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Masonry and Mormonism

The relationship between Freemasonry and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a subject of controversy for members of the Church.  In the near future, two important studies of that relationship are slated to be published – Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski, which will be available on 9 August from Greg Kofford Books (which discusses possible influences of Freemasonry on Joseph Smith’s ministry throughout his life) and Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, which is anticipated to be released the same day by the Interpreter Foundation (and which analyzes the relationship of Freemason rituals and Latter Day Saint temple rituals).  Last week, two interviews related to these books (one with Cheryl L. Bruno and one with Jeffrey M. Bradshaw) were published on the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk.  What follows here is a co-post to the two interviews.

Jeffrey Bradshaw summed up the crux of the concern that members of the Church have when approaching Freemasonry.  He wrote:

There are elements of the Nauvoo temple ordinances—for example, some of the signs and tokens and related language—that are almost identical in form to those used in Masonic rites. Since Freemasonry is an 18th century creation, similarities like these seem to undermine Joseph Smith’s claims that the temple ordinances are ancient.

The same applies to the Restoration in a broader context.

Yet, each author approached the idea open to the possibility that the Prophet Joseph Smith was indeed influenced by Masonry, and each is okay with that to one degree or another.  Cheryl L. Bruno, for example, wrote that:

Masonic ritual was created very purposefully to illuminate Christian ideas and to symbolically bring a human being into the presence of God. Joseph Smith used many of these same techniques in both the Latter-day Saint priesthood structure and in our most sacred rituals.

The knowledge of Masonic use of symbol and ritual gives Latter-day Saints a key to understanding what is happening in our most sacred ordinances. Members of the church often don’t have the same kind of preparation that Latter-day Saint Masons had before they experienced the endowment, and thus it can be very disorienting. I found that learning the Masonic meanings behind certain symbols or rituals made my temple experience more understandable and enjoyable.

But even further than this, a more complete understanding of Masonry’s effect on Mormonism can help us comprehend an early version of our history that may seem strange and foreign to the modern Latter-day Saint. I find the beauty of the esoteric side of Mormonism shines strongly when illuminated by the light of its Masonic antecedent.

Jeffrey Bradshaw likewise expressed his opinion that:

Revelation is something like Creation. God doesn’t create things or ideas in the minds of prophets ex nihilo, but rather tends to make use of pre-existing materials—organizing and shaping unorganized matter until “it is good” in His sight. …

Divine revelation is precisely the means by which God helps to shape and organize our understandings of these pre-existing materials into a more correct result. And, along the way, God intends us to be active collaborators with Him in the process. …

From this perspective, divine revelation and Joseph Smith’s participation in Freemasonry are not competing explanations for the origins of temple ordinances. Rather they are, along with other important elements such as the revelations he received during his Bible translation project, complementary parts of the same interwoven process.

On the one hand, the Prophet’s awareness of temple- and priesthood-related matters spurred his interest in learning more about certain aspects of the Bible and Freemasonry and his encounters with Freemasonry and the Bible served as a catalyst to prayerful inquiries about temple-related topics. I believe that through revelation prophets can come to know ancient things that would otherwise be unknown to them.

There are ways to approach the subject of Masonic influences on the Prophet’s ministry and, by extension, our religion without rejecting the divinity of that religion.

Now, one thing that has part of the discussion about that influence over the years is that Joseph Smith officially became a Freemason in 1842, but many of the ideas that show potential Masonic influence came earlier than that time period.  There are logical explanations for that, however.  As Bruno explained:

In modern times, we just don’t realize what a cultural influence Freemasonry had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Virtually everyone would have had some experience with Masonry, whether it was through having a close relative or friend who was a Freemason, reading the newspapers, or attending public lectures.

Many of the important men in town—doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and political figures—were Masons. Joseph Smith’s uncles, cousin, brothers, most likely his father, and many associates were Masons.

Bradshaw also noted that:

A ready source of information about Masonry for the young Prophet would have been the exposés of the anti-Masonic movement, whose epicenter was not far from the Smith home. He must have discussed Masonic ideas and controversies with his contemporaries—including the sudden, suspicious disappearance of anti-Mason William Morgan in 1826.

Thus, there are ways in which Joseph Smith could have come to know about Masonry prior to becoming a Freemason himself.

As far as the extent of Masonic influences on Joseph Smith, the different authors do disagree on the extent of that influence.  Jeffrey Bradshaw, for example, wrote that “evidence of Masonic language and ideas in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses is generally unconvincing” and that:

I think it’s futile to try to determine the source that provided the initial spark of inspiration for a given element of the temple ordinances.

For example, did the original idea for special temple clothing come from Freemasonry?

Or did it come from the Bible?

Or was it due to Joseph Smith’s creative genius?

Or was it pure revelation?

Though we sometimes have pretty good hints about such things, it is ultimately a dead-end approach because we simply don’t have the complete set of data we would need to answer these questions reliably. …

I described thirty-one elements of the temple ordinances one by one in light of precedents in the Bible, ancient sources, and Freemasonry.  …

For each element, I determined whether it better resembled something from Freemasonry or from antiquity. …

With respect to most of these elements, there is very little overlap. …

There were other elements of the Masonic rites where I was able to find some kind of relationship to the temple ordinances. More will surely be found as time goes on. In three instances, it was my judgment that the rites of Freemasonry had a stronger relationship to the element of the Nauvoo temple ordinances in question than did the Bible and ancient sources: ritual gestures, ritual language patterns, and the sacred embrace.

Cheryl Bruno, on the other hand, leans more on the idea that Masonic influence was pervasive throughout Joseph Smith’s life:

Midrash is a Jewish form of Biblical interpretation that explains or fills in gaps in the scriptural record. Often, Joseph Smith used this technique, adding Masonic legend and ideas to expand the Bible and to create new texts.

Our book comments on each form of Latter-day Saint scripture (Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Egyptian papers) and gives examples of Masonic midrash found therein. It’s quite fascinating to see so many Masonic ideas within our familiar religious texts. …

Some authors have portrayed Joseph Smith as anti-Masonic early in his life, while changing his mind later when he joined the Lodge in the 1840s. We reject the idea that Joseph was ever anti-Masonic. Rather, he spoke against what he considered “apostate” or “spurious” Masonry.

He believed Masonry had degenerated and he had been called to restore it to its pure form. Joseph Smith as a Masonic restorer provides astonishing insights into what Joseph was trying to accomplish with Latter-day Saint institutions such as the Danites, the Relief Society, the Anointed Quorum, and the Council of Fifty, as well as non-Mormon institutions such as the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge.

It also shows that Joseph’s remarks, behaviors, and perspective on Masonry were consistent and fundamentally unchanged throughout his prophetic ministry.

The extent of the influence will likely continue to be a matter of controversy and discussion, since it’s difficult to pick apart Joseph Smith’s thoughts and understand where precisely every idea that he expressed came from.

For more on Freemasonry and its relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk and read the interviews by Cheryl L. Bruno and Jeffrey M. Bradshaw.

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