Saturday, October 17, 2009

Salt Lake Tribune Article on The Lost Symbol Discusses the LDS and Freemasonry

Two articles by Ms. Peggy Fletcher Stack in the Friday, October 16, 2009 issue of The Salt Lake Tribune discuss Dan Brown’s new novel The Lost Symbol, and along the way highlight some of the controversial history that connects Freemasonry with the Nauvoo period of LDS history.

In one article, “Psst! Let’s Talk About Masons,” Ms. Stack writes about Freemasonry as it is depicted in The Lost Symbol, and describes aspects of her visit to the Salt Lake Masonic Temple. She quotes John C. Liley (Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of Utah), Dan Burstein (editor of the forthcoming Secrets of The Lost Symbol), and myself. (I describe my reaction to this article as a Freemason in a post on another blog.)

The LDS connection shows up in another article in this issue, “Mormons Off the Hook in Brown’s Book.” (I am quoted in this article, as well.) Ms. Stack notes that a major theme of The Lost Symbol, apotheosis, or the potential for human beings to become gods, is an echo of the LDS doctrine of exaltation. (I consider this matter in some detail in an earlier post on this blog.) Then she turns to the topic of Masons and Mormons.

Ms. Stack touches briefly on the complicated history of relations between the Latter-day Saints and the Masonic Grand Lodge of Illinois in the early 1840s. She mentions one of the great hairy issues still unresolved from the period, the matter of the relationship between the Masonic rituals of initiation and the Latter-day Saint temple endowment ceremony.

Perhaps it’s just me—I’m sensitized to both sides of the issue, being a Latter-day Saint Freemason, or a Masonic Mormon, take your pick—but I think I’ve seen the profile of this issue slowly rising over the last decade or so. The Latter-day Saints have seen about a 50% increase in membership during this period. The overall number of Masons in the USA and worldwide has dropped during this period (as it unavoidably must, with the passing of the WWII generation of Masons); however, the last six years or so (roughly since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, where Dan Brown mentioned Freemasonry, and since the release of the first National Treasure movie, where Masons are prominently featured), Masonic Lodges around the country have seen an increase in the number of applications. Perhaps the growth of new members in both organizations is why a variety of people—anti-Mormons, anti-Masons, Masons and Saints, and the curious John Q. Public—have shown more interest in the whole Mormon-Mason thing.

I have been writing a book on this issue for some time. Perhaps I need to blog about it as well. It’s a complicated issue, but one concerning which it would be wise for Latter-day Saints to educate themselves, given the certainly rising profiles of Freemasonry and the Latter-day Saints separately, and the possibly rising profile of their long-ago association. For the record, I’ll just throw out a few points:

  • This is my reconstruction of events. Over the course of his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith on several occasions encountered some spiritual text, and then received a vision that represented a major development of LDS doctrine and/or practice. Thus, his reading of the letter of James in the New Testament preceded his cataclysmic First Vision of the Father and the Son; his study of a passage in the Gospels preceded his Vision of the Three Degrees of Glory; his viewing of some Egyptian papyri, as these were traveling the country as part of an exhibition, preceded his translation of the Book of Abraham. In my opinion, his exposure to Masonic rituals preceded a vision in which he received the LDS Temple endowment.

  • The Masonic rituals of initiation and the LDS temple rituals differ in purpose, form, and mythic setting. What similarities there are, are minimal. Joseph Smith did not steal from the Lodge to give to the LDS Temple.

  • The politics of Illinois during this period provoked all sorts of anti-LDS violence. There may well have been Masons in the crowd that assassinated Smith. However, overall, the Lodge is not inherently anti-Mormon, either.

In recent years, I have been disappointed to read some LDS authors repeat some long-held shibboleths regarding Joseph Smith’s involvement in Freemasonry, claiming that Smith was hardly exposed to Masonry, etc. etc. In fact, we know the following.

  • In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the beginning of the Anti-Masonic period of American history, there were many public performances of Masonic ritual put on by anti-Masons, precisely in the upstate New York locales where Joseph Smith lived. (This is what the world was like before movies, radio, and television.)

  • Joseph Smith’s entry into Masonry was a big public event. His involvement in the procedings was noted in the media, and was exceptionally prominent.

  • The Nauvoo Lodge, in the founding of which Joseph Smith was involved, grew so quickly that its irregular procedures became the subject of Masonic investigation.

My own observation is that many Latter-day Saints get qwinky when the subject of Freemasonry comes up. Maybe this is because the modern LDS know so very little about Freemasonry. Maybe this is because, until the mid-1980s, there was a legacy of mutual distrust between the Masons of Utah and the Saints. Maybe this is because the anti-Mormon literature has always made hay out of the Mason-Mormon connection.

For whatever reason, the time has come to get past it all. Freemasonry is an honorable fraternal organization that spreads good values, a claim that I have made publicly in many places. (I write a blog for Freemasons here. Freemasonry is a frequent topic on my Dan Brown-related blog.) We Latter-day Saints have nothing to fear from an honest consideration of the relationship between Freemasonry and the Nauvoo Saints. What I have labeled above as ‘my reconstruction of events’ is a way to understand the relationship between Masonic ritual and LDS temple ceremonial in a way that fits the facts of history, promotes LDS faith, protects the sanctity of the LDS Temple, and maintains the dignity of both the Church and the Lodge.

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)


  1. Excellent post! I come from generations of Masons who were not members of the Church, and my husband is a Mason who is a faithful, Temple attending member of the Church. Different things can are there to be gained in terms of personal growth from _both_ organizations.

  2. Faithful Saint: Thank you for your kind words, and for sharing your thoughts.


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