An Introduction to Mormons and Freemasonry
by Nicholas S. Literski
The topic of Mormonism and Freemasonry has been rife with misunder-standing and misrepresentation, often because both parties lack a fundamental understanding of the other. Latter-day Saint authors have traditionally wanted to distance Joseph Smith from the fraternity, which has resulted in such unsupportable claims as that Joseph Smith attended only three Masonic meetings in his lifetime—an assertion popularized in E. Cecil McGavin’s Mormonism and Masonry.
The fact that the most obvious vestiges of Freemasonry are evident in the more esoteric aspects of the Mormon faith has made it difficult for Masonic authors to recognize, let alone fully grasp, the relevant issues. While some Masonic authors have been sympathetic, others such as Samuel H. Goodwin, past Grand Master of Utah, have been antagonistic, particularly in justifying the former exclusion of Mormons from Utah Masonic lodges.
In addition to experiential limitations, writers from both sides have been hampered by a significant lack of original source material. The records of the Grand Lodge of Illinois were almost entirely destroyed by fire in February 1850. Smaller fires of uncertain origin destroyed records in the region surrounding Nauvoo, and many aspects of the relevant history must rely on circumstantial evidence.
The Smith family’s Vermont origins were influenced by Freemasonry and its lore. For instance, the newspaper in nearby Randolph was operated by Serano Wright, a prominent local Mason who filled his paper with Masonic articles and poetry. Recent research has shown that while Joseph Smith Sr. was unable to join the fraternity in Vermont, at least two of his brothers and one brother-in-law became Masons in Randolph’s Federal Lodge #15. In particular, Masonic legends of a lost sacred word, once engraved upon a triangular plate of pure gold, profoundly affected the Smith family, leading directly to treasure hunting and other activities for which they would later become known.
After relocating to Palmyra, New York, in 1816, the Smith family developed close relationships with local Freemasons, and Joseph Sr. was initiated in Ontario Lodge #23 at Canandaigua. Several years later, Hyrum Smith received Masonic degrees in Palmyra’s Mount Moriah Lodge #112, indicating that the family enjoyed a certain level of local respect. Faced with the loss of their farm, the family turned to Gain Robinson and other lodge members to avoid homelessness. When a young would-be prophet reported stories of gold plates buried in a local hillside, distinctively Masonic language was used to describe the experience.
Masonic Millenialism and Anti-Masonry
During the Palmyra years, young Joseph was exposed to a variety of Masonic sources. Literature of the time celebrated the craft as an ancient institution which, though admittedly imperfect, was considered to have been ordained of deity. Expectation grew toward what prominent Royal Arch Mason Salem Town called a glorious “Masonic millennium,” wherein both “pure Freemasonry” and “pure Christianity” would be restored, hand in hand.
This welcoming American environment turned suddenly hostile in 1826 in the wake of an incident involving William Morgan, a disgruntled Royal Arch Mason from nearby Batavia. When the latter announced his intent to “expose” the higher degrees of Freemasonry—the lower three degrees already having been repeatedly exposed—local Royal Arch Masons were incensed. They arranged to have Morgan arrested on trivial charges, bailed out, and then abducted from the Canandaigua jail, seeming to confirm what many people had suspected about a widespread Masonic conspiracy to undermine American justice. The resulting furor fueled fires of religious and political suspicion that had been smouldering just below the surface and led to denouncements, public burlesques of Masonic degrees, and the creation of anti-Masonic newspapers.
With the publication of the Book of Mormon, commentators on both sides weighed in. Local anti-Masonic “vigilance group” member Martin Harris declared the book to be “the anti-Masonic Bible.” Newspaper columnists argued whether the majority of Mormon converts were “strong Masons” or “anti-Masons.” The anti-Masonic label would stick to Joseph Smith throughout his life, leading historians to question how a Palmyra “anti-Mason” could go on to promote Freemasonry on a unimaginably grand scale in Nauvoo, Illinois. Even recent publications attempt to deal with allegedly “tough questions” such as “Why did Joseph Smith join the Masons?” These writers fail to distinguish between two strains of anti-Masonry: (1) those who believed it was inspired by the devil and (2) those who believed it was of divine origin but had become corrupted by human ambition. The Smith family fell into the latter group, and Joseph Jr. saw the restoration of “pure Masonry” as in important part of his prophetic career. Joseph’s plural marriage to Lucinda Morgan, widow of anti-Masonic martyr William Morgan, may have helped bring this restoration full circle.
False Starts Lead to Fruition in Nauvoo
The restored gospel preached by Joseph Smith had a remarkable attraction to members of the Masonic fraternity. As the Mormon movement grew into its Ohio and Missouri era, Joseph appeared to make several attempts to restore Freemasonry outside the bounds of the organized fraternity. Not until he chose to “work from within” did he begin to achieve his perceived commission. Working behind the scenes through established contacts and family connections, the Mormon prophet saw the successful establishment of a Nauvoo Lodge, which progressively initiated nearly every male member of the church in the area. In time, Joseph would not only make changes to existing rituals but introduce higher, more significant ceremonies reserved exclusively for the Mormon priesthood.
However, his success did not go without notice or envy in Illinois. As Nauvoo Masons came to outnumber others, the Illinois Grand Lodge initiated investigations about whether to remove authorization of the predominately Mormon lodges. The Mormons refused to be restrained, and the Grand Lodge withdrew all authority from the Mormon lodges—an act which may explain why, when two Master Masons, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, were killed in Carthage, Illinois, Joseph’s Masonic cry of distress went unanswered by the Masons crowded outside the jail.
Exodus and Disassociation
As the Mormons left Nauvoo, they found ready aid from Masons in Iowa who were willing to ignore the directives of the Grand Lodge of Illinois. Provisions were donated, comfort given, and those who lingered for a time were readily accepted into Iowa lodges. When the Saints reached Utah, their official involvement with Masonry was curtailed. Apostle George A. Smith suggested forming a “Mormon Grand Lodge,” but Brigham Young felt that “no good could come of it”; the situation further calcified when “Gentile” lodges were established in Salt Lake City. In time, not only did the Utah lodges prohibit Mormons, but Mormons prohibited Masons from holding priesthood leadership positions in the Latter-day Saint Church.
Times of Refreshment
While the mutual ban may have seemed necessary at one time, people on both sides of the divide began over time to question the legitimacy or need of such antagonism. Freemasons knew that their fraternity historically required that one believe in a “supreme being” without further distinctions, and Mormons gradually lost much of the fear and resentment which had formed during the Illinois years.
In 1984, President Spencer W. Kimball removed the prohibition against Latter-day Saints becoming Freemasons. Later that year, the Grand Lodge of Utah removed its own ban on Mormon membership so that, in the twenty ensuing years, many Latter-day Saint men began to reclaim this part of their heritage. Respected men in the LDS Church have since become leaders in the Masonic fraternity throughout the world.
Areas of Influence
There is not space in this short overview to enumerate specific areas of Mormonism that were undoubtedly influenced by Masonry. Indeed, the list of Mormon concepts not influenced by Freemasonry may be shorter. Parallels between the two institutions are many, including degrees of glory, sacred treasures hidden in the earth, the exaltation of mankind in the presence of deity, interest in ancient Egypt and Israel, emphasis on the creative role of a supreme being, symbolic clothing, and secret means of recognition. Both traditions have made extensive use, architecturally and otherwise, of motifs such as the beehive, square and compasses, handclasps, sun, moon, and stars. Even more mundane features of Mormonism, such as administrative structure and ritual secrecy, bear the unmistakable imprint of the Fraternity. Readers may want to consult my forthcoming (2007) work, Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration, and works listed below.
John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (NY, Cambridge University Press, 1994).
David John Buerger, “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Winter 1987): 33-76.
Steven C. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
Arturo de Hoyos and S. Brent Morris, Freemasonry in Context: History, Ritual, Controversy (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004).
Mervin B. Hogan, “Mormonism and Free Masonry under Covert Masonic Influences,” The Royal Arch Mason 9 (Spring 1967): 3-11.
Michael W. Homer, “Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry”: The Relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Fall): 2-113
Walgren, Kent L., “James Adams: Early Springfield Mormon and Freemason,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 75 (Summer 1982) 121-36.