Joseph's Temples

Joseph's Temples book cover

Michael W. Homer is the author of “Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism.” Published last summer by University of Utah Press, it covers the contentious history of Freemasonry and Mormonism that lasted well more than 150 years. It’s been a history of twists and turns, strategies, claims and counterclaims, with the establishment Freemasonry long having the upper hand in repudiating the Mormons, who were of course unpopular for scores of years. However, as society moved closer toward the 21st century, anti-Mormon Freemasons become more scarce, and bans on Mormons being masons eventually ended.

It’s a colorful, self-serving and sometimes even tawdry history of the conflict between Mormons and Freemasons, and Homer’s scholarly book lends the subject more dignity than it probably deserves. It is certainly an interesting historical tale. Despite a century-plus of “this opinion, that opinion, denials and complicated explanations,” it’s pretty clear that Mormonism and Freemasonry have similarities, particularly in the church’s temple endowment ceremonies.

It’s worth noting that Homer, who will be lecturing at Weber State University on Monday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. at the Lindquist Alumni Center, explains that the Mormon ceremonies evolved toward more similarities as the church moved to Nauvoo. By the time that Mormon leader Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob, Nauvoo had a large Freemason presence, one which slowly but consistently was denied certification by non-member Freemason leadership in surrounding areas. After Smith’s death and the eventual Mormon migration to Utah, it became the standard practice of Freemasonry to bar Mormons from the group. What seems ironic at first glance to me, a novice on this subject, is that the most fierce anti-Mormon Freemason organization was its Utah chapter, which banned Mormons well into the deep 20th century. But Homer’s book also details a Freemason hierarchy in Utah that effectively was a branch of Utah’s anti-Mormon presence in the early days of the state. 

This Freemason opposition to the Mormons stemmed, of course, from the practice of polygamy, but also from the Mormon’s temple endowment ceremonies, which were regularly “exposed” — not often accurately — in the 19th century. One objection that likely had teeth was that ceremonies could be construed as hostile to the U.S. government. Another objection against Mormons by Freemasons was that the LDS temple ceremonies included women.

But, reading the book, one gets the impression that Mormonism was so unpopular 100-plus years ago that it was simply a mainstream position to damn the faith when opportunities arose. Homer’s book links the Mormonism and Freemasonry contention to events such as the federal government’s efforts to wrest control of Utah territory from Brigham Young and even the U.S. Senate hearings in the early 20th century over Reed Smoot’s effort to gain acceptance into the Senate.

As for the Mormons, Homer’s research includes an interesting history of the LDS Relief Society’s beginnings and its eventual decline in prominence under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young. It’s a valid question as to whether Smith had a larger ecclesiastical role intended for Mormon women which might have included blessings and priesthood-like authorities. He does add, though, that these questions remain speculation, and cites early Mormon leaders who seem to have agreed with Young on women’s roles in the church.

As the 20th century approached, the Mormon Church leadership, perhaps stung by the hostility from Freemasonry, began to downplay its Nauvoo-era interest in Freemasonry, arguing instead that any elements of temple ceremonies that appeared to be similar to Freemasonry was instead evidence of Freemasonry’s corruption from its original origin, which came from the days of Solomon’s temple. In other words, Mormons argued that its prophet Joseph Smith had received the proper endowments and procedures for temple ceremonies — via revelation — from heavenly visitors. Advocates of this position included Mormon intellectuals B.H. Roberts and Hugh Nibley. Mormons also taught that Freemasonry belonged to an unrighteous category of secret and oath-bound groups, and discouraged their members’ participation as masons.

However, in the last few generations or so, Mormonism has acknowledged a connection, albeit superficial, between Freemasonry and its endowment procedures. as Homer notes, Smith biographer Richard Bushman, Homer adds, concedes that Smith was influenced by freemasonry but a key difference is that Mormon temple ceremonies stress exaltation for the husband and wife, rather than “male fraternity.” Nibley later wrote that Mason “rites present unmistakable parallels to those of the temple.” Nibley did add that the similarities were due to a “common ancestry” and not related to salvation rites. Homer’s book notes that in 1989, the LDS Church, in its handbook. also lessened its emphasis against “secret and oath-bound” organizations. 

I haven’t done justice to the wealth of detail and background that Homer provides in Joseph’s Temples, and perceived temple connections to Royal Arch versus Craft Freemasonry. It’s a fascinating read and Homer should provide an informative lecture at Weber State’s Lindquist Alumni Center in the Garden Room at 7 p.m, on Feb. 23. 

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