look nothing like the way he is popularly depicted by most Christian artist (LDS or not) in our day. I believe they are simply helping the faithful to relate to Christ on a subjective level. Christ was a Jew, probably not large in stature, black hair, and perhaps the profile of Jews of the day.
    The Christus is a demonstration of the power and glory of Christ, as he resides over his creation. Why is depiction in white? It is a copy of an original cast in stone (?) that was naturally white.
    There are scriptures that demonstrate the glory of Christ and do so in white or something beyond white.
    Dan 7
    9 ¶ I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

    Matt 28
    2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
    3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:

    Rev. 1
    …..one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
    14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

    The statue was conceived long before 1966. And at the time very little
    outside pressure existed on the church.
    Let’s hope when you have more to say about race and mormons you will think about a little more.

    • johnturner

      I agree with you — it’s quite obvious — that Christus is white because it was a replica of a white statue.

      I do think, however, though it isn’t my area of expertise, that the church faced a fair bit of outside pressure as of 1966. I don’t think that pressure had anything to do with the statue, however.

  • http://patheos.com S G Buck

    John Turner is no historian. He makes a series of imagined connection that are downright silly. The statue of the Christus is not meant to represent Christ as he lived on earth. LDS know Christ probably look nothing like the way he is popularly depicted by most Christian artist (LDS or not) in our day. I believe they are simply helping the faithful to relate to Christ on a subjective level. Christ was a Jew, probably not large in stature, black hair, and perhaps the profile of Jews of the day.
    The Christus is a demonstration of the power and glory of Christ, as he resides over his creation. Why is depiction in white? It is a copy of an original cast in stone (?) that was naturally white.
    There are scriptures that demonstrate the glory of Christ and do so in white or something beyond white.
    Dan 7
    9 ¶ I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

    Matt 28
    2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
    3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:

    Rev. 1
    …..one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
    14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

    The statue was conceived long before 1966. And at the time very little
    outside pressure existed on the church.
    Let’s hope when you do have more to say about race and mormons you will think about a little more.

    • johnturner

      S.G. Buck,

      Did you read my title or conclusion (well, just before the conclusion)?

      My argument was that the primary reason for Christus was to represent Latter-day Saint devotion to Jesus, not whiteness.

  • Dale

    Of course I have not read the book (which does not appear to be out yet) but couldn’t you make the same argument for the artwork of nearly every Christian faith going back at least to the Renaissance? This hardly seems like a conception of Jesus Christ unique to Mormons. A least as presented here, the thesis seems to have very little explanatory power.

  • Dale

    Just out of curiosity, I did a simple Google search on the name of the sculptor. I found that the statue has been quite popular over the years and that a number of replicas exist. All of them appear to be white, just as the original was white. There is even one at the Johns Hopkins hospital (also white). There is certainly room for discussion and criticism about attitudes toward race in the Mormon Church, but this really seems like a leap to me.

  • Bill Fitzgerald

    Show me the scripture that says Blacks cannot have the Presthood. You cant find it I assure you. And God has a body just as humans do? Show me that doctrine. You cant do it, it does not exist. That is false. Do some research before you make absurd opinions. This article is off the mark and a higher standard of journalism should be expected.

    • johnturner

      I agree that there isn’t a scripture that says that people of dark skin cannot have the priesthood. The Book of Abraham 1:26-27 is as close as one gets, I think, and it doesn’t specify skin color.

      Doctrine of God having a body? How about the King Follett Discourse?

    • Wendell

      “Handle me and see.”
      Jesus.

      and he will change our vile bodies like unto his glorious body.
      Paul.
      “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.
      Jesus.

      I was dead, but I am alive forevermore.
      Jesus.

      And God made man in his own image, after his own likeness.
      Moses.

      The idea of God having a corporeal form had to literally be persecuted out of the early Church. It died an agonizing death hundreds of years after Jesus WALKED the earth and rose from the tomb with his body. The last time I checked, Christians claim that Jesus is God.
      “I was dead, but I am alive forevermore.”

  • Carl

    Interesting read. I’m a Mormon and don’t have any difficulty explaining Christ’s skin color. He was born a Jew. Therefore, I would be shocked if He had any non-Jewish skin color. That seems obvious to me. All of the depictions of white, hispanic, black, or any other ethnic form of Jesus are completely wrong and are (in some cases) laughable. I do understand that some may feel closer to Christ if they see Him as their own ethnicity. I have no problems with that. It doesn’t change the fact that He was born a Jew.

    As for what Christ may look like now (after resurrection), I have heard (from Mormon sources) his hair described as white (as snow), but I don’t recall a specific description of His skin color anywhere. He has been described as shining brigher than the noon day sun. I guess that would seem white, but I’m still thinking pure white (like snow), not the peach-ish color of most caucasians (like me). A pure-white statue makes some sense in that case.

    Far more likely, however, I think the two primary reasons the Christus is white are:
    1. The material it is made of. If it was made of pure white marble, for example, there would still be black veins running through it. A metal statue (ssuitable for outdoors) would be much darker in color.
    2. The representation of purity. White (the color, not the skin tone) is a representation of purity in most if not all cultures. (I am unaware of any where it is not, but I can’t rule it out.)
    Given those reasons (especially the second), I don’t see the color of the Christus as having anything at all to do with race. Even in light of any racist remarks that anyone in the church may have said at any point in history, I don’t see any correllation between the statue’s color and skin tone. I may be “white,” but I’m certainly not anywhere near as white as that statue.

    • johnturner

      I’m not as white as that statue either!

      I think Ed has a point that depictions of Jesus as white (perhaps other artwork would be more appropriate for the discussion than the Christus statue) are as much fair game for analysis as depictions of Jesus as black.

      But let me repeat myself. I see Christus primarily as symbolizing Mormon devotion to Christ. I perhaps should have stated that more bluntly.

      • Wendell

        Mr. Turner, I am far less bothered by your analysis than I am of Mr. Blum’s. He makes unsupported assumptions about what Mormons think and what their motives are, without really offering much evidence. I tire of the lazy, one sided statements tossed around as if they were self evident truth. For what it is worth, I did not feel your article was all that bad. You seemed far more even handed. Thank you.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I’m puzzled by the storm John Turner seems to face here.

    Naively, perhaps, I assumed the Christus statue was and is so popular partly because it reflects the Scandinavian backgrounds of many Mormon families, rather than their whiteness. The original, in Copenhagen, is wholly uncontroversial.

    I also thought the “white supremacy” issue was groundless, as we see from looking at standard depictions of Jesus in liberal mainline church art in the mid-late 1960s, the era under discussion here.


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