There are certain things that one doesn’t bring up in correlated discourse. Like when the three Nephites visited uncle LeRoi (actually it was just two of them, but how embarrassing is it not to get the trifecta) or how the rock where you hide your key in the front yard is actually a Urim and Thumim. One of the great granddaddies of such conversation killers is reference to Masonry — the organization where our forefathers received their first lessons in dramatic ritual.
There is a myth that is propagated, even by the news media, that after the Saints moved to Utah the Church forbade participation in Masonic Lodges. This is simply false. In reality, the Utah Masonic Lodges forbade Mormons from participating in their lodges; they were robustly anti-Mormon (1). This proscription against the Saints persisted until 1984.
It was in Utah, however, that the Church began to speak out against “oath-bound” organizations or “secret societies.” To conflate this rhetoric with a unique proscription against Freemasonry results in a significant loss of our history and also prevents us from looking at fraternal organizations among the Saints (and broader US) as an opportunity to contextualize Mormon dramatic ritual.
19th century Trade Unions were ritualistic and oath-bound. Speaking of these groups, which had attacked immigrant laborers in Wyoming, President Taylor wrote from hiding:
A great number of secret societies are being formed with which we cannot affiliate. Such organizations are generally inimical to law, to good order, and in many instances subversive of the rights of man. We cannot amalgamate with them. They are very distinctly spoken against in the Book of Mormon, as among the calamities which should afflict the people. (2)
The Church hierarchy was very defensive of the territorial economy, and Trade Unions, which were largely non-Mormon and rather hostile to the Church posed a serious threat to hierarchical control. This, coupled with the Union’s violent and anarchic tendencies resulted in regular institutional resistance. At this same time fraternal organizations were sprouting in the US, all with Freemasonic roots, to meet people’s needs in the new national economy. These organizations provided life insurance benefits to members and filled a void left by the uber-capitalism of the day.
Upon being queried on the AOUW (one such organization), President Woodruff responded:
In reply, we would say that we are not in favor of our Brethren joining organizations of any kind outside of our Church. But we are more especially impressed with the wrongfulness of their joining organizations which interfere with the rights of their fellow citizens in regard to labor. To illustrate: We think it is wrong, contrary to our religion, and contrary to good citizenship, for men to combine together in any organization to prevent their fellowmen from working because they do not join them or work for such an amount as they think workmen ought to have. This, we think, states our position clearly in regard to those organizations. But this A. O. U. W., as we understand, is not in the strictest sense an organization of that kind. Still we think it would be better for our brethren not to join it. It would not do, however, to refuse a young man who wanted to be married in the Temple a recommend because of his being a member of that organization. (3)
The AOUW, or Ancient Order of United Workmen, was established after the Civil War by a Mason. The symbols and emblems of the AOUW are derived from masonry and include the compass, square and ceremonial garb. Initiates also follow three degrees of advancement. Other popular fraternities included the Odd Fellows and Woodmen. The transcript of the Woodmen initiation relates a dramatic ritual set in a forest and includes oaths and signs that teach the initiate the values of the organization.
Early Mormon sisters were also involved in fraternal organizations. In a letter to the First Presidency in 1914 that requested the approval of a Relief Society-based life insurance program, the following was noted:
A number of social and other insurance companies for women are doing quite a profitable business in this community, among them being the Ladies of the Maccabees [Lady lodge of the Knights of the Maccabees], the Women of the Woodcraft [Lady loge of the Woedmen], The Rebecca Lodge [Lady lodge of the Odd Fellows], as well as others. These fraternal orders – for men and women – took out of state last year $177,213.79 [approximately $3,386,539 in 2006]. The Ladies of the Macabees alone took out $11,455.91. (4)
The First Presidency approved of the program and Relief Society began promoting it as a better alternative:
Most, if not all, of the women’s insurance companies of the United States have associated themselves with Lodges, or Hives, as they are termed. These Hives meet regularly in social functions and programmed entertainments. There are some secret grips and passwords connected with the initiation of the candidates into the Hives or Lodges. This is a striking feature, and when the president of one of the great organizations was asked why the secret sign and grip formula was used in her initiation ceremonies, she replied that such a feature very attractive to the human mind. Secret signs, grips, passwords, and insignia were as old as the race…She told the writer to observe how popular this feature was in the school fraternities, among the young people of the United States, and this suggestion certainly came in the nature of a surprising shock, for personally I was not aware at the time that the custom of using passwords, grips, tokens, and signs was at all prevalent amongst any class of people except the Masons.
…The women of this society may be considerably surprised to learn how many women belonging to our Church have aligned themselves with these Lodges or Hives.(5)
The article goes on to note that sisters joined the organizations for the “pleasant social features,” but most frequently for the life insurance benefits. The Relief Society then recognized these organizations as quite estimable, but objected to the sisters of the Church joining them and showed how the Relief Society life plan is much cheaper.
It is true that in response to the hostility from Utah Masons some in the Church hierarchy made comments that could be interpreted as forbidding Masonry, which were not widely circulated. Generally, Widtsoe, in his Priesthood Handbook, noted that Stake officers should not join secret societies (6). However, the pervasive and normative instruction regarding all fraternal organizations is comparable to that found in the 1968 General Handbook of Instructions:
Members of the Church are strongly advised not to join any organization which is antagonistic to the Church, of which is oath-bound, or of such character as would cause members of the Church to lose interest in Church activities or interfere with performance of their duties.
Whether Church members who belong to secret oath-bound organizations shall be ordained to or advanced in the priesthood, or given the privileges of the temple, depends upon their standing in the Church and compliance with the regulations governing these privileges. (7)
Five years after the Utah Masons repealed their Mormon prohibition, the Kimball presidency removed all language regarding secret societies from the General Handbook of Instruction.
- e.g., The Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Utah, Joseph M. Orr, stated in 1878:
We say to the priests of the Latter-day Church, you cannot enter our lodge rooms–you surrender all to an unholy priesthood. You have heretofore sacrificed the sacred obligations of our beloved Order and we believe you would do the same again. Stand aside; we want none of you. Such a wound as you gave Masonry in Nauvoo is not easily healed, and no Latter-day Saint is, or can become a member of our Order in this jurisdiction. (1877 Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Utah, 11-12 as contained in Homer, M. W. (1994) “Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry”: The Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism. Dialogue. vol. 27 no. 3)
- Messages of the First Presidency vol. 3 pg. 29.
- Messages of the First Presidency vol. 3 pg. 278.
- Relief Society Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 3, pg. 14.
- Relief Society Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 6, pg. 1-2.
- Priesthood and Church Government pg. 299.
- General Handbook of Instruction (1968) no. 20, pg. 165.