Mormon Jesus at the Jersey Shore: Some Thoughts on LDS Images of Christ in Non-Mormon Venues

By September 4, 2013

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.”

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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.[1] 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.[2]

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?

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[1] 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.

[2] 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).

Article filed under Cultural History Material Culture Popular Culture


Comments

  1. Christopher, Interesting post! One question that it raises for me is to what extent it matters whether or not the consumers of a particular image or object can identify it as Mormon. One of the things that strikes me about the image is that it has very little to explicitly label it as a Mormon image. There are no Nephites. Joseph Smith isn’t standing in the background. How do we measure the cultural impact of an item that doesn’t seem to have much that marks it as distinctly Mormon or that lets the consumer know it’s a Mormon image. To some extent it doesn’t matter when measuring Mormonism’s cultural effects. In other ways it seems to matter a whole lot.

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 4, 2013 @ 8:02 am

  2. Absolutely, Amanda. I think you’re right—those borrowing these images almost certainly don’t know that the artist is LDS. And part of what I’m wondering is if that in itself is significant—Mormons now churn out paintings of Christ that aren’t recognizably Mormon in any noticeable way and are used by non-Mormons the world over. Does that say something about Mormonism’s integration into the Christian mainstream? Would those who use the paintings on their websites or elsewhere continue to use them if they knew the artist was Mormon?

    Of course, there is the chance that there is something recognizably Mormon about the images—the racial features given to Jesus. In addition to their whiteness, other possible markers of Mormon influence exist. Dewey especially paints not only an explicitly anglo Jesus, but also one with a neatly trimmed beard and carefully combed hair.

    I also wonder how rank and file Mormons typically react when seeing these images used by others—does it validate their own feelings that Mormons are, in fact, Christians? Is there ever a feeling of frustration that others are appropriating images of Christ painted by Mormons (almost always without attribution)?

    Comment by Christopher — September 4, 2013 @ 8:25 am

  3. I am intrigued! Great post, Christopher! I’m brooding over this idea that these paintings aren’t recognizably Mormon. I, of course, immediately recognize it as Mormon because, like you said, it is an image that I have seen repeatedly in Church publications and on walls for the past 10-15 years. I understand the point being made that the artwork lacks a recognizable symbol–the Three Nephities or Joseph Smith–of Mormonism that shouts, “Hey! This is Mormon!” But at the same time I wonder if the art isn’t influenced by a distinct Mormon perspective of Christ.

    More out of curiosity than anything but I wonder if there was a line-up of ten paintings of Christ, each by someone from a different religious background, would one be able to tell the painting influenced by a Mormon understanding of Christ? I doubt it, but still, I think I would like to try. Thanks again for the post Christopher!

    Comment by Brant — September 4, 2013 @ 9:27 am

  4. There is most definitely a difference in the modern Mormon portrayals of Christ — that of being vigorous, alert, and masculine — compared to some earlier portrayals of Christ as soft-featured, wistfully distant, doleful, and in overly pious poses.

    There seems to be a move in the ranks of Evangelicals to discard the traditional Catholic depictions of Christ, but I’m not sure how recent this is or whether it has been affected by Mormon influences.

    Comment by Central Texan — September 4, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  5. Thanks, Brant and Central Texan, for your comments! A lot to think about here.

    Comment by Christopher — September 4, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  6. Christopher,

    Great post! Ever since we announced this topic I have been thinking about images of Christ as well. Your post made me think of a painting I commissioned from a member artist when I was on my mission in Peru (XXX) years ago. He specialized in making copies of popular Mormon images on canvas. I’m not sure about the legality of such an enterprise today, but as a full cultural imperialist back then I thought it was great. Today, as I look at the Peruvian version of Del Parson’s painting of Christ and the Book of Mormon Children , I am struck by several differences between the two images. Christ, himself, appears less masculine–slimmer with a thinner jaw-line and a pointier beard. The children not only have darker complexions, but also have more indigenous facial features. Also, my artist friend chose to leave out the Mayan-type pyramid from the background of the image. Maybe I’ll post a picture one of these days. While this wasn’t the point of your original post, I am interested in thinking about how common this sort of thing is for missionaries who served in Latin America. During my time down in Peru, I saw leather scripture holders with famous Mormon images imprinted on them and a beautiful marble statuette inspired by the Arnold Friberg painting of Mormon hiding the gold plates. This has obviously become an underground cottage industry for many members of the church, and probably non-member artisans as well, down there fueled by American dollars coming from missionaries. What is still most interesting to me, however, are the cultural differences that appear in my painting which was commissioned as a copy, but actually depicted a Peruvian echo of the original. And in some ways, I like my version better.

    Comment by Joel — September 4, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

  7. This reminds me of a story told by one of our Korean trainers in the MTC. There was a local theater that was showing the Cecil B. DeMille “The Ten Commandments”, and the poster advertising it was the picture of Abinidi standing in chains before King Noah.

    As for the Mormon depictions of Christ, whenever I see them I am reminded of a comment I saw in the Bloggernacle calling the subject “Jesus of Gondor.”

    Comment by CS Eric — September 4, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

  8. The post and the comments, perhaps catalyzed by CS Eric, made me wonder if The Ten Commandments under Friberg’s artistic direction and costume design could be considered a Mormon image.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 4, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

  9. Thanks, everyone, for the additional comments.

    Joel—that’s really interesting, and I’ve seen the sort of leather scriptures cases you mention. I’d love to see a photo of yours sometime. Awhile back, I spent some time going through the submitted artwork for the last couple years of the LDS International Art Competition and noticed a similar dynamic of traditional Mormon images of Jesus with local ethnic and racial adaptations.

    Fascinating, CS Eric and J. I hadn’t even thought about The Ten Commandments and how it factors into this conversation.

    Comment by Christopher — September 4, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

  10. Great stuff! Joel/Chris, my younger brother has multiple artifacts of the leather variety from his recent mission to Chile. The same kind of racial variance is manifest in the reproduction of well known Mormon imagery. I’ll have to get him to snap some photos of them for me and send them your way.

    I also wonder if the lineage of the masculine-white Jesus within Mormon art has influenced non-Mormon art of Jesus directly or indirectly. Especially with Friberg’s interpretation of scripture featured so prominently in the modern church and since the three artists you mention in the post (Simon Dewey, Greg Olsen, and Del Parson) are all quite prolific.

    I think that Mormon art, like Dewey’s and others, might be flooding the market with a certain image of Jesus that is relevant to most American Protestant Christians.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — September 5, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  11. Noel Carmack revisits the Christus in historical Mormon context in his “Thorvaldsen?s White-Marbled Christus Reconsidered,” a review essay of The Color of Christ in the Journal of Mormon History, fall 2013 (available on JSTOR/Digital Commons within the week).

    Comment by Brent Corcoran — September 5, 2013 @ 11:58 am

  12. Thanks for the heads up, Brent!

    Comment by Christopher — September 5, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

  13. Interesting post. Your response to Amanda (1) reminds me of the many Mormon pinterest images that are shared by non-Mormons. (These days, a lot of them are Uchtdorf quotes.) The sentiment sounds good, there’s nothing to make them explicitly Mormon (obviously, temple quotes/images aren’t shared in that way), and most importantly, the sharers don’t know they’re sharing something Mormon.

    Comment by Saskia — September 6, 2013 @ 2:26 pm


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