Part 55: CES Letter Temples & Freemasonry Questions [Section A]

by Sarah Allen


The next “problematic” topic the CES Letter discusses is the apparent link between the temple ceremony and Freemasonry. Admittedly, this isn’t a topic I know as much about as some of the others we’ve gone over. I’ve just never had many questions about Freemasonry, so I’ve never studied the topic much in the past. I love learning new things, though, so I’ve been looking forward to this section. It’s a difficult one to talk about because it’s so heavily centered on the endowment and, due to its sacred nature, that’s not something we talk about openly.

Like our temple ceremonies, Masonic rituals and ceremonies are not often discussed in public. That’s something I want to respect, so I’m going to be careful, here. However, because of the private nature of their meetings, Freemasonry quickly emerged as a shadowy, secretive, and misunderstood organization that was often seen as evil or untrustworthy in the public perception. The Masons were cast as the villains in the first widespread conspiracy theory in American history, for example, leading to a period of national anti-Mason sentiment in Joseph Smith’s day. There are numerous books or movies in which a Masonic group are engaging in some sort of conspiracy and the hero has to expose them.

In contrast, there are also numerous television shows, including The Flintstones, Married…With Children, Happy Days, Cheers, The Andy Griffith Show, Everwood, and many others, in which male characters often belong to various generic local “lodges,” fraternal organizations based off groups such as the Freemasons or the Shriners. In these shows, the men in the town get together and wear robes and have secret handshakes and things like that. It’s less common these days, but it used to be a fairly frequent storyline in sitcoms and family-centered shows.

These two dueling views in which the Masonic rituals are both simultaneously somehow deeply suspicious and a staple feature of adult male bonding are often mined for comedy or as a red herring in entertainment media.

We also see some of that same dual nature in the way our Church and its members are portrayed in the media. Just like Freemasons, we’re often viewed alternately as crazy, evil, brainwashed, secretive, naïve, gullible, or cult-like, unless we’re being portrayed as overly friendly or innocently obnoxious. Regardless of the slant used, we’re both frequently held at a distance from the rest of “normal” society, seen as something “other.”

And, as Jeremy Runnells points out at length, these are not the only similarities between Latter-day Saints and Freemasons.

This section begins with the following quote:

Because of their Masonic characters the ceremonies of the temple are sacred and not for the public.” — October 15, 1911, Message of the First Presidency, 4:250

The source goes to a page on FAIR in which Greg Kearney (a Latter-day Saint and Mason who gave a great 2005 FAIR presentation on the topic) highlights this quote because he thought it was intriguing. The original source for the quote cited by Kearney seems to be taken from the 4th volume of the book series Messages of the First Presidency, a 6-volume set compiled by Dr. James R. Clark. I don’t own the book and can’t find a linkable source anywhere online, but the full text of the message is transcribed in the comments to Jeremy’s own citation.

It’s fairly lengthy, but the full paragraph containing this quote apparently states, “Because of their Masonic characters the ceremonies of the temple are sacred and not for the public. But there is nothing disloyal in them, as so often asserted, nor in their performance is there the slightest departure from the principles of decorum and propriety. Within the building are halls, corridors, reception rooms, offices, chapels, priesthood assembly rooms, baptismal fonts, separate dressing rooms and bathrooms for women and men, sealing rooms, altars, paintings, statuary, magnificent mirrors, decorations and hangings, with such other furniture and equipment as may be found in the parlors of any palatial mansion.”

Another comment in the chain is from Matthew B. Brown, which says, “The quote in the original source is different than the one published in the Deseret News and then Messages of the First Presidency. Proper context can only be gained from examining the original source.”

I ran a text search on my copy of Brown’s book Exploring the Connection Between Mormons and Masons for the quote and found this passage responding to different claims:

  • The First Presidency of the LDS Church admitted in 1911 that Mormon temple rituals include “Masonic characters.”

On 4 November 1911, the Deseret News reprinted an article wherein the First Presidency of the LDS Church—then consisting of Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and John Henry Smith—gave an account of Church history. This article was subsequently included in the book entitled Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One of the sentences in this article says, “Because of their Masonic characters the ceremonies of the temple are sacred and not for the public.” Some individuals see this as proof that the highest governing body of the Mormon Church admitted that the temple endowment incorporated “Masonic characters” or elements.

The article printed in the Deseret News, however, was not the original. This article had previously been published in the Oakland Tribune and had been explicitly created for a non-LDS audience (which may explain its reference to Masonry). A check of the Tribune’s rendition of this publicity piece indicates that the letter ‘s’ was inadvertently added to the word ‘character’ when the reprint occurred in the Deseret News. The sentence thus originally said, “Because of their Masonic character the ceremonies of the temple are sacred and not for the public.” The word Masonic seems to have been intended by the First Presidency as a descriptive term for non-Mormons, not as an indicator of actual temple content. The entry for the word ‘Masonic’ in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language says that it means “suggestive of or resembling Freemasons or Freemasonry (as in display of fraternal spirit or secrecy).”

The Deseret News article and the one from the Oakland Tribune are not online that I can find without paying a sizeable fee for a subscription. Utah Digital Newspapers and the BYU Digital collection don’t appear to have Deseret News archives for 1911, so we’re just going to have to take Brown’s word for it unless someone can find the articles for free. He’s a trustworthy source in my opinion so I’m satisfied with his assertion, but if you’re not and this is a topic that’s truly bothering you, you can apparently find digital copies of both newspapers at the links above if you want to sign up for a subscription.

Brown continues:

Shortly after this history article was published in California, Charles W. Penrose was installed as the Second Counselor in the First Presidency. He authored an article for a Church magazine regarding a list of “peculiar questions” that had been submitted to the First Presidency. Question number sixteen was, “Why do the elders of your Church use Masonic signs and emblems, and has ‘Mormonism’ anything to do with Freemasonry?” President Penrose responded by saying, “We might answer: ‘Because they don’t.’ Seriously, Elders or other ministers of the Church, as such, do not use any signs of secret orders. Some of our brethren may be or have been members of the Masonic society, but the Church has no connection with what is called ‘Freemasonry.’”

This quote was taken from an article written in the September, 1912 edition of the Improvement Era. It’s perhaps not entirely accurate on Penrose’s part, as we’ll get into directly, but it does back up Brown’s conclusion that they hadn’t intended the phrase to refer specifically to signs and tokens of Freemasonry being used inside the temple.

The reason I went into so much detail on a simple quote is because I think it frames the entire conversation going forward. Jeremy’s trying to claim that the temple endowment is not authoritative and is just a rip-off of some things Joseph experienced in his Freemason lodge meetings. Yet again, he’s trying to attack all of the pillars of a solid testimony and crack your firm foundation. He’s gone after the Book of Mormon, the Bible, the Book of Abraham, the Spirit, the Godhead, the prophets, the witnesses, and more, and now he’s going after the endowment, probably the single most important facet of our religion after the Atonement itself.

The endowment is the culmination of everything we can do in this life to obey God and return to His presence someday. It’s both a gift from God and the bestowal of His power on Earth to provide us “instruction, covenants, and promised blessings that offer power, purpose, and protection in daily life.”

It’s so important to our mission here on Earth that President Nelson once taught, “The basis for every temple ordinance and covenant—the heart of the plan of salvation—is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Every activity, every lesson, all we do in the Church, point to the Lord and His holy house. Our efforts to proclaim the gospel, perfect the Saints, and redeem the dead all lead to the temple. Each holy temple stands as a symbol of our membership in the Church, as a sign of our faith in life after death, and as a sacred step toward eternal glory for us and our families.”

The debate over a single “s” added to a single word in an article published over a century ago might seem like a silly thing to quibble over, but it changes the entire meaning of the given quote. Instead of saying that the endowment is sacred because it includes specific signs of Freemasonry, the quote is saying that its sacred nature is not discussed publicly in a similar manner to the way that Masons don’t publicly discuss their temple rituals. When you know that the article was written to try to explain our reverence for the temple to those who were not of our faith, the analogy makes perfect sense.

The Letter continues with seven numbered paragraphs that Jeremy apparently thinks are problematic:

Just seven weeks after Joseph’s March 1842 Masonic initiation, Joseph introduced the LDS endowment ceremony in May 1842.

While that’s technically a true statement, it’s also highly misleading because it leaves out a lot of context. There were statements given by Joseph prior to 1842 regarding the endowment as well as mentions of ancient symbols and tokens that have associations with Freemasonry. As Brian Hales states, “Freemasonry in Nauvoo offers too little, too late to serve as the starting point and principal source of inspiration for the major doctrines and teachings relating to priesthood and temple ordinances. … Given Joseph Smith’s reluctance to share the details of the most sacred events and doctrines publicly, it is certainly possible he received specific knowledge about some temple matters even earlier than can be now documented. These matters include: 1) the narrative backbone, clothing, and covenants of the modern temple endowment, especially as described in the book of Moses (1830-1831); 2) the sequence of blessings of the oath and covenant of the priesthood described in D&C 84 (1832); and 3) priesthood keys and symbols expressed in keywords, names, signs, and tokens (from 1829).

Matthew Brown elaborates on this in his book. There’s an entire chapter devoted to the evidences and symbols of the endowment that preceded Joseph’s becoming a Mason, which reads, in part:

The theory that Joseph Smith took ritual elements from the Freemasons in order to create the LDS temple ceremony is principally founded upon the concept of time. Supporters of this theory argue that since the Prophet joined the Masonic fraternity shortly before he introduced the Nauvoo endowment among the Saints—and because there are similarities between the two sets of ceremonies—the leader of the Mormons must have been guilty of unacknowledged borrowing from the Masons.

… In the years 1829 and 1830, Joseph Smith produced two scriptural texts containing numerous ritual elements that would become familiar to recipients of the Nauvoo endowment. Chapters 26 in the book of Mosiah, chapters 1118 in the book of 3 Nephi, and chapters 2 and 3 in the book of Ether should all be compared with each other in order to see the relevant repeating pattern in the Book of Mormon. Then this same pattern should be sought for in chapter 1 of the book of Moses while chapters 26 of the same volume can be examined for other patterns that were employed in Nauvoo. In 1834 some portions of the book of Moses that were later incorporated into the Nauvoo-era temple liturgy were interwoven into Lecture on Faith #2 (cf. D&C 29:34–45).

… In mid March 1839, the Prophet wrote in a letter, “I never have had [the] opportunity to give [the Saints] the plan that God has revealed to me,” and later that year he taught one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles “many great and glorious principles concerning God and the heavenly order of eternity,” including the concepts of the “eternal union” of marriage and “eternal family organization.”

In September 1840, the First Presidency of the Church issued an epistle wherein they declared that the dispensation of the fullness of times would be an era when “all things” would be restored and the promises made to the fathers would be fulfilled. They said that they had been “given the pattern and design” for upbuilding God’s kingdom on the earth and announced that the time had arrived for “establishing the Priesthood in their fullness and glory.” They also indicated that it was time to build a temple in Nauvoo, and it would serve as a house of worship, prayer, and divinely established “ordinances.” At the October 1840 general conference of the Church, the Prophet discoursed on baptism for the dead one day and on the “plan of ordinances” that had been revealed to Adam or the “Ancient of Days” or “Michael” the next day. Some of the themes of this second sermon included premortal time, the creation, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall; the “keys” and “covenants” and power and glory with which God blessed Adam; the instructions, revelations, and commandments that the Lord gave to the first man; “the priesthood [being] restored with all its authority, power, and blessings” (i.e., in all its fullness) in the dispensation of the fullness of times, “every ordinance belonging to the priesthood” in “ancient days” being practiced within the Nauvoo Temple; priesthood “keys” that have been kept hidden; the mysteries of godliness; and certain kinds of sacrifice being made at an altar by latter-day sons of Levi (i.e., temple officiators) but after a pre-Mosaic or Melchizedekian type. All of this, said the Prophet, was “the order from the beginning” or the “order which [God] established … whereby He sent forth power, revelations, and glory.”

… The nature of the Nauvoo Temple ordinances was plainly spelled out by the Lord before they were introduced among the Saints and before Joseph Smith was received into the Masonic fraternity. At the beginning of 1841, the Lord said that Nauvoo Temple activities would be a restoration of rituals once practiced in the Tabernacle built by the prophet Moses and the temple constructed by King Solomon (see D&C 124:37–39). In other words, they would be Hebrew in their basis and content, not Masonic. And this points to another historical fact that needs to be remembered. The Kirtland Temple rituals were a precursor of the Nauvoo Temple ordinances. The Kirtland washing and anointing ceremonies predated Joseph Smith’s Masonic membership by six years and four months, and they were specifically, and contemporaneously, linked—by the Saints themselves—to the initiation rites experienced by the priests of ancient Israel. Again, the basis and content of these ceremonies was Hebrew, not Masonic.

These are only a few short paragraphs from the book, which expounds on all of this in far more detail. I would highly recommend it if this is a topic you’d like to know more about. LDS Living also mentioned a few symbols that were described before Joseph became a Mason. These include the all-seeing eye, the handclasp, and bee imagery. Additionally, Greg Kearney gave a list of supposed similarities between Latter-day Saints and Masons, and explained why they aren’t as striking as they might seem.

Also, Don Bradley described the First Vision as an Endowment in what is one of my favorite FAIR presentations of all time. It kind of blew my mind a little the first time I saw it all laid out like that, and I think he’s correct. The Lord loves symbols and patterns, and I don’t think the First Vision is any different. It wouldn’t have been unusual or out of place for Him to use those methods to teach Joseph. And, if it was an endowment, that pattern was given to Joseph more than 20 years before he joined the Masons.

Jeremy’s second point is as follows:

President Heber C. Kimball, a Mason himself and a member of the First Presidency for 21 years, made the following statement:

“We have the true Masonry. The Masonry of today is received from the apostasy which took place in the days of Solomon, and David. They have now and then a thing that is correct, but we have the real thing.”Heber C. Kimball and Family: The Nauvoo Years, Stanley B. Kimball, p.458

This concept goes pretty much hand-in-hand with the one above. It was a common belief during the 19th Century that Freemasonry was a guild of people who originally descended from the Stonemasons that built Solomon’s temple, and who had preserved some of the secret temple rites and teachings that had been lost or altered over the centuries. Many early Latter-day Saints made comments stating their belief that Freemasonry was a corrupted form of ancient Priesthood ordinances and temple rites, as you can see at the cited link.

We know now that the bit about descending from Solomon’s temple isn’t accurate and Masonry dates back to the Middles Ages in the British Isles, but even today, there are some sects of Masonry who publicly point to those old legends about that temple as a teaching aid.

And, as a matter of fact, there are many ancient Christian practices that are similar to Masonic ceremonies, such as the signs and symbols of the Catholic Liturgy. While I don’t know if we can state it as verifiable fact, there is evidence that the early Christians had the endowment. Those early ceremonies, as well as ancient Hebrew temple ceremonies, have strong similarities to our endowment today, which points to there being some commonality. Long before he became a Mason, Joseph knew he would be allowed to restore very, very ancient ordinances, going back to the days of Adam. Even more than that, the Lord Himself declared that those ordinances, and the way in which they are performed, have existed since “before the foundation of the world.”

With those symbols, ceremonies, and clothing being so old, is it any wonder that they may have become corrupted as they’ve been passed down by different apostate groups? Particularly after the Great Apostasy, when the authority to preach and administer those ordinances was taken away and there was no prophet to correct their usage, so people were left to their own memories and interpretations of them? And is it surprising at all that a secular fraternal organization with roots in medieval Christianity might use some version of those same symbols and ceremonies in its practice, despite not being religious in nature?

The abstract to a fantastic article in the Interpreter by Jeffrey Bradshaw states the following:

Joseph Smith taught that the origins of modern temple ordinances go back beyond the foundation of the world. Even for believers, the claim that rites known anciently have been restored through revelation raises complex questions because we know that revelation almost never occurs in a vacuum. Rather, it comes most often through reflection on the impressions of immediate experience, confirmed and elaborated through subsequent study and prayer. Because Joseph Smith became a Mason not long before he began to introduce others to the Nauvoo endowment, some suppose that Masonry must have been the starting point for his inspiration on temple matters. The real story, however, is not so simple. Though the introduction of Freemasonry in Nauvoo helped prepare the Saints for the endowment — both familiarizing them with elements they would later encounter in the Nauvoo temple and providing a blessing to them in its own right — an analysis of the historical record provides evidence that significant components of priesthood and temple doctrines, authority, and ordinances were revealed to the Prophet during the course of his early ministry, long before he got to Nauvoo. Further, many aspects of Latter-day Saint temple worship are well attested in the Bible and elsewhere in antiquity. In the minds of early Mormons, what seems to have distinguished authentic temple worship from the many scattered remnants that could be found elsewhere was the divine authority of the priesthood through which these ordinances had been restored and could now be administered in their fulness. Coupled with the restoration of the ordinances themselves is the rich flow of modern revelation that clothes them with glorious meanings. Of course, temple ordinances — like all divine communication — must be adapted to different times, cultures, and practical circumstances. Happily, since the time of Joseph Smith, necessary alterations of the ordinances have been directed by the same authority that first restored them in our day.

This is an article I’ll likely quote from more later on, but for now, the part about revelation not existing in a vacuum is important. Revelation often comes as an answer to a sincere question. Joseph was receiving numerous revelations relating to the Priesthood and temple ordinances, and when he began attending Mason meetings, what he what he experienced there may have prompted further questions that led to additional revelation.

Or, while he was in the meetings, perhaps the Spirit whispered to him what was true and divine and what was not.

Or, he may have been tasked with implementing the endowment without being given specific instructions as to how he was to go about it. Perhaps his experience with Masonic rituals and ceremonies gave him ideas on how to teach the Saints the endowment.

We don’t know exactly what happened or why the similarities exist. But we do know those revelations and comments by Joseph and his close associates began well before he joined the Masons, that the endowment echoes ancient Hebrew and Christian ceremonies in surprising ways, and that the endowment differs significantly from Masonic ritual despite a few similarities. We can comfortably state that the endowment came from revelation, not Masonry.

Steven Harper and Richard Bushman gave presentations at a BYU Church History Symposium in 2013 that I want to highlight a little bit. Harper described how Joseph “translated” the Masonic imagery for Latter-day Saint audiences the same way he translated ancient scripture, or “restored” it the way he restored the Church and Priesthood. (He also made a great joke about “hermetic sealing” that had me laughing out loud.) Richard Bushman gave a brief response to that presentation, as well as to one before it that isn’t included in the video. In that response, he pointed out the same concept that we’ve gone over multiple times in this series—namely, that the Lord speaks to us in language we’ll understand, using familiar concepts to teach us eternal truths.

That may well be exactly what was going on here, that He was using concepts familiar to Joseph to teach him the endowment, and that Joseph, in turn, used those same concepts to teach his people the same lessons. We adapt and repurpose things all the time—it’s one of the same arguments made about the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham, that they were repurposed either by the original scribe or by Joseph. The Savior Himself did it during His earthly ministry when He recounted the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which seems to be a repurposed version of the Egyptian story known as Setna II.

Anyway, this is getting pretty long, so I’m going to wrap up this topic for today. For anyone who wants to read further on the history of Masons, Masonic roots in the Church, and the similarities and differences between the ceremonies and rituals, Scott Gordon gave a fantastic, detailed presentation on this topic at the 2017 FAIR conference, which I plan to quote from in future installments. It’s a really solid overview of this entire topic, and I highly recommend it along with Jeffrey Bradshaw’s Interpreter article.


Sources in this entry:–commentary/


Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.

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