MORMONS AND MASONRY
A relationship between Mormonism and Masonry goes back to the beginning of the Restoration: several of the first Latter-day Saints were also Masons, including Hyrum Smith, Newel K. Whitney, Heber C. Kimball, and Brigham Young. At the end of 1841, LDS Masons in Nauvoo organized what would become the first of four Masonic lodges in Mormon communities. Joseph Smith applied for admission as soon as the first lodge was formed and was raised to the degree of Master Mason in March 1842. Less than two months later, Joseph administered the endowment for the first time in the upper room of his red brick store--the same room where he had been initiated into Masonry. During the period that the Saints were building the Nauvoo Temple, they also built a Masonic temple, and over 1300 Latter-day Saints became Master Masons before fleeing Nauvoo.
The growth of the Mormons' lodges was irregularly rapid: by way of comparison, consider that in 1840, there were only about two thousand Masons in the entire United States. Concerns about such irregularities led Masonic authorities to renounce ties with the Mormons' lodges in 1844-1845. Bad feeling between Mormons and Masons lingered for over a century. A Masonic lodge founded in Utah refused to admit Latter-day Saints until 1984; for its part, the LDS Church has enjoined its members against belonging to "secret societies" since the beginning of the 20th century.
Masonry probably appealed to Joseph Smith for several reasons. Like millions
of other 19th-century Americans who joined fraternal organizations (including
the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Knights of Labor, and the
Knights of Columbus), Joseph may have seen political and commercial advantages
in belonging to the Masonic network. At a time when he feared for his
life, he may have hoped that Masonry would offer protection: his last
words at Carthage
But Masonry's attraction for Joseph was devotional as well as practical. Joseph had a life-long passion for learning, and Masonry offered him a whole new world of knowledge: esoteric teachings purportedly connected to biblical figures as well as to ancient Greek and Egyptian mysteries. Given Joseph's patent interest in lost scripture and ancient teaching, it is not surprising that he should want to know what Masonry might have to say about these. Also, the Masonic idea of advancing by degrees likely resonated with Joseph's vision of progressing "from grace to grace" (D&C 93:13) or receiving "knowledge upon knowledge" (D&C 42:61).
It's not hard, actually, to see why Masonry would appeal to Joseph; it's harder to determine why, and whether, Joseph shifted from an anti-Masonic stance earlier in his life. Historians and biographers have noted parallels between early 19th-century anti-Masonic rhetoric and passages from Joseph Smith's revelations denouncing secret combinations. If Joseph began as an anti-Mason (and certainly anti-Masonic sentiment would be consistent with the evangelical tone of his early religious activities), how to explain his openness to Masonry during the Nauvoo period? Perhaps the answer is that Masonry encompasses intellectual realms beyond traditional Christianity--and thus came to attract Joseph's sympathetic attention at a time when his own worldview was expanding to include untraditional ideas (in Joseph's case, ideas such as plural marriage, uncreated intelligences, men becoming Gods, and a God who is an exalted man).
Finally, Masonry exposed Joseph to a new ritual style, one he clearly found congenial and would emulate in the endowment.
Masonic rituals purport to date back to the time of Solomon's temple, if not to the time of Adam; however, historical scholarship dates the rituals to the early 1700s. The rituals promote a philosophical and moral outlook which can be described as Deist. They affirm the existence of God and the immortality of the soul and promote a morality that is generally biblical (virtues such as charity, temperance, purity, honesty, and brotherly love), while remaining silent on matters of atonement or salvation. This Deist outlook represents a rational piety congenial to the spirit of the Enlightenment; it also functions as a kind of religious common denominator, allowing the creation of fraternal unity across denominational lines.
Masonic rites confer a series of "degrees" upon initiates. The three basic degrees (each of which has its own initiation ceremony) are Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. These three degrees are known as the Blue Lodge. Additional degrees are available--but optional--for those who would like to pursue a deeper understanding of Masonic principles. These additional degrees are organized into two different series, known as the York Rite and the Scottish Rite. One of the degrees in the York Rite, the Royal Arch degree, is of particular interest to those studying Masonic parallels to the endowment. This is because, unlike the Blue Lodge degrees, the ceremony for the Royal Arch involves priestly robes and passage through a veil into a holy of holies. (It should be noted, however, that Joseph Smith never received the Royal Arch degree.)
The Blue Lodge rites use symbolism drawn from stonemasonry: participants don aprons modeled after those used by stoneworkers, and tools such as the compass, the square, the gauge, the plumb, and the level are used to convey symbolic moral messages. The Blue Lodge rites also use symbolism related to the building of Solomon's temple. During the Fellow Craft degree, for example, initiates are taken into a room said to represent one of the chambers in Solomon's temple. The Master Mason's degree revolves around a ritual drama in which Hiram Abiff, grand architect of Solomon's temple, is murdered by ruffians because he refuses to reveal certain secrets until the temple is completed.
Because of Hiram Abiff's death, a keyword, called the "Master's word" was lost; Master Masons receive a substitute word in its place. The lost word is restored during the Royal Arch degree, which reenacts events said to have occurred during the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple following the Babylonian captivity. During the Royal Arch ceremony, the candidate plays the part of a Master Mason who, while helping to rebuild the temple, discovers an altar hidden behind a veil; on that altar is a golden plate containing the sacred name of God, which is also the lost Master's word.
While there are clear parallels between Masonry and the endowment, these should not be exaggerated. Even if one believes that Joseph Smith created the endowment (as opposed to restoring an ancient rite through revelation), it is inaccurate to say that he "copied" or "plagiarized" Masonic ceremonies. Certainly the endowment has a Masonic-like style, and selected features of the endowment are identical to features of Masonic ritual. But the endowment is a distinctive creation: a Masonic-style ceremony structured around a different narrative and reflecting a very different theology.
Features identical to Masonry and the endowment are relatively few and became even fewer as a result of revisions to the endowment in the 1920s and in 1990. The features that are (or have been) identical are:
In addition, one of the signs disclosed during the endowment is similar, though not identical, to the Masonic sign of distress.
Masonry and the endowment share many similarities of ritual style, though the ceremonies' content is very different. The stylistic similarities are:
Another Mormon/Masonic parallel related to ritual style is the use of Masonic symbols in 19th-century Mormon architecture and art. These include the all-seeing eye, the inverted five-pointed star (known as the eastern star), and the beehive.
While the ceremonial styles are very similar, the content and structure of the endowment differ significantly from those of Masonic rituals.
In sum, the endowment is better understood as a response to Masonry than as a mere imitation of it. With the endowment, Joseph Smith gave the Saints a Masonic-style ritual, rich in biblical symbolism and structured around a narrative of creation, fall, and progression to God's presence. Compared to Masonry, Joseph's ritual was more scriptural, more accessible, more community-focused, more egalitarian, and more ambitious--a ritual to bring the Saints into fellowship with the Gods.
Parallels between Masonry and the endowment can be problematic for contemporary Latter-day Saints. This is because contemporary Saints may perceive the parallels as challenging the claim that the endowment originated in revelation to Joseph Smith, while lending credence to accusations that Joseph simply borrowed his "revelations" from his environment.
However, for early Saints who were themselves Masons, this dilemma did not exist. Reportedly on the basis of teachings by Joseph Smith himself, early Saints understood the endowment as an ancient rite of which Masonry had preserved a corrupted or fragmentary form. In other words, early Saints understood the relationship between Masonry and the endowment as analogous to that between "sectarian" Christianity and the restored church. As Joseph had been God's instrument to restore true Christianity, so also he had restored true Masonry. There is a significant difference, however: while membership in the restored church was exclusive (one could not be Mormon and Methodist simultaneously, for instance), the first generation of endowed Latter-day Saints did not agree that receiving the endowment precluded their continuing to participate in Masonry.
Unlike that first generation, contemporary Saints no longer understand the endowment in relation to Masonry. Masonic symbols or gestures used in LDS temples (the all-seeing eye, the inverted five-point star, the five points of fellowship) have largely lost significance. It is therefore not surprising to see such elements disappear, as when the five points of fellowship were omitted from the endowment in 1990. Interestingly, Mormons and Masons moved almost simultaneously to drop one common feature of their respective rites: three years before the LDS Church omitted Masonic-style penalties from the endowment, Masonic authorities in England omitted penalties from their rituals as well.