On the Church Masonry Essay

As some of you may have seen, the Church recently released two new doctrinal and historical essays. One is on Masonry and the other on Book of Mormon Geography.[1] Both have a prominent “beta” in the upper left so they may be revised over the following months. LDS Living wrote up a bit on the Masonry article. I am going to assume most of you have read them. Here are a few thoughts on the Masonry essay.

The Masonry essay was far more exciting and interesting than the mostly negative “we don’t have a position” geography essay. First off it should do a nice job engaging with the fact that Masonry was a source for the endowment. This isn’t exactly a secret. There have been many books on the subject and Joseph and the other early Apostles were pretty forthright about it. I do wish though that they had mentioned a little more explicitly the early Mormon view of Masonry and the endowment. They partially quote Heber C. Kimball but leave out the most interesting and important part of the quote.

Heber C. Kimball in the Church Essay: “We have received some precious things through the Prophet on the priesthood … there is a similarity of priesthood in masonry. [Masonry was] taken from priesthood but has become degenerated.”

Full quote: “We have received some precious things through the Prophet on the Priesthood which would cause your soul to rejoice. I cannot give them to you on paper for they are not to be written so you must come and get them for yourself…There is a similarity of Priesthood in Masonry. Brother Joseph says Masonry was taken from Priesthood but has become degenerated. But many things are perfect.” (emphasis mine)

I think that “many things are perfect” is important since it makes clear that some things were copied exactly because they were viewed as correct. Now of course that doesn’t mean everything was. We also aren’t sure what parts of the endowment came from Joseph Smith and what parts came from Brigham Young who put it in its final form. We know from records some elements that most are very familiar with that originated with Brigham. Still, just because an element was copied over from Masonry it doesn’t mean that it was because it was a timeless correct truth. In 1990 many Masonic elements were removed from the endowment with the presumption being they were non-essential. In some cases these happened to be relatively late additions to Masonry.[2] Often they were elements whose meaning shifted with time as well.

The question some raise is that if the endowment wasn’t given as “pure revelation” (i.e. completely originary and the details all fixed by explicit revelation) then why with each iteration fo the endowment do more Masonic elements get removed? Also, if Masonry had these truths, yet originated in the late 16th century, how can it be ancient?[3]

For the first part, I’d note that the endowment is primarily a ritual. As such, it’s not teaching straightforward truths the way we have to assent to various propositions in an university class. It’s a ritual like baptism or the sacrament and not a historic narrative. (Without going into details, the figures portrayed in the endowment and the purported time frame ought to break anyone of taking this as a literal narrative) Rituals, to work, have to function with the people performing the ritual. So if we because of the Word of Wisdom use water instead of wine that doesn’t necessarily change the ritual even though there’s an obvious difference. Likewise soldiers when lacking bread have used potatoes to conduct the sacrament. In the same way if some elements, particularly Masonic elements, were being severely misunderstood by the people going through the ritual to the point it was a negative experience then for the ritual to function as a ritual it had to change. Over the years from the very beginning of the endowment it has changed. Changes just don’t mean there was an error in the ritual. It just means its audience and their situation has changed.[4]

So long as it is done with the permission of God and with the proper authority there’s simply no problem with changes.

The second issue of ancient truths is a bit more complex. I do wish the essay had at least broached the subject somewhat. While it mentions ancient origins, it’s not quite clear what these are. Masonry itself did not arise in a vacuum. It was highly influenced by Renaissance traditions particularly Christian appropriation of Jewish Kabbalism, the discovery of ancient texts like the Corpus Hermeticum, ancient rites like the Orphic Mysteries and a tradition called the Art of Memory.[5] From its early days these elements were added to Masonry. As I mentioned some elements Joseph or Brigham used were actually late additions to Masonry but had ancient echos particularly because of these influences on Masonry.

We know that ancient gnosticism had “grips” like Masonry to identify members of the gnostic sect. While we don’t know the exact details of gnostic grips, there are only so many ways to do that. We also know from early Christian writings that the gnostics stole inner teachings of the apostles. For instance in the Gospel of Philip, a gnostic text, there a place where Jesus and Mary Magdalene are married in a mirrored room off the Holy of Holies in the temple. 1 Jeu and 2 Jeu have odd diagrams tied to a ritual. In it Jesus “Jesus arranges the disciples with linen garments, crowns, seals, the cipher of the seven voices, and plants in the mouth and hands.”[6] One receives passwords to pass by guardians of gates one must pass through to ascend to God. These texts appear to be a mixture of Egyptian Coffin Texts and the Book of Breathings with gnostic and Christian elements. Some of the diagrams are even lifted right out of the Coffin Texts.

Without going into the details, a lot of these gnostic traditions ended up in various pagan traditions as well, including the Corpus Hermeticum which was the most influential text of the Renaissance and a huge influence on Masonry. All these elements helped produce, particularly in the 18th century form of Masonry, a ritual with many echoes of the ancient world.

While elements of standard Masonry and Royal Arch Masonry (the first part of the York Rite of additions to standard Masonry) were used by Joseph and Brigham, it’s worth noting that most Masonic elements were not. Further, while there are themes in Masonry we can find in the endowment, often those themes are from general Christianity that Masonry drew upon.

The big question ends up being whether or not the endowment actually does have similarities to the ancient world – both in Roman times of late antiquity but also the earlier pre-Christian traditions. They do. Further we have a very clear path for how those elements could have entered into Masonry. Some symbolism simply persisted in Italy. You can find from the very early days of the Renaissance images of sacred grips and other symbols. The most important path of these ancient ideas though came from the fall of Constantinople in the mid 15th century. As refugees fled to the west they brought with them texts that had been lost in the western tradition. These including many texts of Plato but most importantly the Corpus Hermeticum along with other traditions and texts. Indeed it was primarily the influence of these texts that really created the Renaissance. At the same time Christian thinkers started studying (albeit in often idiosyncratic ways) Jewish esoteric traditions like Merkabah Mysticism or Kabbalism.

As thinkers pushed against medieval scholasticism with these new ideas many ancient traditions became mainstream among the intelligentsia of the era. With the rise of the Enlightenment the great “rationalists” like Descartes, Newton, Leibniz or others had equal feet in the rise of modern science and these more ancient ideas.[7] As science and rationalism came to dominate philosophy, these ideas persisted in movements like Masonry that made explicit appropriation of them.

We are quite willing to see a Protestantism that reached Joseph Smith as both apostate relative to the New Testament gospel but also the inspired path God used to restore truths to Joseph. Many revelations came to Joseph as he studied not only the Bible but also commentaries and theological texts.[8] We’re all fairly familiar with Protestantism so while we recognize the huge influences of Protestant thought on the restoration, we treat it differently from Masonry.

I wish the essay pointed out how that is a double standard. Truth is truth. We accept many elements of Protestantism, especially Arminian forms, but reject many others especially those of Calvinism and Lutherism. Protestantism is a tradition with roots that go back to the ancient world. We should no more be bothered that Masonic elements do than Protestant ones. Further if sometimes erroneous ideas from Protestantism (say young earth creationism) end up in our tradition, we can remove those without worrying. And certainly a lot of Protestantism was brought over into our tradition without people necessarily thinking through how compatible it actually was with modern revelation. In the same way, many early Mormons brought trappings of Masonry with them especially in terms of symbolism. Masonry had far more influence in the early Church than simply being a source for the endowment. In many ways it functioned in a fashion analogous to Protestantism. Although arguably it’s influence passed more quickly.

1. Brant Gardner kindly wrote a guest post discussing the essay on Geography.

2. I would ask that people don’t get explicit about the temple, even including elements removed. I take the request from the brethren seriously not to talk about the temple details.

3. The best overview of the history and origins of Freemasonry is Stevenson’s The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century. While not everyone agrees with his thesis and he is a bit dependent on Yates’ The Rosicrucian Enlightenment it remains the best book on the subject.

4. The original endowment in Nauvoo reportedly took up to eight hours to perform. We don’t know the details of the ceremony and know that there were changes when Brigham Young tried to standardize it and finish it. However it seems that from the very beginning it was a work in progress.

5. Stevenson, as I mentioned, goes through some of this. Yates works including The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and The Art of Memory are great, if somewhat dated, introductions to these aspects of Renaissance thinking that affected early modernism in many ways. Many of these Renaissance ideas went “underground” in movements like Masonry.

6. Erin Evans, The Book of Jeu and the Pistis Sophia as Handbooks to Eternity, 65

7. The stories told in many science textbooks of early scientists as pure rational materialists is quite wrong. Famous scientists like Boyle or Newton were as much interested in alchemy, Kabbalism, or other mysteries as they were what gets put in the science texts.

8. While by all accounts Joseph was extremely ignorant when he translated the Book of Mormon he worked to overcome this. By the time he reached the New Testament in his inspired translation he was making use of Clarke’s Bible Commentary. He also later used Buck’s Theological Dictionary. These were part of studying things out in his mind to receive revelation. Sometimes he used them to elucidate the New Testament text. Sometimes he would go against the reading in Clarke. Likewise with the endowment he made use of both Protestant elements as well as Masonic elements. But it was not a straight borrowing. Some elements he followed others he broke with.

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