There is no shortage of interest in the connections between the Masonic Craft and Joseph Smith-era Mormonism. Nearly four decades ago Dr. Reed Durham, then director of the LDS Institute at the University of Utah and president of the Mormon History Association, delivered a now (in)famous address to the MHA on Joseph Smith and Freemasonry. His presentation emphasized the connection between masonic ritual and temple ordinances, though in what Durham viewed as a faith-promoting way. Despite the subsequent public apology Durham issued (at the behest of his CES superiors), and his refusal to submit the paper for publication or even to publicly discuss it, the fascination over the connections between the Craft and the innovations of Nauvoo Mormonism — most importantly the inception of Mormon temple ritual — has remained vibrant.
My focus here is less on the esoteric component of this relationship — the ritual similarities or other fascinating and sometimes quite mysterious connections explored by Durham and others — than with the more basic historical connections. In particular, I wish to explore the history of Freemasonry in the Church and in Nauvoo and to situate it within a wider historical context. After a brief historical sketch, I’ll offer a few conclusions — some of them quite surprising — in the hope of generating discussion. In the interest of consumer protection, I offer the following disclaimer: I am not an expert on Freemasonry or its history. I defer to those whose understanding of these matters exceeds my own, and humbly solicit their input in response to my scattered thoughts here.
Although the historical origins of the Craft are rather murky, there is overwhelming consensus among scholars of Masonry that, in contrast to what most Masons have believed in the past (including early Mormon Masons) it is not of ancient inception. Generally, Masons make a distinction between “Operative” Masonry — which is basically engineering, building+geometry+mathematics, which, they claim, is as old as the world itself (and possibly older) — and “Speculative” Masonry — an esoteric, fraternal system of knowledge grounded in secret ritual, historically believed to have originated with the construction of Solomon’s temple. In reality, the speculative rites likely date to the mid 17th Century, with the legend of Hiram Abiff (the figure whose story figures centrally in the rituals) arising not long thereafter.
In early 19th-century America, Freemasonry was at once popular and wildly unpopular. At the time of the First Vision, there were as many as 20,000 Freemasons in NY state alone, probably including Joseph Smith, Sr. (Hyrum would also undergo initiation into the Craft before the Smiths left NY). Yet by the time of the founding of the first Lodge in Nauvoo two decades later, there were only a few thousand Masons in the entire United States. Several factors contributed to the intervening rise in anti-Masonry and decline in participation — the publication of several exposés of Masonry (or their translation into English), the association of Masonry with British cultural elites, the rise of Jeffersonian populism — but the most significant proximate cause was a single event: the disappearance and suspected murder of William Morgan.
Morgan, an ex-mason, wrote an exposé and arranged for publication under the title Illustrations of Masonry, in which he revealed the signs, tokens, penalties, and other secrets of Masonic rites. Just before the book’s scheduled release, Morgan was abducted. His wife, Lucinda (more on her below), tried to arrange to trade the manuscript with her husband’s abductors, but to no avail. Morgan, widely believed to have been murdered in retribution for exposing the secrets of the Craft (Masons denied the murder accusations, claiming instead that he was bribed to leave the country), was never heard from again. His disappearance was widely publicized and sparked a flury of anti-Masonic protests, publications, and even the formation and increased popularity of anti-Masonic political parties. One of the most prominent participants in the protest movements was W. W. Phelps, who edited an anti-Masonic newspaper in Candandaigua, NY. (According to historian Michael Homer*, Phelps, who founded a newspaper in Kirtland called The Evening and Morning Star, once referred to William Morgan at an anti-Masonic rally as a “bright morning star”, an ironic application of the Masonic symbol for truth to a man who exposed its secrets. Phelps, for his part, appears to have retained his antagonism toward Freemasonry. He was outside the Church at the time of the inception of Nauvoo Masonry and was never initiated into the order after returning to Mormon fellowship.)
Other prominent figures in early Mormonism had connections with either Masonry or anti-Masonic activism. Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, Heber C. Kimball, Newell K. Whitney, and George Miller were all initiates. In a strange coincidence, Smith the elder visited a man named Eli Bruce, serving a 2 year sentence in connection with the William Morgan kidnapping, in jail in 1830, where he taught him about the Book of Mormon and his son’s calling as latter-day prophet. Father Smith appears to have lost his enthusiasm for the fraternity and died a fervent anti-Mason, just months before the establishment of the first Nauvoo lodge at his son’s request. Phelps and George Harris (more on him below) were committed anti-Masons as well. Additionally, several of the Church’s most prominent early critics were also prominent Masons, including E. D. Howe (who noted in one published tract that the Book of Mormon was printed on a Masonic Press), Pomeroy Tucker, Abner Cole, and Orasmus Turner (who also served time in jail in connection with the Morgan affair). One conclusion to be drawn from all this is that while Masonic-Mormon connections were visible in the period before Nauvoo, those connections were multi-valent, complicated, and involved both Masons and anti-Masons on both sides of Mormon and anti-Mormon activity.
The Grand Lodge of Illinois was first organized in 1805, during the height of Masonry’s popularity in the young American Republic. By 1840, with enthusiasm for the Craft at a new low, the Grand Lodge was reorganized, on 6 April (!). The Grand Masters over the newly reorganized Lodge were Abraham Jonas and James Adams. Adams, a close friend of the Prophet and part of his closest circle (he would eventually be ordained by Joseph as a patriarch, form part of the nucleus of the Annointed Quorum, and participate in plural marriage), was instrumental in installing the first Lodge in Nauvoo. Not long after the arrival of John C. Bennett in Nauvoo, Joseph asked him to direct a petition to the Illinois Grand Lodge seeking a dispensation for the installation of a Lodge in Nauvoo. The Lodge denied the request, but Grand Master Jonas granted the petition independently (likely at the prompting of Deputy Grand Master Adams). Before long, there were 4 Lodges comprised largely of Mormons — two in Nauvoo, one across the river in Keokuk, and one in Montrose. On 29 December 1841 a meeting was held in the office of Hyrum Smith to organize the first Nauvoo lodge. George Miller was selected as Grand Master with Hyrum given the more prestigious title of Worshipful Master. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon immediately petitioned for admission into the Lodge, and on 15 March in the upper room of the Red Brick Store, they were initiated. The following day, both were raised as Master Masons. The day after that, in the same room, Joseph organized the Relief Society, using language with heavy Masonic overtones (particularly as regarded secret-keeping).
John C. Bennett eventually ran afoul of the Smith brothers and other prominent Church leaders. He was expelled from the Nauvoo Lodge (when Hyrum learned that he had been expelled from a Lodge in Ohio) before being excommunicated from the Church. Among the accusations he very publicly leveled at Joseph Smith after his departure was the charge that Smith created a ritual similar to Masonry, with the implication that he disclosed masonic secrets in the process. At about this time, the Grand Lodge began investigating “irregularities” in Nauvoo Masonry, and temporarily suspended the Nauvoo Lodge’s dispensation, among other reasons for the fact that Sidney and Joseph were raised Master Masons at the same time. After a formal reprimanding, the Nauvoo lodge had its work re-authorized. Shortly thereafter Hyrum laid the cornerstone for a Masonic Temple, and in the subsequent months, Mormon lodges raised more than 400 Master Masons (significantly, all after the introduction of temple rituals), leading the Grand Lodge to once again revoke the dispensation of all Mormon lodges, citing the practices of initiating unworthy members and advancing members too quickly.
Despite these potential setbacks, Masonry among the Mormons (who refused to acknowledge the authority of the Grand Lodge to revoke their dispensation) flourished. On 5 April 1844, Worshipful Master Hyrum Smith presided over the dedication of the Masonic Temple (or Hall). His brother, Joseph, and Erastus Snow spoke at the dedication ceremony — attended by several hundred men, including visitors from neighboring cities — on the topic of the persecution of Mormon Masons by the Illinois Grand Lodge. And, as we all know, not long after the dedication, Joseph and Hyrum were murdered by a mob which included Freemasons. Joseph’s last known words were the beginning of the Masonic distress signal: “Oh Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow’s son?”
One interesting but inescapable conclusion here is that it is not reasonable to view Freemasonry as a mere stepping stone for temple rites, a springboard that inspired something fuller and greater and was brushed aside once it served its purpose. Masonry and Mormon temple rituals were separate but related developments in life in Mormon Nauvoo. Participation in Masonic rites increased alongside the growth of the Anointed Quorum. And during the brief flurry of temple endowments after the martyrdom but before the exodus, the Lodges in Nauvoo raised more than 1,000 Master Masons. However Joseph Smith and his immediate confidants understood the relationship between the Masonic Craft and the Fullness of the Priesthood, the former was not simply a precursor for the latter.
A perhaps more fascinating, almost unbelievable conclusion also flows from the complex relationship between early Mormonism and Freemasonry. Recall that William Morgan’s wife, Lucinda, unsuccessfully intervened to save her husband from an ominous (if technically unknown) fate. Her subsequent remarriage — to close friend George Washington Harris — caused some scandal in that William’s murder was never confirmed and the remarriage occurred only a few years after his disappearance. Lucinda and George would eventually convert to Mormonism, and in 1837 they moved in with Joseph Smith and his family in Far West, Missouri. 2 years later they moved into a house across the street from Joseph and Emma in Nauvoo. At some point during these years (the dating is still debated) Lucinda became one of Joseph’s first plural wives. At this point, recall that famous distress call, stemming from Joseph’s belief that some in the Carthage mob were fellow Masons. Indeed, several Church leaders, most notably John Taylor, believed the murder to be part of a Masonic conspiracy (remember how the non-Mormon Masons were persecuting their Mormon fellow-craftsmen?). And at least one expert on the question, Nick Literski (whose own extensive research into these questions will hopefully be published very soon), assures me that there is some credible evidence of far- (and high-) reaching Masonic involvement in the plot to murder the Smith Brothers.
All of which leads to an almost staggering coincidence: that arguably the two most prominent Masonic retribution murders in American history involved victims that were married to the same woman.
*Homer’s Essay, “Similarity of Priesthood and Masonry: The Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism,” published in Dialog Vol. 27 No. 3, is the fullest treatment of the topic to date. Forthcoming book-length treatments by Homer as well as by Nick Literski promise to shed considerable light on the subject.