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The relationship between Mormonism and Freemasonry began early in the life of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr., as his older brother and possibly his father were Freemasons while the family lived near Palmyra, New York. Nevertheless, in the late 1820s, the western New York region was swept with anti-Masonic fervor, and the Book of Mormon, a foundational religious book published by Smith in 1830, is generally considered to reflect that anti-Masonic sentiment by condemning what it portrays as oath-bound conspiratorial organizations.
By the 1840s, however, Smith and several prominent Mormons had become Freemasons and founded a lodge in Nauvoo, Illinois, in March 1842. Soon after joining Freemasonry, Smith introduced a new temple "Endowment" ceremony including a number of symbolic elements that were essentially identical with their analogues within Freemasonry. Smith remained a Freemason until his death; however, later Mormon leaders distanced themselves from Freemasonry. In modern times, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the predominant Mormon organization, holds no position for or against the compatibility of Masonry with LDS Church doctrine.
A significant numbers of leaders in the early Latter Day Saint movement were Masons prior to their involvement in the movement. Notable examples include Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John C. Bennett, Hyrum Smith and Joseph Smith, Sr.
In the early 1840s a Masonic Lodge was formed by LDS Church members who were Freemasons. Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother Hyrum became members of the newly formed Nauvoo lodge. It appears that John C. Bennet had a particularly strong influence in the spread of Freemasonry, and soon over 1,500 Mormon men in the city of Nauvoo were practicing Masons. LDS historian Reed Durham writes:
"By 1840, John Cook Bennett, a former active leader in Masonry had arrived in Commerce and rapidly exerted his persuasive leadership in all facets of the Church, including Mormon Masonry. ... Joseph and Sidney [Rigdon] were inducted into formal Masonry ... on the same day..." being made "Masons on Sight" by the Illinois Grandmaster.("Is There No Help for the Widow's Son?" by Dr. Reed C. Durham, Jr., as printed in "Joseph Smith and Masonry: No Help for the Widow's Son", Martin Pub. Co., Nauvoo, Ill., 1980, p. 17.) (This freed Joseph from having to complete the ritual and memorization necessary to work one's way through the first three degrees.) Making one "A Mason on Sight" is generally reserved as an honor and is a rarity in occurrence.
Tuesday, [March] 15. — I officiated as grand chaplain at the installation of the Nauvoo Lodge of Free Masons, at the Grove near the Temple. Grand Master Jonas, of Columbus, being present, a large number of people assembled on the occasion. The day was exceedingly fine; all things were done in order, and universal satisfaction was manifested. In the evening I received the first degree in Freemasonry in the Nauvoo Lodge, assembled in my general business office. History of the Church (Joseph Smith)|History of the Church, by Joseph Smith, Deseret Book, 1978, Vol.4, Ch.32, p.550-1)
Joseph Smith was raised to the third degree of master mason "on sight" by Grand Master Jonas of the Grand Lodge of Illinois. This was fully within Jonas' right of office, but was a fairly rare procedure.
Wednesday, March 16. — I was with the Masonic Lodge and rose to the sublime degree. (History of the Church, Vol.4, Ch.32, p.552)
In The Mormon Church and Freemasonry (2001), Terry Chateau writes:
[The Joseph Smith family] was a Masonic family which lived by and practiced the estimable and admirable tenets of Freemasonry. The father, Joseph Smith, Sr., was a documented member in upstate New York. He was raised to the degree of Master Mason on May 7, 1818 in Ontario Lodge No. 23 of Canandaigua, New York. An older son, Hyrum Smith, was a member of Mount Moriah Lodge No. 112, Palmyra New York.
It should be noted that Hyrum Smith was not only Joseph's older brother, but succeeded their father as Patriarch to the Church and Oliver Cowdery as assistant president of the Church (they were the only two men who held this office) and was always closely relied on by Joseph Smith.
Problems arose concerning the special dispensation granted to the Nauvoo Lodge, brought by Bodley Lodge No. 1, and on August 11, 1842 the special dispensation was suspended by the Grand Master until the annual Communication of the Illinois Grand Lodge "During the short period covering its activities, this Lodge initiated 286 candidates and raised almost as many. John C. Bennett reports an instance in which sixty-three persons were elected on a single ballot." This suspension was later lifted and the Mormon Lodges resumed work although several irregularities in their practice were noted. The irregularities centered on mass balloting (voting on more than one candidate at a time) and not requiring proficiency in each degree before proceeding to the next degree (in many cases, initiates were being passed to the Fellowcraft degree and raised to the Master Mason degree within two days of being initiated as an Entered Apprentice). In 1844, the Mormon Lodges (of which there were five at that time) were ordered to cease work by the Grand Lodge, although they ignored the order and continued to function as clandestine lodges until Smith's death.
Mormon temple worship shares an extensive commonality of symbols, signs, vocabulary and clothing with Freemasonry, including robes, aprons, handshakes, ritualistic raising of the arms, etc. The interpretation of many of these symbols has been adapted to the Mormon narrative from their original meanings in Freemasonry. For example, whereas Masons exchange secret handshakes to identify fellow Freemasons, Mormonism teaches that these handshakes must be given to sentinel angels in order for Mormons to be admitted into the highest kingdom of heaven. Mormon temple garments also bear the Masonic symbols of the Square and Compass, although Mormons have imbued these symbols with religious meaning that exceeds the meaning of the symbols as intended by Freemasonry.
In the "Temple and Salvation for the Dead" part of Discourses of Brigham Young, Brigham Young gives a quote about the temple which directly relates to the story of Hiram Abiff from Masonic folklore. Although Young changed some of the key masonic aspects about Hiram to fit better with Mormonism's view of the temple, the story is the same.
It is true that Solomon built a temple for the purpose of giving endowments, but from what we can learn of the history of that time they gave very few if any endowments, and one of the high priests [Hiram Abiff] was murdered by wicked and corrupt men, who had already begun to apostatize, because he would not reveal those things appertaining to the priesthood that were forbidden him to reveal until he came to the proper place. (Discourses of Brigham Young, compiled by John A Widtsoe, Deseret Book Company, 1977)
When Smith was in the Carthage Jail in 1844, after he fired his last round in a small pepper-box pistol (which had been given to him that morning by Cyrus Wheelock), he held up his arms and may have been giving the Masonic call of distress, hoping Masons in the contingent would honor this call and not fire on him. It is recorded that he ran towards the open window with uplifted hands, and proclaimed, "Oh Lord my God." Most people saw this as only a plea to God for aid, although others suspect otherwise. This phrase, "Oh, Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow's son?" is the sign/token of a Master Mason in distress; a Mason is bound by honor to come to the utterer's aid if there is a greater chance of saving the life of the seeker than on losing his own.
From 1925 to 1984 the Grand Lodge of Utah prohibited Latter-day Saints from joining, but no other Grand Lodge followed this ban and Mormons were free to join Lodges outside Utah. In 1984 the Grand Lodge of Utah officially dropped its anti-Mormon position and allowed LDS church members to join. Today there is no formal obstacle in Utah or in any other Grand Lodge preventing Mormons from becoming Freemasons.
The presidency of the LDS Church has not made an official statement as to whether or not Freemasonry is compatible with Mormonism. However Don LeFevre, a past spokesman for the church has said the church "...strongly advises its members not to affiliate with organizations that are secret, oath-bound, or would cause them to lose interest in church activities." There are many LDS Masons in Utah and other Grand Lodges who serve and have served in various leadership positions, including Grand Masters, other Grand Officers, and Worshipful Masters.