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.
WHY DID MASONRY APPEAL TO JOSEPH SMITH?
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 Jail–“Oh Lord my God!”–were probably an attempt to give the Masonic sign of distress. Furthermore, Masonic ritual was useful for cultivating a climate of secrecy and loyalty in which Joseph could institute plural marriage.
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.
THE RITES OF MASONRY
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.
MASONIC ELEMENTS IN THE ENDOWMENT
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:
- The five points of fellowship.
- The penalties invoked in the non-disclosure oaths.
- Two grips (or tokens).
- The symbols of the compass and the square.
- Miscellaneous phrases, such as “Has it a name?” or “three distinct knocks.”
In addition, one of the signs disclosed during the endowment is similar, though not identical, to the Masonic sign of distress.
Similarities in Ritual Style
Masonry and the endowment share many similarities of ritual style, though the ceremonies’ content is very different. The stylistic similarities are:
- Using a set script; the rhythm of the language is often similar as well.
- Imparting signs, grips, and passwords to initiates. (The Masonic signs and passwords are quite complicated compared to those used in the endowment.)
- Making oaths, with the use of a Bible, and offering prayer while kneeling at an altar. (Oaths are much longer in Masonry than in the endowment.)
- Vowing not to reveal ceremonial secrets.
- Using dialogues or catechisms to test initiates or to solicit passwords. (These dialogues are substantially more intricate in Masonry than in the endowment.)
- The appearance of trios: in the endowment, Elohim, Jehovah, and Michael, or Peter, James, and John; in Masonry, the Worshipful Master, Senior Warden, and Junior Warden (who lead the ceremonies), or Jubela, Jubelo, and Jebelum (the three ruffians who assault Hiram Abiff).
- Repeating orders and reports two or three times, verbatim.
- Knocking three times at an entrance.
- Reciting three syllables in a sacred language: Adamic in the endowment, Hebrew in Masonry.
- Giving the initiate a new name. (The Masonic new name is not that of a scriptural personage, as in the endowment; rather, it is the name of a virtue.)
- Acting out a ritual drama in which the initiate represents a biblical figure: Adam or Eve in the endowment, Hiram Abiff in Masonry.
- Passing from one room to another. In both Masonic and early Mormon temples, different rooms were decorated around different themes.
- Donning an apron. In Masonry, the apron is of white leather and represents the apron worn by a stonemason; in the endowment, the apron represents the fig-leaf aprons worn by Adam and Eve.
- Altering how ceremonial clothing is worn to signify advancement by degrees. In Masonry, the apron is folded down in a different way for each degree; in the endowment, the robes of the priesthood are shifted from shoulder to shoulder.
- Using symbols, such as the compass and the square, to convey moral messages.
- Delivering a lecture to review the ceremony and expound on its meaning.
- In the Royal Arch degree, wearing priestly robes of an Old Testament pattern and passing through a veil.
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.
Key Differences Between the Rites
While the ceremonial styles are very similar, the content and structure of the endowment differ significantly from those of Masonic rituals.
- The endowment is more firmly grounded in scriptural narrative than Masonry is. While Masonry refers to the building of Solomon’s temple, as described in the Bible, the ritual drama that forms the heart of the Master Mason degree (the murder of Hiram Abiff) is legendary, not biblical. The same is true of the ritual drama for the Royal Arch degree. Biblical passages are read in the course of Masonic rituals, including selections from Ruth, Judges, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes; but no biblical events are directly reenacted, as in the endowment.
- Various portions of a Masonic ritual are performed in order to regulate the space in which the rite occurs: to formally open and close the rite; to ensure that all present are Masons; to see that a tyler, or guard, is posted outside; etc. Indeed, portions of Masonic ritual occur without the initiate being present. By contrast, the endowment involves no ceremonies to regulate sacred space (since the temple has already been dedicated for that purpose); this means that the endowment moves much more quickly into initiation and ritual drama. Also, the endowment involves no ceremonies performed outside the initiate’s presence.
- In Masonry, the drama of Hiram Abiff is a straightforward narrative of events purported to have occurred in the past: these events may have allegorical meaning, but the drama makes sense within itself as historical reenactment. By contrast, the ritual drama of the endowment becomes blatantly anachronistic once initiates enter the World Room, where (prior to the 1990 revision) a Protestant minister preaches to Adam and Eve. The endowment is thus freer than Masonry in how it plays with symbols–one might even say that the endowment is more “postmodern.”
- The rites of Masonry are supposed to be restricted to men (though auxiliary orders have emerged for Masons’ wives and daughters). By contrast, the endowment was administered, almost from its beginning, to women as well as to men, in keeping with Joseph Smith’s new doctrine that celestial marriage was required to attain the highest degree of exaltation. Furthermore, where the rites of Masonry created fraternal bonds between mortals, the endowment aimed to create such bonds between mortals and God, who, according to Joseph’s Nauvoo teaching, is himself an exalted man.
- Masonic initiates identify, as the name indicates, with masons–those who built the temple. Only in the Royal Arch degree (an additional, optional rite) do participants identify with temple priests, wearing Old Testament-style robes and passing through a temple veil into a holy of holies. The endowment, by contrast, is from first to last an initiation into priesthood. Where the symbolism of stonemasonry looms large in the Blue Lodge rites, only vestiges of such symbolism appear in the endowment: the marks of the compass and the square. The central metaphor of the endowment is not building the temple, but rather officiating in the temple as priests and priestesses, kings and queens, to God.
- Despite Masonry’s emphasis on fraternity, the endowment is a less elitist, more community-focused rite. Where the Blue Lodge rites are administered only to individuals, the endowment was administered, from its very beginning, to groups.(1) And the endowment requires far less memorization on the part of initiates than Masonry does, making the endowment more accessible. Also relevant to accessibility, consider that the endowment is a single ceremony (disregarding the second anointing), while full initiation into Blue Lodge Masonry requires three separate ceremonies (and additional ceremonies for the Royal Arch degree).
- Finally, Masonry has no concept of work for the dead. In Mormonism, it has been the practice since the 1870s for living persons to receive the endowment on behalf of deceased persons.
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.
UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIONSHIP TO MASONRY
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.(2) 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.
Mormon Masons in Nauvoo administered the Blue Lodge rites to groups as well, which is one of the reasons they came into conflict with Masonic authorities.
Along these lines, it is possible that LDS Masons would have understood the name of the second token of the Melchizedek priesthood, revealed at the temple veil, as the restoration of the Master’s word that was lost following the murder of Hiram Abiff.