Oath-bound organizations

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.


  1. 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)

  2. Messages of the First Presidency vol. 3 pg. 29.
  3. Messages of the First Presidency vol. 3 pg. 278.
  4. Relief Society Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 3, pg. 14.
  5. Relief Society Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 6, pg. 1-2.
  6. Priesthood and Church Government pg. 299.
  7. General Handbook of Instruction (1968) no. 20, pg. 165.


  1. I should have also nted that the Church’s position regarding Unions held out until the 1940’s, but the church no longer recognizes them as contrary to gospel principles. People in the Church are free to join them as they please.

  2. a random John says:

    Yet the Church has never seemed to have a problem with the Scouting program or the Order of the Arrow…

  3. AWESOME! lol.

  4. a random John says:
  5. Kevin Barney says:

    My understanding is that the new Grand Master of the Utah Lodge is actually LDS.

    A couple of years ago a group of us in conjunction with the FAIR conference went on a tour of the SLC Masonic Temple. It was quite fascinating.

  6. Great post. I’m curious. The rise of a lot quasi-masonic organizations was partially for the need for health and life insurance. Indeed they peaked in the 1920’s as I recall and then started a steep decline as commercial insurance companies took over the market.

    Now I know the Church established an insurance company. Was this partially due for the reasons you mentioned?

  7. I would suspect so, Clark, but I am not certain, and there really hasn’t been much written on this (at all). The Beneficial Life Insurance Company was started during the JFS presidency and it underwrote the RS program described above. The timing of it and the proponderance of Saints who participated in oath-bound fraternal organizations suggests that they were likely linked.

    The RS program was only available to annual dues-paying members of the Relief Society. There wasn’t any comparable program for the rest of the church, but still the timing is very suggestive.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    Very interesting post, Jonathan. Poking around Shasta County and Trinity County in California (where my great-great-grandparents are buried), I’ve been impressed by how pervasive those societies were. Cemetaries, for instance, had many headstones shaped like stumps. In Eureka, Utah, a once large mining town southwest of Provo, it also seems like everyone was part of a lodge. I suspect this kind of thing had more attraction for miners in a town with no history than for settled farmers. I wonder about the miner/farmer divide in Utah coinciding with the gentile/saint divide and contributing to a wariness of lodges.

  9. That is a good point, John, and I am not sure how much the Labor Unions and Fraternal organizations interplayed. Some of what I have read on the topic suggests that the fraternal organizations had so much traction because of instability and isolation. Being a homesteader with water or ditch-rights in the community of Saints is very different than being baiscally an itinerant laborer in the mines, as measured by community and stability.

    Ron Watt, wrote a history of Carbon county that I am interested in perusing for questions such as these.

  10. John,

    My granddad lives in Eureka and was a mining engineer. I guess I should ask him if he ever joined a lodge.

  11. J, I am wondering about your differentiation between the church’s stand on members joining Masonic lodges versus its stand on members joining oath-bound organizations/secret societies.

    I base my question on the following passage in Homer’s article on Masonry and Mormonism, which states:

    During most of the twentieth century both Masonry and Mormonism opposed dual membership: Masons in Utah prohibited Mormons from joining or visiting their lodges and Mormons counseled members to avoid joining secret societies. During a discussion of secret societies on April 12, 1900, in a meeting of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency some brethren wondered if “Freemasonry was in some degree excepted [from a general condemnation of secret societies], as it was thought that in some instances it might be advisable to join that body.” Despite the suggestion, Lorenzo Snow, the last surviving general authority who was also a Mason (Franklin Richards had died the previous year), authorized a statement that church leaders were “opposed to secret societies,” which made no exception for Freemasonry. Shortly thereafter Snow addressed a large gathering in the tabernacle on the subject of secret societies, in which he reiterated this policy: “Men who are identified with these secret organizations . . . have disqualified themselves and are not fit to hold these offices” and further stated “that any man who is a member of these organizations ought not to be allowed the privileges or blessings of the gospel.” This was followed by a series of statements by general authorities counseling members not to join any “secret society” for any reason (“‘Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry,'” 75-76).

  12. I think I perhaps wasn’t clear enough. As you note, Masonry definately fell under the proscription against secret-societies, though there were more sympathetic views in the hierarchy due to Mormon heritage. It was in the first part of that decade that Temple recomends were not given to those who joined societies. Kimball’s treatment (pg. 155) of the issue is quite good (though one date in his Masonry chronology seems to be quite wrong). It looks like that only lasted for a few years.

    My point was primarily that the proscription over aoth-bound societies didn’t get started over Masonry and Masonry was only a small part of a much larger situation.

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