Of Flags and Symbols of the Church

The state of Utah is looking into creating a new flag.  I was interested, so looked into best practices for flag making (vexillology) and found a handy guide from the North American Vexillological Association that suggested five basic principles of flag design:

  1. Keep it simple (the flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory)
  2. Use meaningful symbolism (the flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes)
  3. Use 2-3 basic colors (limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set)
  4. No lettering or seals (never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal)
  5. Be distinctive or be related (avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections)[1]

An example of a good flag is New Mexico, with two colors (red and yellow) and very simple (sun symbol) while Utah is a bad example, with a complicated seal on a blue background (just like 14 other states in the United States of America).  I enjoy pondering, and after designing a few ideas for a Utah flag, I’ve been musing on what a flag for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could look like.

Obviously, the most likely path forward would be to just use the official symbol of the Church (the Christus with the arch around it and the cornerstone beneath) and use that as a flag.  The simplified version on the Church’s Facebook page would probably pass muster for the rules of good flag making, as long as it used a solid blue color as the background.  It is somewhat borderline on being simple (particularly if the full official version is being used rather than the simplified version from Facebook), since it might be difficult for a child to draw it from memory, though plenty of other well-known flags have similar levels of complication in their images (think the California flag or the Welsh flag).  It does use meaningful symbolism, as outlined when it was released, including a visualization of the resurrected and living Jesus Christ (emphasis from Russell M. Nelson), a rectangle beneath representing the cornerstone that the Apostle Paul talks about in Ephesians, and an arch to represent the tomb.  It does stick to 2 basic colors (white and blue), though it generally has been used with several shades of blue in the background, which goes beyond that idea.  The official version uses words in the cornerstone block (a no-go for the good flag rules), though the Facebook version drops the words and cornerstone.  It is distinctive as well, clearly Christian but different than other Christian Churches.  So, going with the Facebook version of the symbol on a solid blue background would function as a good flag for the Church.

The official symbol of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Facebook version of the Church’s symbol

Of course, just going with the obvious doesn’t make for a very good blog post, so I wanted to look at other options.  I wanted to work within the parameters outlined by the vexillological society while also using something that also represents the Church.  The major reason given when the official symbol was publicized was to “remind all that this is the Savior’s Church and that all we do as members of His Church centers on Jesus Christ and His gospel.”[2]  Anything that would be used instead of the official symbol for a flag would need to achieve these same goals.

So, what are some symbols that have historically been used with the Church that could be included?  One of the best libraries of symbols in the Church is the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series.  Each president uses a symbol that relates to something they taught or some event from their life and ministry, most of which have at least some meaning to the Church beyond that president.  See the full set below:

Symbols from the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series

A few of my favorites that could be used are the following:

  • Angel Moroni: This is probably the most famous symbol of the Church, since it has been used extensively in the past and has been a part of most temples that the Church has built around the world. It represents the visitation from an angel that kicked off Joseph Smith’s work as a prophet and the translation of the Book of Mormon, fulfilling the prophecy in Revelation 14.  The downside for this (as well as most of these symbols) is that it isn’t something people outside of the Church would see and think of Jesus.

  • The Beehive: Bees are a Masonic symbol that was adopted by the Church for a number of reasons.  President M. Russell Ballard outlined the most important ones when he said that:

The beehive has always been an important symbol in our Church history. … Brigham Young chose the beehive as a symbol to encourage and inspire the cooperative energy necessary among the pioneers to transform the barren desert wasteland surrounding the Great Salt Lake into the fertile valleys we have today. We are the beneficiaries of their collective vision and industry. …

All of this symbolism attests to one fact: great things are brought about and burdens are lightened through the efforts of many hands “anxiously engaged in a good cause” (D&C 58:27). Imagine what the millions of Latter-day Saints could accomplish in the world if we functioned like a beehive in our focused, concentrated commitment to the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.[3]

  • So, a lot of rich history and symbolism that the beehive represents for members of the Church. But, again, it isn’t something people outside of the Church would see and think that we are a Jesus-centric religion.

  • The Salt Lake City Temple: President Howard W. Hunter taught that: “At the time of my call to this sacred office, an invitation was given for all members of the Church to establish the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of their membership and the supernal setting for their most sacred covenants.”[4] Temples are some of the most famous buildings that the Church builds, and the Salt Lake City Temple is the most famous among them.  This still shares the same problem of the last two symbols – it doesn’t obviously connect to Jesus the Christ for non-Mormons.

  • The Gold Plates: The Book of Mormon is central to the story of the Church’s beginnings and has become central to our devotional studies and worship services in the Church today. This is an important symbol to the Church members because of that, with the Book of Mormon being the keystone of our religion.  It also parallels Christian use of the Bible as a symbol of their religion (though it sends the wrong message in the sense of wanting to affirm that we also believe in the Bible – the symbol from the Joseph Fielding Smith manual with the two books might actually work better for that).

  • Dove with olive branch: A symbol of peace, the dove represents the effort to live in such a way that love and kindness create a heaven on earth rather than a place of conflict and harm.  The olive branch also could be used to represent the tree of life.  In addition, the dove is an established symbol of the Holy Spirit in traditional Christian groups and is frequently used in Christian symbols because of this.

So, those are some options from the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series.

Another source of inspiration might be symbols from the temples that the Church has built over the course of its history.  Here are some of the symbols that stood out to me while pondering on the idea:

  • Sunburst: The sunstones of the Nauvoo Temple are the most famous version of these, referencing the Revelation of St. John, specifically the woman who is “clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12:1). It also could be used as a reference to the gospel light bursting forth with the restoration, as in the hymn “the morning breaks”.

  • Seal of Melchizedek: Two squares at 45 degree angles to each other was pointed out as being a symbol of priesthood by Hugh Nibley after being used extensively with the San Diego Temple. It has since been used elsewhere, including on the Salt Lake City Temple annex before the current renovation began.

Doors from the Salt Lake City Temple annex, with beehives inside the Seal of Melchizedek

  • Trees / Tree of Life: I talked about the symbolism of the tree of life in a series of three posts a couple years ago, but life-giving force that can symbolize the cross, Jesus, Mary, immortality, eternal life etc.  It’s also a nice nod to the Sacred Grove.  It began to be used in keystones in the Kirtland House of the Lord and trees have been used in temples since then, particularly in the form of stained glass.

Tree of Life symbol from inside the Kirtland Temple

  • Handclasp of Friendship: Used on the exterior of the Salt Lake City Temple and on coins minted in Utah Territory in the 1800s, this symbol is meant to represent the “right hands of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9).  Since friendship is the fundamental principle of Mormonism (as Joseph Smith said), it works well to symbolize the community that the Church aims to create.

Handclasp from Salt Lake City Temple

  • All-seeing eye: Used on the Nauvoo and Salt Lake City temples, along with many other Church-sponsored buildings in Utah Territory, this was a Masonic symbol used for representing God’s ability to see all things.

All-seeing eye from Salt Lake City Temple

Many of these have meaningful symbolism that connects to the Church.  Not all of them are meaningful outside of the Church and some have connections more with Freemasonry (handclasp and all-seeing eye) or even paganism (trees).

Looking to connect with a broader Christian symbolism to make it obvious that we are centering everything on Jesus Christ and his gospel, there are a few options to choose from:

  • The Cross: This is the most obvious and widely-used Christian symbol of all. I know we have an aversion to using it these days, but historically, it wasn’t a huge problem for members of the Church.  For example, the very first depiction of Jesus used in the Church was a crucifixion scene and the Kirtland House of the Lord had the phrase Crux Mihi Anchora (the cross is my anchor) written on a wall near the entrance.  I know that part of the aversion is declaring that we want to honor the living Jesus rather than the dead Jesus, but that’s actually the symbolism of using an empty cross rather than one with Jesus hanging on it.

The first image of Jesus in a Church publication

  • The Jesus Fish: Used as a symbol for Christians to identify each other during the early centuries after Jesus died, this was used because the Greek word for fish could serve as an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s son, Savior” and because fishes show up a lot in the stories of Jesus.

The Jesus Fish

  • Triquetra: Originating from Celtic paganism, it has been adopted by Christians as a symbol of the trinity through a three-part interlocking fish symbol.

A triquetra

  • Chi-Rho: An old monogram (letter symbol) for Christ, this was the symbol that the Roman emperor Constantine claimed to see in the sky before a decisive victory, which was part of his conversion.

Chi-Rho symbol

  • Lamb of God: Referencing John the Baptizer’s introduction of Jesus and symbolism of the ancient Israelite sacrifices that Jesus fulfilled with his Atonement, the lamb has been used quite a bit, including our Midwestern sister organization, the Community of Christ as part of the lion and the lamb symbolism.

So, those are a few of the key Christian symbols that could be incorporated into a symbol for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to bring out its Christian nature in a recognizable way.

Now, a flag could bring a few of these symbols together at a time to create something new.  And some of them can be simplified or streamlined.  For example, while the beehive can be used in its traditional form, the idea of a hexagon or group of hexagons to symbolize the honeycomb of a beehive could be used as a frame that doubles as a nice reference to the beehive.  Inside of that frame, other symbols could be used.  For example, you could use three hexagons with symbols to represent the three members of the Godhead, with the all-seeing eye for God the Father, a cross for Jesus the Christ, and the dove for the Holy Spirit:

Zooming in on the Christian symbol, one could just use one hexagon with the cross in it, possibly with rays of light coming out of it to also draw on the sunburst symbolism:

Or, instead of the beehive-hexagon as a frame, a similar symbol could be placed inside the Seal of Melchizedek instead:

Here are what a couple of the flags based on the symbols discussed above could look like:

      This is all highly hypothetical, of course, and with that hypothetical approach, I’d love to hear what other people would use for symbols of the Church.  And, of course, using the actual symbol of the Church, a flag would look like this:

 

Footnotes:

[1] Ted Kaye, “’Good’ Flag, ‘bad’ flag” (North American Vexillological Association, 2006, 2020), chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://s3.amazonaws.com/ClubExpressClubFiles/622278/documents/GFBF_English_1964413892.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIA6MYUE6DNNNCCDT4J&Expires=1655070689&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DGFBF_English.pdf&Signature=W5QTuwuAqmofBRYQI6J2MRy0qKI%3D

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Opening the Heavens for Help,” CR April 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/04/37nelson?lang=eng.

[3] M. Russell Ballard, “Be Anxiously Engaged,” CR October 2012, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2012/10/be-anxiously-engaged?lang=eng

[4] Howard W. Hunter, “The Great Symbol of Our Membership,” Ensign October 1994, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1994/10/the-great-symbol-of-our-membership?lang=eng.

10 comments for “Of Flags and Symbols of the Church

  1. I might suggest a McMansion on a gray background (representing a pollution inversion).

  2. Fun exercize. I’d vote to stay far away from the handshake image though. There’s some obvious problems if people start googling Mormons and handshakes.

  3. I wish the symbol was still the beehive. I think that would be great on a flag. For Utah as well

  4. What is that last symbol from Teachings of the Presidents? The Empire State Building? The Louisiana State Capitol?

  5. -16 shining stones (Brother of Jared’s Lights)

    – Nephi’s ship or Jaradite Barge(s)

    – the liahona

    -Christmas Star (BOM and NT connection)

    – Grapes/Grapevine (Symbol for the tribe of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, also the BOM Jacob vineyard parable)

    – The old horizontal trumpet-playing angel that used to top the Nauvoo temple. He has a flaming heart and is carrying the scriptures. Flags are landscape, so it would work. https://www.thechurchnews.com/temples/2020-07-30/why-temples-have-angel-moroni-on-top-history-iconic-statues-189902

    – A Missouri valley (small hills with a field in the middle) representing Adam-Ondi-Ahmam.)

    – a blank pedigree tree against a plain background (To highlight our genealogy work).

    – The Tabernacle Organ Pipes (the logo that graces our hymnals)

    – The first vision in a simple graphical design (like this one, but without the branches https://pin.it/6guFV4P )

    – 3 figures (silhouettes) representing the 3 Nephites, or the Godhead

    -A rose against a sagebrush or cacti representing making the desert blossom as a rose.

    – a simple silhouette of the Winter Quarters statue of pioneer parents at a small grave.

    -a simple outline of a handcart

    – a bright light at the end of a tunnel (as is described by every near death experience, the passage to heaven, meeting god)

    – a simple silhouette (clip art) of an accountant, representing all the great people dutifully running LDS Inc. like this, but non-gendered http://search.coolclips.com/m/vector/vc040769/accountant/

  6. I like those idea, particularly the rose/desert, the organ, the vine, and the angel from the Nauvoo Temple

  7. I vote no on the bathtub-Jesus. But yes on the angel Moroni. The flag colors should be black and white like our doctrine. But the Church doesn’t really need a flag.

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