Move slowly on the tricky stuff

In my treatment of the early Mormon death conquest, I have been working on early rituals, including the antecedents to the temple liturgy we call the “endowment.” As many people know, the role of Masonic induction rituals has generated great controversy over decades. Unfortunately, there is not yet a reliable scholarly treatment of Masonry and Mormonism during Joseph Smith’s life (two separate histories are being written, but they are not yet available[1]), so I have been forced to spend about ten pages treating Masonry and Mormonism. This is tricky territory, in large part because Masonry and Mormonism were both remarkably fluid in the period in consideration and because they both drew from an immense, highly Biblical literature and tapped into considerable creativity among non-theologians. To give a sense for how easy and dangerous it is to leap to conclusions, I offer the following example:

Four days after Christmas 1835, Joseph Smith preached a three-hour sermon after a sumptuous patriarchal blessing meeting[2], to a crowded congregation. He later discovered that several Presbyterians[3] had been present as he “exposed their [Protestants’ theological and ecclesiastical] abominations in the language of the scriptures.” Hoping to have converted his listeners, he prayed “that it may be like a nail in a sure place, driven by the master of assemblies.”[4]

The language sounds an awful lot like language from Masonic rituals and employs imagery that could easily be associated with sacred building and pageantry, trademark themes for Masons. This similarity led the authors of one treatment of Mormon temple worship to propose this as strong evidence of Smith’s involvement in Masonry long before his 1842 induction into the fraternity.[5] Jeff Lindsay countered[6] that Smith was merely quoting Isaiah 22:23-25 and Ecclesiastes 12:11, which is true but not necessarily a convincing response (if Masons were the only people in antebellum America to use that Bible reference that way, this quotation could still be evidence of Smith’s familiarity with Masonry).

Enter googlebooks. It has become almost trivial, as long as a researcher knows the cultural background, major institutions, and major actors in a period[7], to answer questions like this–how often did various religious believers and agents of culture use particular scriptures or phrases in particular applications? Try, for instance,

"master of assemblies" nail sure place date:1780-1840

You will find that these phrases were used to describe potent preaching by the famous Quaker Elias Hicks, English Baptist Robert Robinson, Boston Congregationalist Samuel Green, and a wide variety of others, circulating in various editions through the period of interest.[8] In light of these contextual sources, it becomes very difficult to maintain this commentary on a sermon as evidence of explicit Masonic influence on pre-Nauvoo Mormonism.[8] I am continually reminded that rigorous research depends on exhausting thoroughness, the patience to chase down odds and ends, and above all to characterize the context closely. I’d be interested to hear about other examples and to hear how people are using Googlebooks in their research. I suspect that a lot of apparent parallelisms will acquire dramatically different valences once thorough contextual research begins to see the light of day.

NB: this is not meant to be a thorough treatment of Masonic Mormonism–LDS members may enjoy Lindsay’s site, and outside scholars will be left with Bullock[9] and Brooke for the time-being–and I am not particularly supportive of flame wars on this topic. Any disrespectful or explicit references to LDS temple rites will be deleted by Steve.

[1] Brooke (Refiner’s Fire) is the most scholarly treatment of this topic but got way too far ahead of the documents–it’s a great history of Western hermeticism despite its other flaws. Albanese (Republic of Mind and Spirit) is largely derivative from Brooke on this specific topic (it’s a great survey). Reed Durham’s famous MHA presidential speech is not particularly scholarly or thorough, despite its legendary status among the samizdat critics. Homer’s Dialogue article is a useful beginning but has important limitations. Nick Litterski and Homer are both working on separate book-length treatments that I am eager to read when they’re available. Although I’m happy to be reminded of something I’ve overlooked, pretty much all the other treatments of Masonic Mormonism are useful only for bibliographies and historiography as a window into a later culture.
[2] Many 1830s Patriarchal Blessings were bestowed during “blessing meetings” that were probably modeled on Methodist agape love feast and (revivalistic) Presbyterian conference meetings, delightful encounters filled with good food, acclamations of Christian unity, and visible spirituality.
[3] Presbyterians represented the orthodox Reformed church in America (they merged with the Congregationalists, the other main orthodox denomination for frontier evangelism) and as such, the respectability of urban life and education. Smith’s status-conscious mother had joined the Presbyterians before his religious career began. Presbyterians would represent particularly coveted converts for the LDS, who often drew from less “respectable” groups.
[4] Joseph Smith Papers (Journals) 1: 139, 29 December 1835.
[5] Buerger, Mysteries of Godliness, 48 [I can’t find my copy, so I’m relying on Lindsay’s treatment for this page number].
[6] Lindsay,
[7] This is important to emphasize. If you don’t know the difference between a Hicksite Quaker and a Unitarian, it will be very easy to misconstrue the data hits you get from googlebooks. I’m all for autodidact history, but I would emphasize the importance of carefully working through the data–think of googlebooks as a research assistant rather than a research replacement.
[first8]: see the results of the googlebooks query.
[second8] There is (almost) no ironclad proof in history. It is not impossible that Joseph Smith had in mind Masonry in December 1835, it’s just not particularly likely on the basis of documentary evidence.
[9] Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood is an excellent book. Its discussion of Mormonism is quite limited, though, as it’s a broader history. In fact, I would recommend Bullock first to anyone interested in Masonic Mormonism, as context is critically important.


  1. Excellent write up, Sam, and I agree with your conclusions. It seems to me that because we have so many primary sources to work with and because Mormonism has generated several idiosyncratic uses of language, theology and ritual, it seems to me that it is easy for researchers to develop a sort of Mormon exceptionalism. Tools like googlebooks are invaluable at restoring some of that context that would be otherwise logistically removed.

    I’ve found googlebooks quite helpful in contextualizing my research. Often times it will be just a random reference to one particular ritual form, which leads me to dig in other places and find something critical.

    I hadn’t heard anything about Homer’s volume. Any details on that?

  2. Thanks for this, Sam. I find google books especially helpful in my research as an “assistant,” especially in doing word/phrase searches like this. It also helps a lot for rare 18th/19th century pamphlets: it has all the first edition of my current research subject’s tracts (about 40).

  3. It’s easy for us in this media-saturated age to forget how drenched our seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century ancestors were in the language of scripture. Puritan, evangelical, and Victorian preachers frequently quote the Bible without explicitly referencing the passage, because they assumed their audiences would understand the context. More, they often borrow phrases which are laden with Biblical association and imagery that today’s reader may just not catch; this Ecclesiastes reference (for such I suspect it is), is a good example. One has to read nineteenth century sermons very carefully in consequence. Or just read the Bible more. This is one area where I suspect evangelical scholars have an edge on Mormons.

  4. Hey, I’m not the ONLY person who would delete!

    I’m a fan of Google Books, although I don’t know that their search engine is reliable enough or that their library is complete enough to replace old-fashioned research. Perhaps for dilettantes like myself it is an adequate replacement, but I don’t know.

  5. #3, agreed
    #4, it’s a supplement, not a replacement. Nothing beats reading a crapload of primary sources.

  6. My type of research is quite different from smb’s or matt b’s, but like them I have used googlebooks to advantage because so many Mormon titles are now included.

    Further to matt b’s #3: I had a non-Mormon client who in a previous career had taught literature at the university level who was absolutely lost when it came to understanding the 19th century Mormon correspondence, sermons and diaries he needed for his project, because he had, apparently, zero grounding in Biblical events, personalities, or language. I was forever having to explain that such-and-such was not a secret Mormon code, that it was an allusion to so-and-so in the Old Testament. I would first have to explain as well as I could the general Christian understanding of the allusion, then any particular Mormon spin. Without me to act as his Rosetta stone, I think he would have been so frustrated that his book would have been written without any attempt to understand Mormonism from the inside.

  7. Matt, I’m not so sure. I think we have a bit of an edge because of our familiarity with the KJV.

  8. …and as a sidenote, it seems to me that the notation of JSPP Journals 1 goes out of its way to point out biblical allusion in the text, perhaps for this very reason.

  9. J., we may have an edge in the sense that we’re familiar with the KJV language, but how familiar are most of us with the content of the Old Testament beyond the major stories of Genesis and Exodus, and the odd verses from here and there that we use for proof texts?

  10. Yeah, Ardis, there is that.

  11. Yeah. If I read only the Bible instead of splitting my time among the other volumes in our cannon, I would be assuredly more fluent.

    But take, for example, the items in Sam’s post. From the NIV, we have:

    “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd.”


    “I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will be a seat of honour for the house of his father. All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots—all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to all the jars. ‘In that day,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘the peg driven into the firm place will give way; it will be sheared off and will fall, and the load hanging on it will be cut down.’ The LORD has spoken.”

    Now, sure enough, I imagine that many Latter-day Saints probably would not be aware of the KJV versions of these verses. But being aware of the verses in another translation doesn’t necessarily mean awareness of the biblical allusion.

  12. Jonathan Green says:

    For answering questions like, “What did Americans think or know about a particular topic in 1850, and how did they talk about it?” Google Books can give you in 10 minutes what instead might take an afternoon in a very well stocked university library. For the 99% of us without easy access to a large university library or a free afternoon, it’s a great way to take the first step in a research project that otherwise wouldn’t get done. Steps #2-99 still require a lot of footwork, but Google Books is a huge help for step #1. For places outside the U.S. or for any century except the 19th, coverage is probably still too spotty to get quite as much mileage out of it, but for Mormon history questions, Google Books seems like a perfect match.

  13. Jim Donaldson says:

    Puritan, evangelical, and Victorian preachers frequently quote the Bible without explicitly referencing the passage, because they assumed their audiences would understand the context. More, they often borrow phrases which are laden with Biblical association and imagery that today’s reader may just not catch…

    More than Puritan, evangelical, and Victorian preachers—certainly Joseph Smith did, to an amazing degree. A few years ago Deseret Book published a volume called Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which took the familiar editing of JFS and added footnotes (by Richard C. Galbraith) for all the scriptural quotations and allusions in JS’s speaking and writing. A very interesting and valuable volume that, like all interesting Deseret Book products, was in print for about 20 minutes.

  14. In medical education, we have a saying: “When you hear galloping in the U.S., think horses not zebras”. This axiom guides physicians to first pursue the obvious and statistically probable explanation rather than perseverating on more exotic, rare, and expensive diagnoses.

    The same is true with Mormon history. If Joseph Smith was a Mason who participated in Masonic temple practice before introducing his own ceremonies, the overlap between the rites is most easily explained by Joseph Smith co-opting and improving upon the Masonic practices. Fertile ground beautified through inspiration.

  15. The Bible is the “more exotic, rare, and expensive diagnosis” ?

    Eye of the beholder, Randall.

  16. This useful Google approach indeed displays an interesting rhetorical mixture of two unrelated scriptures into one oft-repeated expression. As the suggested search results show clearly, this particular combined device (fastening “him” as a nail in a sure place + nails fastened by the masters of assemblies; Isaiah 22:23 + Ecclesiastes 12:11) was in wide use by a variety of denominations by the time Joseph Smith employed it.

    I have found the same phenomenon in the Book of Mormon. Consider, for example, confusing the fiery serpents which bit the children of Israel (Numbers 21:6-9; Deuteronomy 8:15) with the unrelated fiery flying serpents of Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6. This error was common enough in the early nineteenth century, and it crept into the Book of Mormon’s 1 Nephi 17:41 (discussed in my Mormon List Twenty-Two [Ithaca, New York: Rick Grunder – Books, January 1987], entry 63, now developed into my Mormon Parallels entry 145. See Royal Skousen’s hopeful explanation in Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon . . . I:369).

    Another example is the expression in Ether 4:15, “hardness of heart and blindness of mind,” a Protestant expression I have found in two texts (1818 and 1832), but not in the Bible (for hardness of heart alone, see Mark 16:14 or Matthew 19:8; Mark 3:5, 10:5). Even further removed from ancient text, yet frequently encountered in religious rhetoric of Joseph Smith’s world was the non-biblical expression of singing redeeming love, or singing the song of redeeming love (Alma 5:9; see also v. 26 and 26:13). Or the Protestant expression “Blessed Jesus” so common in Joseph’s time: not in the Bible, but vivid in Alma 19:29.

    Having fun with words is indeed treacherous as Sam points out, and we must proceed methodically. But the quest can certainly be exhilarating.

  17. Randall, you’re explaining parsimony rather than the zebra phenomenon (which is generally stated, “when a medical student hears hoofbeats, he thinks zebras; when an attending hears hoofbeats, she thinks horses”). As for the Masonic question, the Nauvoo period is rather different from the pre-Nauvoo era, when parsimony would support typical Protestant culture rather than Masonry as antecedent for Smith’s utterances. And the devil’s in the details; I may post part of my section on Nauvoo Masonry at some point.

    Rick: I agree, these are fascinating to chase down and may even provide fossil evidence of stages in American English (I have a vague sense in your reference to Skouzen that you see these as evidence of modern origins for BoM; while I’m sympathetic to those who believe either ancient or modern origins, it’s worth remembering that these linguistic artifacts only date the creation of the English text (which is know from other sources), rather than characterize the nature of the creation (was it Smithian translation, or was it primary authorship?)).

  18. Although, Sam (#17), I think we must both agree that at some point, wherever that may be, one would be over-reaching to redeem some elements in a claimed revelatory text, simply by excusing them as language familiar to the translator. As an extreme example, if one found the entire Book of Omni, word for word, in an undisputed 1812 imprint, then that would be unredeemable as mere language usage, surely. So somewhere between that extreme, and a mere “came to pass,” each of us must draw our line.

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