As a sort of follow-up to my post a couple of weeks ago on early Mormonism on the Jersey Shore and as my own contribution to the blog’s emphasis on material culture this month, I thought I’d offer some brief thoughts on Mormon images of Christ and their appropriation and use by non-Mormons.
Earlier this summer, a family member handed me a handful of pamphlets she’d picked up during a recent trip to the Jersey Shore. Knowing of my own interests in Methodist history, she thought I’d appreciate the literature she’d picked up at the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Methodism has a long and rich history in New Jersey—Asbury Park, a seaside community made famous by Bruce Springsteen, was named after the father of American Methodism, Francis Asbury, and the town of Ocean Grove traces its own roots to the efforts of two Methodist ministers in the mid-19th century to establish a permanent camp meeting site to host summer retreats and worship services. While I found the content of the pamphlets interesting, I was struck most by the image adorning the tri-fold pamphlet advertising a series of lectures entitled “Our God Present During Difficulty.”
The painting should be a familiar one to Mormon readers. Entitled “The Lord is My Shepherd,” it was painted by LDS artist Simon Dewey, whose larger body of work adorns the walls of many Latter-day Saints, regularly appears in official church publications, and has been featured in several books sold at popular LDS bookstores. That it is featured on the front of a flyer for a series of lectures offered by a non-Mormon is notable, I think.
On the one hand, it is relatively unremarkable. Simon Dewey’s paintings of Christ—along with those of fellow LDS artist Greg Olsen (and, to a lesser degree, Del Parson)—can be found throughout the world. But in light of early Mormonism’s protest against other forms of Christianity and their adherents’ understanding of Christ and his physical attributes, and the (somewhat paradoxical) reliance on non-Mormon artwork of Christ by Latter-day Saints for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the mass distribution of the Mormon Jesus is striking.
There’s a lot we could discuss here, and I’m afraid I have more questions than answers at this point: Why are paintings of Jesus by LDS artists (or at least by the three LDS artists mentioned above) so widespread and popular? Is there something recognizably “Mormon” about these paintings of Christ, and does the answer to that question help us answer the first?
I’d like to try and focus the discussion, though, on one point in particular. In a post from a few years ago, I offered some thoughts on contact and exchange between Mormons and and other communities. I specifically wondered what “possible outward influences of Mormonism on other communities (religious or otherwise)” existed. Neither I nor those who commented brought up LDS artwork, but I’m beginning to wonder now if LDS visual imagery of Christ is not the signal example of the query I posed.
I also wonder about its potential significance. In her introduction to this series on Mormonism and Material Culture, Saskia noted that “in a Christian context, material culture can help mediate the relationship between individuals and Christ, through art work allowing one access to an image of Christ, for instance, but also between individuals themselves” (emphasis added). If she is correct that “giving religiously-themed material culture to another person affirms community affiliation and shared values,” what does the the ubiquity of these paintings say, if anything, about Mormonism’s place and acceptance within the larger Christian tradition?
 Two years at MHA, Claremont PhD student Thomas Evans presented a fascinating paper on the prevalence of Dewey and Parson’s artwork in the U.S./Mexico borderlands, and a quick look around the internet confirms that the artists’ artwork is regularly used (and spoofed) by non-Latter-day Saints.
 The most recognizably “Mormon” image of Jesus—the giant Christus statue on display in Temple Square and other Visitors’ Centers around the world—is, of course, a replica of the original by non-Mormon Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. For more on the history of LDS images of Christ, see Noel Carmack’s excellent article, “Images of Christ in Latter-day Saint Visual Culture, 1900-1999,” BYU Studies 39:3 (2000): 19-76, available here. Edward Blum and Paul Harvey spend some time discussing the evolution of Mormon ideas and images of Jesus and their racial overtones in The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).