Those who know me understand that this book would be of interest to me. My experience reviewing it led to some trains of thought that I’d love to explore with others here. In posting the below review, I’m hoping to spur some discussion along the following lines:
- Discussion of the book and/or the review
- Discussion of the relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism
- Discussion of the current state of LDS apologetics
Exploring the Connection Between Mormons and Masons
Matthew B. Brown, Covenant Communications, Inc., 2009
In recent years, much has been said regarding the relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism, even to the point of errant speculation that the anticipated Dan Brown thriller, The Lost Symbol, would revolve around this fascinating topic. It is only natural, therefore, that one or more LDS apologists would attempt to address the topic. Gilbert W. Scharffs attempted to do so in 2007, with Mormons & Masons: Setting the Record Straight, which received decidedly negative reviews. In 2009, Matthew B. Brown presents his own effort, Exploring the Connection Between Mormons and Masons.
Brown notes in his introduction that the topic raises questions which are “deserving of contemplation, some of them calling for in-depth investigation” (p.1). Suggesting that it is “not possible” for the current volume to address every aspect of his topic, Brown assures his readers that he will deal with the “core” issues.
In his first chapter, Brown offers to educate his readers sufficiently to make “meaningful comparisons” between Masonic lodges and LDS temples. Brown’s method, reminiscent of the earlier efforts of Kenneth Godfrey in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, is to focus almost entirely on supposed distinctions between the two. While Brown cites a reluctance to inappropriately discuss details of Masonic ritual, he overcomes this feeling enough to demonstrate his lack of understanding on the subject. For example, Brown refers to a candidate in the three essential degrees of Masonic initiation as being “given a piece of clothing that is modified as he progresses through these rites,” evidently referring to the distinct folding (not “modification”) of a white apron in each degree. While such misconceptions might be forgivable, coming from a non-Mason, Brown reveals his true intent of vilifying the Fraternity. Twice in this chapter, Brown claims, without citing any source, that “many (but not all) forms of Freemasonry” involve expectations that Masonic initiation will enable the candidate to enter the presence of deity. Brown takes pains to emphasize this false claim, despite acknowledging that Freemasonry is emphatically not a religion. Likewise, Brown alleges that the “fundamental natures” of Freemasonry and Mormonism are “completely opposite each other,” claiming that while LDS temples are places of “profound religiosity,” discussion of religion is “forbidden” at “all times” in a Masonic lodge building. Contrary to Brown’s criticism, Masonic ritual is built on a religious foundation, making extensive reference to the Holy Bible. While Freemasons do refrain from discussing religion in a partisan manner during lodge meetings, in order to avoid contention between brothers, it is both false and absurd to claim that all discussion of religion is “forbidden” within the building. Further, notwithstanding Brown’s promise to avoid specific discussion of Masonic ritual, he employs a footnote of two full pages to list alleged “elements in the first three Masonic initiation ceremonies that have no connection whatsoever with Mormon ordinances.” Most of the listed “elements” are, in fact, specific references to the clothing, furnishings, words, and actions of Masonic ritual. Here too, Brown misrepresents the Fraternity, making it falsely appear that Masons worship “the ancient pagan deity called Fides,” and engage in political discussions during their degree ceremonies.
Having laid this shaky foundation, Brown moves to his second chapter, offering a very basic outline of the historical development of the Masonic Fraternity. Unfortunately, Brown’s third chapter, what he calls “one of the most important parts of this book,” is far less cautious in offering the alleged “origins of Masonic practice.” To his credit, Brown here avoids the common (and completely unsupportable) LDS apologetics claim that Freemasonry literally descends from ritual practices which took place in the Temple of Solomon. In its place, Brown offers what he calls “a plausible answer to the long-standing question of Masonic ritual beginnings.” Unfazed by the hundreds of historians who have long since admitted that the origins of Masonic ritual are lost in the mists of time, Brown confidently assures his readers that Freemasonry is the product of Catholic and primitive Christian ceremonies. In fact, Brown goes so far as to imply that the Masons have conspired to hide this great secret, not “wanting” to know the real answers.
Brown supports his “Masonic origins” theory with several descriptions of early Christian rituals, and implements and architecture. To the unwary reader, Brown appears to make a strong case. After all, his argument is replete with words like “obvious,” “direct correspondences,” and “parallels.” Brown evidently fails, however, to realize that he is using precisely the same methods and logic employed by those who posit a Masonic origin for Mormon temple ceremonies. Innumerable authors, after all, have provided side-by-side parallels between Joseph Smith’s temple ordinances and the rituals of Freemasonry. Nonetheless, Brown asserts that “[t]hose who are familiar with the initiation rites of Freemasonry cannot fail to recognize the parallels between this orthodox Christian ritual and that used for the induction of speculative Masons” (p. 46). The same sentence could easily be written, and with equal validity, by substituting “Mormon” for “orthodox Christian.” Conversely, Brown seems immune to the fact that just as he employed a list of distinctions between Masonic lodges and Mormon temples, others could readily compose a long list of differences between “orthodox Christian” rituals and Masonic rites.
Brown’s fourth chapter attempts, in a mere twelve pages, to tell the story of Freemasonry in Nauvoo, Illinois, complete with an analysis of Joseph Smith’s level of involvement in the lodge prior to the introduction of the endowment ceremony, as well as the answer to whether Joseph Smith was truly made a Mason “on sight.” A look at Brown’s footnotes reveals that despite the ready availability of the actual records of Nauvoo Lodge at the LDS Church Historical Department, he relied entirely on Mervin Hogan’s brief, published transcript, which covers only the first few meetings of the lodge. Perhaps this is why Brown makes the bold assertion that in 1842, there were “only thirty” Freemasons “in the general area” of Nauvoo, despite the fact that sufficient non-Mormon Freemasons resided in nearby towns (such as Warsaw, Carthage, and LaHarpe) to establish several other lodges near the same time.
Brown then makes the common mistake of attributing the establishment of Freemasonry among the Nauvoo Mormons to the influence of John C. Bennett, based on the single reminiscence of Ebenezer Robinson. The problem with this assumption is that while Bennett did pen a petition asking the members of Quincy’s Bodley Lodge #1 to recommend forming a lodge in Nauvoo, this was simply the standard duty of any person designated as secretary of the proposed lodge, not an indication that the writer “spearheaded” (Brown’s word) the effort to organize. On the other hand, Brown is to be commended for his proper explanation for Bodley Lodge’s refusal to grant the request. While most LDS writers have attributed the refusal to religious animus, Brown correctly notes that the members of Bodley Lodge did not have the required first-hand knowledge that the Nauvoo petitioners were bona fide Masons.
On the other hand, Brown’s attempt to explain why Joseph Smith became involved in Freemasonry suffers from a mistake all too common among LDS apologists who wish to distance their prophet from Masonic ritual influences. Despite the fact that any man who wishes to become a Freemason must affirm that he is not seeking membership for “mercenary” purposes (i.e. business, social, or political advantage), Brown suggests that Joseph Smith did exactly that, making the Mormon prophet a liar. Brown’s citation of a single journal entry from Franklin D. Richards is poor support for this claim, particularly in light of other statements written on the subject by the same LDS leader. Further, Brown’s attempt to answer whether or not Joseph Smith was “made a Mason on sight” seems to rely on his own interpretation of the phrase in question, betraying a clear failure to understand what that phrase means in Masonic parlance.
Also in this chapter, Brown attempts to downplay Joseph Smith’s direct involvement in Nauvoo Lodge, in a clear attempt to dismiss the idea that Masonic ritual influenced the Mormon endowment ceremony. While Brown wisely ignores the LDS apologetic claims of B. H. Roberts and others that Joseph only attended three meetings (I demonstrated for the first time, at the Mormon History Association conference in Provo, Utah, that Joseph attended at least thirty such meetings), Brown nonetheless uses the short period between Joseph’s initiation and the first presentations of the endowment as a full representation of Joseph’s ongoing participation. Likewise, Brown claims that when Joseph usually attended lodge meetings at times when his relatives were present, suggesting that this was his primary motive for being there. In making this specious argument, Brown ignores the fact (intentionally or not) that several of Joseph’s relatives were standing officers in the lodge, present at nearly every meeting. Finally, Brown points to Joseph’s brief journal entries for the same time period, speculating that since Joseph was “reading and meditating” for three days in April, those must have been the days when Joseph actually formulated the endowment—evidently without Masonic influence.
Brown’s fifth chapter purports to prove that Joseph Smith and his followers knew many things about the coming temple endowment long before Joseph became a Freemason, thus the endowment was not influenced by Freemasonry. Unfortunately, this logic is founded on the premise that Joseph Smith knew nothing of Freemasonry prior to his March 1842 initiation—a premise that is completely untenable, based on available evidence. In addition, it ignores the fact that several early leading Mormons were Freemasons prior to their Mormon baptisms. Even aside from this problem, however, Brown chooses odd anecdotes to support his argument. For example, Brown cites a March 1834 First Presidency letter as evidence that the Mormons already knew about how those who became members of the “Church of the Firstborn” would “receive white linen clothing and a crown, be made kings and priests, be seated upon the Lord’s throne to reign,” etc., as if this evidenced foreknowledge of the endowment, notwithstanding it was taken from the New Testament Book of Revelation. Likewise, Brown points to the Kirtland School of the Prophets receiving “much good instructions [sic] preparatory to the endowment,” as if Mormons in Kirtland were being instructed to prepare for the Nauvoo-era endowment, notwithstanding the fact that this statement actually referred to the “endowment” of heavenly manifestations promised to the Mormons in Kirtland. Based on such anecdotes, Brown concludes that it’s “obvious” that the Nauvoo-era temple ordinances originated before Joseph Smith knew anything at all about Freemasonry.
In chapter six, Brown writes of the May 1842 introduction of the endowment, giving brief but useful biographical sketches of the nine men who first received the ceremony from Joseph Smith. Like LDS apologists before him, Brown points out that all nine men were Freemasons, yet none of them publicly accused Joseph Smith of plagiarizing Masonic rites. Curiously, Brown mentions the dates on which each man became a Master Mason, yet does not address the fact that several were rushed through the degrees in Nauvoo Lodge very shortly before receiving the endowment, suggesting that this may have been a “required” preparation.
The final chapter, entitled “History, Theory &Myth,” represents Brown’s attempt to provide conclusive answers to fifteen issues raised by those he variously refers to as “commentators,” “theorists,” and “critics.” Brown interestingly points out that if Freemasonry came from an ancient “pristine” ritual, then Joseph Smith’s temple ceremonies “should exhibit a pronounced affinity with the stonemasons’ rites of old. Yet this is not how things stand” (p. 129). Brown argues against the idea that Joseph Smith was inspired to “restore” what he saw in Masonic ritual to its original state. Surprisingly, Brown seems to reject the possibility that deity saw that Joseph was exposed to Freemasonry as part of the revelatory process—an argument favored by many faithful LDS members who are familiar with Mormon-Masonic parallels.
In particular, Brown’s discussion of the Relief Society is problematic. For example, Brown admits that a prayer referred to at the beginning of the Relief Society record book was Masonic. The subject prayer was written on a piece of paper, and left atop an open Bible in the upper room of the Red Brick Store, where Joseph had been initiated as a Freemason one day earlier. Evidently seeking to dismiss this Masonic prayer as any evidence of Masonic influence on the formation of the Relief Society, Brown concludes that “odds are” this was left over from the day before. This betrays Brown’s lack of knowledge regarding Freemasonry, however, since the Bible is always closed at the end of a lodge meeting—it would not have been left open, let alone with a handwritten prayer on top. Contrary to Brown’s speculation, the circumstances demonstrate an intentional arrangement, not a “leftover” from the night before. Likewise, Brown attempts to dismiss the usage of Masonic terminology in Joseph’s instructions to the Relief Society by providing an alternate explanation to “grow up by degrees,” but avoids the bigger picture, in which the entire process of gaining membership in the Relief Society was directly parallel to that of joining a Masonic lodge—an apologist “sleight of hand.”
Throughout his fifteen “answers,” Brown repeats what appears by then a standard procedure. Where there are parallels between Freemasonry and Mormonism, Brown lists specific differences to “prove” that one has nothing to do with the other. In addition, Brown seems utterly immune to Occam’s razor. The journal of Heber C. Kimball described a table in the celestial room of the Nauvoo Temple with the “celestial and terrestrial globes” positioned thereon—a standard feature of early Masonic lodges, which appears prominently in engravings of early 1800s lodge rooms. Brown rephrases these as “spherical atlases” of the heavens and the earth, and “disproves” any Masonic connection by noting that there were also maps on the walls of the celestial room. In case this isn’t enough to convince readers, Brown goes on to say that these “circular atlases…may well have come from the University of the City of Nauvoo, where Apostle Orson Pratt was teaching courses on astronomy” and measurement! Brown even writes that “it is interesting to note” (Brown’s overused version of “And it came to pass” in this book) that Pratt was making “astronomical calculations” in December of 1845, as if this somehow bolsters his “anything but Masonic” theory. Similarly, Brown argues against the idea that the Mormon use of “square and compass” iconography has anything at all to do with Freemasonry, based on the fact that a footnote in the 1599 Geneva Bible mentions these tools.
The summit of Brown’s “anything but Masonic” reasoning, however, comes in response to a journal entry by John D. Lee (p, 150-51). Lee was appointed Temple Recorder in the original Nauvoo Temple, an office which has historically been more than just keeping ordinance records. Even in modern LDS temples, this officer has the responsibility (with the assistance of subordinates, such as the Temple Engineer) to manage personnel and see that the physical function of the building itself continues smoothly. In John D. Lee’s case, this responsibility included such functions as seeing that fires were stoked in the temple fireplaces, in order to allow comfortable use of the building. Matthew Brown quotes from John D. Lee’s journal for the period of his Temple Recorder service (available at BYU Special Collections in typescript form) as follows:
“About 4 o’clock in the morning I entered the porch in the lower court where I met the porter who admitted me through the door which led to the foot, or nearly so, of a great flight of stairs which, by ascending, led me to the door of the outer court [of the attic story] which I found tiled within by an officer. I, having the proper implements of that degree, gained admittance through the outer and inner courts which opened and led to the sacred departments [i.e., the endowment rooms]…Having entered, I found myself alone with the Tiler that kept the inner courts [and I/we] set about and soon got fires up in the different rooms and setting things in order for the day.”
Those familiar with Freemasonry will immediately recognize Lee’s remarkable choice of language in the above excerpt (and frankly, other portions of the same diary which Brown didn’t quote). The Masonic use of “degree” hardly needs explanation. Lee’s references to architectural features of a porch and a grand flight of stairs, are certainly familiar to those who have received the Fellowcraft Degree. The Tiler is a Masonic officer, assigned with the duty of seeing that no “cowans and eavesdroppers” enter the Lodge under his watch. The phrase, “proper implements” is used in Masonic ritual to refer to those items conferred upon a candidate during the performance of a particular degree. It is also used with regard to the particular tools unique to a particular office with the Lodge—for instance the “proper implement” of the Tiler is a drawn sword. None of this really matters to Brown, however. Rather than reasonably question what conclusions should be drawn from Lee’s use of Masonic terminology, Brown insists on trying to convince his readers that Lee wasn’t using Masonic terminology at all—that it’s a “myth” to think that Lee did so.
In order to make his case, Brown demotes John D. Lee from Temple Recorder to “one of many volunteers who wanted to help with the operational work of the Nauvoo Temple,” assigned by Brigham Young to “act as a clerk and also ‘to attend to fires in the rooms and upper apartment, etc.’“ Having pretended that John D. Lee was an unimportant figure in relation to the Nauvoo Temple, Brown postulates: “Some may argue that the word degree is a distinct Masonic term, but in this instance John D. Lee did not use it in the typical Masonic way for referring to an initiatic [sic] rank or status. It appears that Lee was applying the word degree to the outer court of the attic story rooms. In this sense he may have been referring to what Noah Webster’s 1828 English dictionary identified as a ‘step or portion…in elevation.’ He had just risen a considerable distance in elevation by climbing the temple stairs.” Brown further questions the use of “Tiler,” suggesting fairly that Lee simply used the clearly-Masonic term to refer to a guard, without necessarily invoking Freemasonry, before concluding with his second bold statement: “In light of the full quotation from Lee’s journal, it can be surmised that the ‘implements’ that gained him admittance through ‘the door of the outer court’ were pieces of firewood.” Simply stated, Brown’s argument in this case is either intentionally misleading or embarrassing enough to remove his name from any further printings of this book.
A final word must address Brown’s use of sources. An examination of Brown’s bibliography reveals that he used few primary sources. Brown writes for a devout LDS audience, made up of readers who will never question the veracity of early Mormon leaders or the divinity of LDS scripture. As such, Brown uses quotations from the Doctrine & Covenants and/or early Mormon authorities to “disprove” the implications of historical evidence. This falls apart, however, if one of those authorities says something inconvenient to Brown’s arguments. Thus, when Dimick B. Huntington is quoted as a source for profoundly Masonic comments by Joseph Smith, Brown weakens the quotation by pointing out that it was made 34 years after the events, notwithstanding the fact that Brown doesn’t question more “useful” statements made with much longer delays. The opposite is also true—Brown readily dismisses Mormon apostates, but when Ebenezer Robinson makes a convenient statement blaming Nauvoo Freemasonry on John C. Bennett, Brown fails to mention that Ebenezer Robinson, who made the statement 48 years after the events, went on to join the Rigdonites, the RLDS, and the Whitmerites. Neither does Brown mention that as a Whitmerite, Robinson considered Joseph Smith a fallen prophet. Brown’s use of sources is anything but consistent, and is ultimately misleading to his readers.
In short, Brown does well to depart from certain traditional apologetic arguments which have proven invalid. Rather than reflecting his own title, however, the only thing Brown seems to “explore” is new ways to evade the evidence of Freemasonry’s influence on early Mormonism.