Joseph Smith was a Mason – so what?

I address this subject as a courtesy to Barbara, a visitor to my blog who asked me to do so. Thank you Barbara, for the suggestion. I had forgotten that this is a problem for some people. Critics claim that Joseph Smith borrowed heavily from Freemasonry for the ceremony of the temple endowment. I’m not convinced that he didn’t, but it’s not a big deal.

A fraternal organization

Freemasonry is a fraternal organization, not a religious movement.
A fraternity is a men’s club, whose members emphasize their brotherhood. Similar organizations are Elks, Oddfellows, Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary. It arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century. Masonry includes a constitutional declaration of belief in a Supreme Being. In other words, you can’t be an atheist and be a Mason.

Joseph Smith’s father was a Mason long before Joseph was and so was his brother Hyrum. It was common for men to join this organization as a means to improve their social standing in the community and to obtain business contacts. There are five million Masons today, and about two million in the United States. There have been and still are a lot of famous men who are Masons.

For example, many presidents of the United States were Masons including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, James Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Gerald Ford. Many kings of England were Masons. So were Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, Mark Twain, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks and Jesse Jackson.

Joseph Smith and John C. Bennett

In 1840, at the start of the Nauvoo period, Joseph was encouraged to start a Masonic lodge by John C. Bennett, a recent convert and prominent physician. Bennett quickly rose to a position of power and influence in the church, becoming a Counselor in the First Presidency, mayor of the city of Nauvoo, General of the Nauvoo Legion, and the chancellor of the University of Nauvoo.

Bennett was a scoundrel, who was excommunicated from the church after it was revealed that he was teaching and practicing adultery, which he called “spiritual wifery,” claiming that it was authorized by Joseph Smith. Any seminary student who paid attention in class soon realized that he was one of the blackest characters in the early Nauvoo period of LDS Church history.

But for the two year period of time of 1840 to 1842, he was influential in introducing the young prophet to Masonry and instructing him in the rituals and symbolism of the fraternity. Joseph Smith became grand chaplain at the installation of the Nauvoo Lodge of Free Masons. Many of the LDS leaders and brethren of the church were also active Masons during this time.

The temple and Freemasonry

On May 4, 1842, the prophet instructed the priesthood “in the principles of and order of the Priesthood, attending to washings, anointings, endowments, and the communication of keys pertaining to the Aaronic Priesthood, and so onto to the highest order of the Melchizedek Priesthood….” (History of the Church, 5:1). This was the beginning of the temple endowment.

There are some obvious similarities between Mormon temple ritual and symbolism and the stories and symbols of Freemasonry. Mormon temple worship has similar symbols, signs, and clothing with the fraternal order. Is it a coincidence that these symbolisms were introduced and incorporated into the temple ceremony so soon after Joseph was instructed in Freemasonry?

The goals of Masonry and the LDS endowment are not the same. In the view of the LDS Church, both teach important truths, but the truths they teach are different. Masonry is not a religion. The temple endowment, on the other hand, teaches of man’s relationship to God in LDS Church belief, and Latter-day Saints consider it to be essential for exaltation in the world to come.

Endowment received by revelation

After Joseph had learned the details of the rituals and teachings of the fraternal order, he went to the Lord in prayer and received revelation in regards to the correct order and purpose of the endowment. What he presented to the Lord was what he had learned from John C. Bennett. What he received from the Lord was the restored endowment, evidence of his prophetic calling.

He then put together a makeshift temple in the upper room of his store so that it represented the interior of a temple as well as circumstances would permit. Joseph introduced the Nauvoo Endowment ceremony to nine men including his brother Hyrum, William Law, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, William Marks, Newel K. Whitney and two others.

Joseph wrote that the endowment was “to be received only by the spiritual minded: and there was nothing made known to these men but what will be made known to all the Saints of the last days, so soon as they are prepared to receive, and a proper place is prepared to communicate them, even to the weakest of Saints: therefore let the Saints be diligent in building the Temple.”

Summary and conclusion

So was the endowment borrowed from Freemasonry? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. I contend that it was received by revelation. I figured that out way back in Seminary. I felt it was right at the time I was first exposed to it and have found no reason to change my opinion over the years. This was only confirmed when I studied the subject again in Institute classes.

I am convinced that I have had a major advantage in growing up in the church in that I got to attend seminary and institute classes where church history was taught as part of our study of the Doctrine and Covenants. I love our church history. It is exciting and wonderful to review. My approach to studying our history is to look for the hand of the Lord in how it came about.

You can read the story of how we got the endowment in a sinister light if you want. You can read all kinds of things into it that simply are not there, including what some who oppose the work of the church have written about it. It is wonderful that we are given the ability to read and study these things out and then take it to the Lord in prayer for a confirming witness of the truth.

For additional information

1. Jeff Lindsay – Questions About the LDS Temple Ceremony and Masonry

2. FAIR – Similarities between Masonic and Mormon Temple Ritual

3. SHIELDS – The Relationship of “Mormonism” and Freemasonry by Pres. Anthony W. Ivins