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.

25 comments for “On the Church Masonry Essay

  1. I was not aware of the essay on Masonry and had to pause and go and read it. I appreciate the essay, and I appreciate much of what you’ve written here. I am going to be going to many of the links you’ve provided to read more. Thank you.

  2. Erin Evans’s book is excellent and so is her essay with some additional details and conclusions that’s in “Practicing Gnosis”, edited by April DeConick. (Brill, 2013).

  3. Interesting thoughts — well worth my thinking about further.
    The idea of BY putting the endowment in its “final form” seems odd to me in view of changes subsequent to BY mentioned in general terms.

  4. JR, “final form” might not be the best choice of words since it continued to change up until his death and then through the 20th century. But he put it in the form we recognize and we know that several major elements were added by him and weren’t in the initial Nauvoo form.

    Terry, I have Practicing Gnosis on my to read pile but haven’t quite made it to it yet. Working through Jana Reiss’ The Next Mormons and hope to have a review in a week or two.

  5. Clark, If this is a threadjack you don’t want to see here, I hope you will simply delete it.

    This post and a review of comments on Nate Oman’s old post on “A Letter to a Friend Going to the Temple for the First Time” (though much of the content there is with respect to a superseded version of the endowment) reminded me of the seriously inadequate temple preparation I had. The result was a first experience far more negative and distressing than it needed to be. In fact, I would have to say that for me this statement from lds.org is false: “Everything in the temple points us to Jesus Christ. As we participate in temple ordinances, we are assured that He is mindful of us.” Instead of a statement about everything in the temple, it might be understood as an expression of hope for what the temple experience ought to be, disguised as a statement of fact. It seems that my contrary experience is not uncommon, but also that many others with equally inadequate temple preparation (in my view) do not react as I did. This makes me wonder whether it is possible to have discussions of the essay on masonry or on other endowment-related matters that would not affect some positively and others negatively.

    I appreciate Clark’s taking “the request from the brethren seriously not to talk about the temple details.” Sometimes that request has been worded so strongly* (and incorrectly, as I have understood the temple covenants) that it motivates limiting temple preparation in ways that actually encourage many to avoid going to the temple ever again after the first time. As a ward Sunday School president with some kind of responsibility for the temple preparation class, I have limited my comments to encouraging endowed parents of young people attending that class to attend with them and privately fill in or correct the instruction that happens there, as they may think their young people may need. Is there a better approach?

    *”I remind you of the absolute obligation to not discuss outside the temple that which occurs within the temple. Sacred matters deserve sacred consideration. We are under obligation, binding and serious, to not use temple language or speak of temple matters outside.” Gordon B. Hinckley, April 1990

  6. I do wish temple prep were better. (Honestly many of our manuals are pretty bad – particularly ones dating to the 70’s or 80’s) Scholars and theologians often break down Christianity into “high church” which has a lot of ritual and symbolism (like say Catholic Mass) and “low church” which is often minimalistic and simplistic. Most of our regular meetings are very much “low church” and often follow the Protestant traditions that emphasized minimalism. However the temple is very much in the “high church” tradition filled with symbolism. It can be a very big shock for those used to minimalism. I think having one lesson just on the nature of ritual and symbolism would be tremendously helpful.

    The second big problem is that culturally we’re very alienated from the ancient world. Most people don’t even really study their scriptures with any depth let alone get an idea of the cultural mindset of the ancient world. I’ve found it tremendously helpful to share elements out of Mircea Eliade’s excellent books on myth and ritual just to orient people a little. Honestly if I were going to do one thing for a member preparing to visit the temple, it’d be to buy them a copy of “The Sacred and the Profane,” “Images and Symbols,” and “The Myth of the Eternal Return.” Yes they aren’t perfect and they are a bit dated in terms of scholarship (not to mention issues of structuralism) but they probably do a better job preparing people for the temple than anything in our manual.

    Ideally though, since those books may overwhelm people who don’t enjoy non-fiction – especially about the ancient world – we need a few chapters in the temple prep manual that goes through some of these things, written to the reading and comprehension level of the typical member. This can be done. Saints, the recent history book by the Church, shows how it can be done. It’s that writing to the average member that’s extremely hard. Saints does it in an interesting way by often reading like a story. I’m not sure how you’d do that with the ancient world. It’s an other case where I see what needs done, appreciate the problem, but am glad I’m not in charge.

  7. JR, completely agreed that current temple prep is inadequate, even for multi-generational, scripturally-literature, educated LDS. You may find these resources helpful, even though they haven’t been updated for a good while.

    I wish they’d said something like “*Properly contextualized and understood*, everything in the temple points us to Jesus Christ. As we participate in temple ordinances, we are assured that He is mindful of us.”

  8. Correct me if I am wrong, but these (Masonry & Geography) are not Gospel Topic Essays. They are just Gospel Topics. And there are several topics. Also, the “beta” has to do with the web site design, not with content of the Gospel Topic entries (which does not mean that content couldn’t change; the geography entry has already changed).

  9. Interesting. Didn’t know “beta” was general. (I should add I definitely don’t care for the redesign – plus many links don’t work now) I called them Gospel Topic Essays, since there’s an essay associated with the topic.

    I also didn’t know the geography entry had changed. Anyone know the major changes?

  10. Just a question: Has there been any comprehensive scholarly work done over the Nauvoo endowment? I know I’ve read things over the years here and there that kind of mentioned things we know about it, but I don’t recall anything definitive.

  11. D I don’t know about comprehensive since most people tend to not get all the Masonic and esoteric connections. Supposedly Joe Swick is finally publishing his book on Mormons and Masonry but we’ll have to see how it turns out. The two good books on the subject, although I’d not call them comprehensive, are Homer’s Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism and Anderson’s The Development of LDS Temple Worship: 1846-2000.

    Pete, thanks. I made a few comments over there. The changes weren’t that major. It appeared more to be emphasizing not getting into conflict over things and then getting a contemporary GA quote. But nothing substantial changed. Although I did find it interesting that they emphasized an American location so no more Thailand model. (grin)

  12. The LDS Church has come a long ways over the decades. In Writing of Mormon History, Leonard Arrington tells how the church leaders strong censured Reed Durham, then president of the Mormon History Association and Director of the Institute at the Univ. of Utah, in 1974 after he gave a presentation on masonry. As a consequence, leaders demanded that write a formal apology and then demoted him to a lower position causing his career to collapse.

    Anthony Ivins, member of the First Presidency from 1921 to 1934, wrote Relationship of Mormonism and Masonry, published posthumously, in which he wrote: “[The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] is not a religious sect which has broken away from the mother church, nor any of her protestant daughters. The creed of the Church is not, either in part or as a whole, copied from any other church, society, or organization. Freemasonry offered no suggestion which influenced its organization or the doctrines which it teaches.”

    The First Presidency under Heber J. Grant would give signed copies (by all three member of the FP) of Ivins’ work to local leaders as gifts.

    Goes to show that yesterday’s heresy is today’s normal teaching, which of course everyone should have known about, and how dare you be surprised and offput by it upon discovering the obvious influence of Masony in Mormonism.

  13. Yes, John W. Then there was “Mormonism and Masonry,” E. Cecil McGavin, Bookcraft, 1949, in my father’s library (and many other Mormon home libraries). McGavin acknowledged some similarities and concluded “No, not a single feature of the Temple endowment was taken from Masonry.” See https://www.shields-research.org/General/Palmyra_Project/E_Cecil_McGavin/Mormonism_and_Masonry/17Conclusion.PDF McGavin seems to have bought into the old story that Masonry and its rituals having originated at least as early as Solomon’s temple.

    From the Deseret Book website: “E. CECIL MCGAVIN (1900-1975) received degrees in history from BYU and the University of Utah before doing postgraduate work at Stanford University. He worked in the Church Historian’s Office, and was the author of many classic books on Church history, including Nauvoo the Beautiful, Cumorah’s Gold Bible, and Mormonism and Masonry.”

    The early restored Church in Nauvoo and Utah didn’t seem to be so negative about Masonic connections. There are Masonic symbols on the exterior of the SLC Temple. I’ve read there are also others scattered about the SLC valley on Church buildings. Looking back to Nauvoo, you’ll even find a Masonic form of the square and compass on the weather vane above the angel (weathervane replaced by an angel Moroni on the reconstructed Nauvoo temple). The old story from Ivins and McGavin (and others) just doesn’t work well with the evidence. It’s nice to see some facing up to the evidence. BTW, Reed Durham’s 1974 speech “Is There No Help for the Widow’s Son?” was transcribed and, I think, distributed by others. It was generally well done, but like many other such speeches included some speculative conclusions. It was likely part of the impetus toward the attitude later expressed as “Some things that are true are not very useful.” — at least when coming from someone employed by CES. After all, usefulness can only be measured relative to a goal and historical investigation was not/is not CES’ goal. .

  14. Thanks for the additional remarks, JR. I gather that the early church viewed other religions and semi-spiritual/ritualistic organizations like Freemasonry as having a portion of the truth but not in fullness and that Joseph Smith was filling in the gaps and making the necessary corrections. Hence they didn’t really care about seeming plagiarism or copying (of course, Joseph Smith was accused of copying and fraud from day one). The Bible and the Masonic ritual had truth but many elements were lost, hence the need for revelation. However somewhere along the way leaders began to get very sensitive about accusations of copying and flat out denied connections and repressed information. Around the 1970s the church began to open up and in the spirit of seeming openness, Durham gave his speech. Others over the next couple of decades started opening up too, but the church leaders weren’t entirely on board and began to crack down on scholars who spoke too much. It took the internet and social media to force a new opening and a change in direction. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

  15. Another weakness of temple prep curricula is a very simplistic presentation of the nature of symbolism that encourages class members to view rituals as mere rebuses that the initiates have to decode in order to get to the theological propositions underneath. A more holistic approach to metaphor, including more robust exploration of metaphors in scripture, would help address that problem.

  16. “The magic in these Masonic rituals is very, very old. And way back in those days, it worked. As time went on, and it started being used for spectacle, to consolidate what were only secular appearances of power, it began to lose its zip. But the words, moves, and machinery have been more or less faithfully carried down over the millennia, through the grim rationalizing of the World, and so the magic is still there, though latent, needing only to touch the right sensitive head to reassert itself.”

    Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

  17. As Trevor mentioned and was discussed more in depth over at the Wheat & Tares blog comments the Masonry article apparently came out as part of the Saints book last September. I’m surprised it didn’t get coverage until recently.

    MH, what a great word. I’d never heard that before and had to look it up. “Rebus” I think what you’re getting at is more that the assumption is that the symbolism exists in a fairly straightforward 1:1 way. Much like much of Jesus’ parables tended to be. This is in contrast to say apocalyptic images where things are much more nebulous, often have multiple meanings, and in certain ways the performative “effect” is more important than the code. (Although “literalists” often attempt to understand apocalyptic texts like Revelation as if they were a straightforward 1:1 code)

    I think there’s a lot of truth to that, although I think one has to be somewhat careful. The metaphors may be complex sometimes, but they typically aren’t that complex even if they have multiple layers. It is interesting looking at Masonry precisely because so much is written on Masonry so that the elements that are borrowed come with a lot of symbolic baggage that early members would have immediately seen. That said, even fairly straightforward metaphors often have a lot of connotative meaning. Masonry is also interesting since one can see how the metaphors change somewhat. So by the time of Joseph Smith Masonry had moved from a more mystical/platonic emphasis to a more ethical emphasis with a switch in how the metaphors were viewed. It never was a full transition of course and even during the period of more mystical emphasis the ethical elements were often there. And within Masonry the symbols were often as much a catalyst for thought as any thing, much as within the temple. That is there isn’t necessarily just a single set of meanings that are the same for all in the community. That place for creativity and revelation was also part of the larger esoteric community that included Masonry.

    There’s also the place of memory in all this. We know that the Renaissance Art of Memory – particular memory palaces – was a major influence on Masonry. In the more platonic form the line between recalling something from memory and learning or revelation becomes blurred. That’s because within platonism all learning is actually just recalling a truth your soul already knew. (It’s called “anamnesis” in the platonic tradition) Within the temple there’s also this emphasis on recall – only the recall is getting hints at ones life prior to the veil. It doesn’t get discussed as much but recall has this very interesting place I think in the temple ceremony particularly as related to the Art of Memory in the Renaissance and particularly the temple symbols and movement. So far as I’m aware not a lot has been written on this in either academic or devotional papers. I’m very curious if Joe Swick brings it up in his book. Nibley’s discussed it a bit in his various oblique writings on the temple such as “Treasures in the Heavens“. (Although in my opinion Nibley basically is a platonist so it’s not surprising he’d read things in a platonic way)

  18. Clark, my review of Alter’s Hebrew Bible is in the queue somewhere, Hopefully soon. Not all of “Practicing Gnosis” is worth reading, but most is. Good luck finding it. I highly recommend also “Images of Rebirth” by Hugo Lundhaug (Brill, 2010) and “Paradise Now”, (SBL 2011) edited by DeConick. In fact, “Paradise Now” is probably the best collection I’ve seen. Baz van Oz also has a fascinating exploration of the rituals of the Gnostics and I think his Thesis is available in a pdf online.

  19. I have Practicing Gnosis as an eBook. I’ll probably get to it soon. I think I’d picked it up for an article on the content of the Gospel of Philip (I say without checking – I may be confusing it with an other book) I’ll check out those other books.

  20. The essay’s implication that the masonic elements in the temple could go back to Solomon’s temple seemed disingenuous,to say the least.

  21. While that was a common belief held by early Mormons as well as many Masons, I don’t take the essay as suggesting that’s correct. It’s more getting at the identity of Hirum Abiff. They also say, “By Joseph Smith’s day, the boundaries between Masonry’s early European history and its founding myths and traditions had long since been blurred.” That implies the narratives are mythic not historic.

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