Church History
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“Masonry,” Church History Topics



Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that grew out of centuries-old European trade guilds. Freemasons (or Masons) meet in lodges, where they ritually reenact a story based on the brief biblical account of a man named Hiram, whom Solomon commissioned to work on the temple in Jerusalem.1 During the reenactment, Masons advance by degrees, using handgrips, key words, and special clothing. In Masonic rituals, Masons commit to be worthy of trust and to be loyal to their Masonic brothers. In addition to participating in these rituals, Masons meet socially, participate in community-building activities, and make charitable contributions to various causes.

Some early Latter-day Saints were Masons. Heber C. Kimball, Hyrum Smith, and others belonged to Masonic lodges in the 1820s, and Joseph Smith joined the fraternity in March 1842 in Nauvoo, Illinois.2 Soon after he became a Mason, Joseph introduced the temple endowment. There are some similarities between Masonic ceremonies and the endowment, but there are also stark differences in their content and intent.

History of Masonry

There are no known Masonic documents before about 1400. The earliest records tell a story of Masonry originating during Old Testament times. The oldest surviving minutes of Masonic lodges date to about 1600 and indicate that the organization was primarily concerned with regulating the trade of stonemasonry. Later minutes show that the lodges were gradually overtaken by men who were not stonemasons. These members transformed the organization from a trade guild into a fraternity.

Masons told a story about how their ancient forebears had learned stonemasonry, used it to build Solomon’s temple, protected the temple site, and held knowledge about their craft as a closely guarded secret.3 By Joseph Smith’s day, the boundaries between Masonry’s early European history and its founding myths and traditions had long since been blurred. The rituals of Freemasonry appear to have originated in early modern Europe.4 Aspects of these ceremonies bear resemblance to religious rites in many cultures, ancient and modern.5

The popularity of Freemasonry peaked in the United States between 1790 and 1826. Prominent American founders George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were Masons, and well-known politicians such as Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay later participated in the fraternity.6 Even so, some Americans in Joseph Smith’s day were concerned by the secretive and exclusive nature of Masonry.7 These “anti-Masons” formed societies, published newspapers, and, for a time, organized as a national political party.8 In spite of this movement, secret societies like the Masons flourished in the United States, and Masonic lodges were established in most large communities.9

Masonry in Nauvoo

In December 1841, 18 Mormon Masons organized a lodge in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith and 40 others applied for membership the following day. On March 15, 1842, Illinois Grand Master Mason Abraham Jonas granted a dispensation for the organization of the Nauvoo Lodge, installed its officers, and initiated Joseph and Sidney Rigdon to the degree of “Entered Apprentice” in the upper-floor space above Joseph’s Red Brick Store. The next day, Jonas passed Joseph and Sidney as “Fellow Craft” and raised them as “Master Masons.”10 Historical sources do not explain Joseph Smith’s motives for joining the Freemasons. In many localities in early America, the most important elected officials were also Masons. In joining, Joseph may have assumed he would gain a network of allies who could give him access to political influence and protection against persecution. After being betrayed by some of his closest associates in Missouri, Joseph may have found Masonry’s emphasis on confidentiality and loyalty appealing. Mormon Masons also likely encouraged Joseph to apply for membership. In any event, Joseph, like all Masons, would have avowed that his purpose for joining was strictly to gain knowledge and be of service to others.11

Nauvoo Cultural Hall

The Nauvoo Masonic Hall.

Many Latter-day Saints joined the Nauvoo Lodge, which soon became the largest in the state. This rapid growth made many Masons suspicious that Mormons would dominate the organization in Illinois. At first, the state’s Grand Lodge continued the Nauvoo Lodge’s dispensation, giving it time to correct irregularities in its admission of new members, but in October 1843, it withdrew the dispensation.12 Then, when Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered in Carthage in June 1844, Mormon Masons felt outraged and betrayed when witnesses noted that there were Masons in the mob. Upon hearing the account of his death, some Church members believed Joseph may have been invoking a Masonic call of distress in his last moments, adding to the Saints’ sense of betrayal.13 Tensions between Latter-day Saints and Masons in Illinois and the surrounding area continued to escalate, and in October 1844, the Grand Lodge severed all ties with the Nauvoo Lodge and its members. Nauvoo Masons, however, continued to operate their lodge independently until 1846, when the Saints left Illinois en masse.14 After arriving in Utah, Latter-day Saints did not establish new Masonic lodges.

Masonry and the Endowment

On May 3, 1842, Joseph Smith enlisted a few men to prepare the space in his Red Brick Store in which the Nauvoo Masons met, “preparatory to giving endowments to a few Elders.”15 The next day, Joseph introduced the temple endowment for the first time to nine men, all of whom were also Masons.16 One of these men, Heber C. Kimball, wrote of this experience to fellow Apostle Parley P. Pratt, who was on a mission in England. “We have received some precious things through the Prophet on the priesthood,” Kimball wrote of the endowment, noting that “there is a similarity of priesthood in masonry.” He told Pratt that Joseph believed Masonry was “taken from priesthood but has become degenerated.”17 Joseph Fielding, another endowed Latter-day Saint and a Mason, noted similarly in his journal that Masonry “seems to have been a Stepping Stone or Preparation for something else,” referring to the endowment.18

Mormons in Nauvoo who experienced both Masonic rites and the endowment acknowledged similarities between some elements of the two ceremonies, but they also testified that the endowment was the result of revelation. Willard Richards, writing Joseph Smith’s history, taught that the introduction of the endowment in Nauvoo was “governed by the principle of Revelation.”19 Joseph and his associates understood Masonry as an institution that preserved vestiges of ancient truth.20 They acknowledged parallels between Masonic rituals and the endowment but concluded, based on their experience with both, that the ordinance was divinely restored.21

Emphasis on the similarities between the teaching styles and outward forms of Masonry and the temple endowment obscures significant differences in their substance. Masonic ceremonies promote self-improvement, brotherhood, charity, and fidelity to truth for the purpose of making better men, who in turn make a better society.22 During temple ordinances, men and women covenant with God to obey His laws for the purpose of gaining exaltation through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.23 Masonic rituals deliver stage-by-stage instruction using dramatization and symbolic gestures and clothing, with content based on Masonic legends. The endowment employs similar teaching devices, but it draws primarily upon the revelations and inspired translations given to Joseph Smith for its content.

Another significant difference between Masonic rituals and the endowment was access. While Masons had strict guidelines about who could join the fraternity, Joseph Smith hoped to give the endowment “even to the weakest of the Saints” just as “soon as they are prepared to receive, and a proper place is prepared to communicate [it].”24 Accordingly, Brigham Young and other men and women whom Joseph endowed before his death administered the ordinance to thousands of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo. Moreover, most Masonic groups excluded women.25 Joseph, on the other hand, taught that it was essential that Latter-day Saint women receive the endowment. Many women in Nauvoo were prepared for this ordinance through their involvement in the Relief Society.26

There are different ways of understanding the relationship between Masonry and the temple. Some Latter-day Saints point to similarities between the format and symbols of both the endowment and Masonic rituals and those of many ancient religious ceremonies as evidence that the endowment was a restoration of an ancient ordinance.27 Others note that the ideas and institutions in the culture that surrounded Joseph Smith frequently contributed to the process by which he obtained revelation.28 In any event, the endowment did not simply imitate the rituals of Freemasonry. Rather, Joseph’s encounter with Masonry evidently served as a catalyst for revelation. The Lord restored the temple ordinances through Joseph Smith to teach profound truths about the plan of salvation and introduce covenants that would allow God’s children to enter His presence.

Related Topics: Temple Endowment, Deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith